On January 9, 1940, at the Museum of Modern Art, Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius presented their design for a North Carolina college in the hope of raising construction funds. Set on the shores of a lake, lifted on pilotis, and skewed at various angles, the complex appeared to undulate gently on the waterfront, and the architects were photographed with its model for the New York Herald Tribune. Breuer scholar Isabelle Hyman believes the project “would have been a major contribution to modern architecture in America had it been realized”—but the college could never afford it. Later that year, A. Lawrence Kocher, former managing editor at Architectural Record, joined the faculty and drew up simpler plans.
The legacy of this hand-to-mouth institution is on view in the exhilarating Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957, at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) through January 24. In a show that engulfs the mind with weavings by Anni Albers; color and material studies by Josef Albers; manuscripts by John Cage; dances by Merce Cunningham; paintings by Jacob Lawrence, Robert Rauschenberg, Willem de Kooning, and Elaine de Kooning; and much more, architecture is a weak link. But close attention reveals a rich period of experimental design and hands-on construction.
Initially a tenant in a plantation-style YMCA, Black Mountain College (BMC) opened in 1933 with ten instructors, 19 students, and a unique cooperative ethos. In 1937 the college bought land on Lake Eden, and for four years the community lived on one site and built a campus on the other. Kocher had championed modern design and ideals since the 1920s, and in three years at BMC he designed the main Studies Building (1941) and auxiliary buildings; supervised construction by students, faculty, and a local builder; and taught architecture as a soup-to-nuts process. One wing of his Studies plan was realized: A 200-foot-long rectangle framed in wood and sided in corrugated transite, with one end resting on stone and the remainder on concrete pylons.
In 1948, visiting instructor R. Buckminster Fuller engaged students to build his first geodesic dome of venetian-blind slats. The project was named the Supine Dome when it failed to rise—an outcome Fuller had anticipated, as he was teaching students to build with maximum efficiency. “You start with this supine thing,” he said, “and then keep fortifying until . . . it’s standing up.” In 1949, his students built a functional dome of aircraft tubing and cable. On display are two of Fuller’s pristine, beautiful Great Circle Sphere Models, one of steel wire and one of aluminum strips.
Architecture is not the show’s focus, but more details would have been helpful. Even in the excellent catalogue, material descriptions are scant, many buildings are not shown, and references to the local vernacular are brief. We are told that the Quiet House “integrated seamlessly with the original rustic cabins and lodges,” and it appears so, but we can’t see those buildings.
Just as Albers’s color studies revealed changes in a color’s appearance based on its surroundings, the works of rural BMC would speak in different tones in a setting more subtle than the ICA’s white boxes. But brilliant work and inspired lives need no translation, and the show succeeds in resurrecting a rare chapter in American cultural history. If it makes us hungry for more on the college’s little-known design-build program, that is enough. (The curious can visit the architecture section of blackmountaincollegeproject.org, a web archive maintained by scholar Mary Emma Harris.)