Building from Scratch

Building from Scratch


Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933–1957
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston
Through January 24

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.

Throughout the 1940s, students and faculty raised buildings for ceramics, science, woodworking, and farming, mostly—but not always—in a modern idiom. A handful of photos and drawings gives a sense of the mix. Student Claude Stoller, brother of photographer Ezra, was job captain on an acoustically sensitive house for music teacher Heinrich Jalowetz (1941). Woodworking instructor Molly Gregory supervised construction of farm buildings and furniture. Recent graduate Alex Reed designed the neovernacular Quiet House (1942), a memorial to a young boy, and the community built it with hand-gathered stones. Instructor Paul Beidler designed the Music Cubicle (1945) of concrete, wood, and two glass walls leaned outward for acoustics’ sake. In 1947–48, when there was no resident architect due to the postwar building boom, students designed and built the Minimum House themselves—an organic–industrial blend with two walls of corrugated aluminum, one each of glass and stone, and wood cabinetry. The “pot shop” (1950–53), designed by three ceramics instructors and architect Paul Williams, is an ad hoc agglomeration of volumes in concrete blocks and wood, with varied monopitch rooflines and an open shed framed by angled steel ribs.

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.

Photography students and faculty captured many architectural moments on film and a few are mounted wall-size. There is something thrilling about the construction photos, a sense that these doughty young people gained a profoundly different kind of experience than any American student has since. A young woman in a plaid button-down shirt and polka-dotted headband mixes cement; a coed group, calf-deep in mud, digs a drainage ditch.

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, a web archive maintained by scholar Mary Emma Harris.)