SAH Blog


  • Louis Kahn's African-American Vernacular

    By
    Kostis Kourelis
     |
    Mar 26, 2014

    Carver Court

    When the telephone rang in my office at Franklin & Marshall College, I was surprised to learn that the caller on the other line was a resident of a Louis Kahn house and, most strikingly, a Louis Kahn house that has been largely forgotten. In 1942, Kahn, Oscar Storonov, and George Howe reconfigured the traditional row house to serve a community of African-American steel workers returning from World War II. Known to just a handful of architectural historians, Carver Court in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, had receded from public attention. And for that very reason, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia had placed it on its 2012 Endangered Properties List. Thanks to the stewardship of Ben Leech and the research of Allee Berger, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission determined Carver Court eligible for listing in the National Register of HIstoric Places in March 2013.

    As the local architectural historian, I was invited to meet with civic and community leaders of Caln Township to brainstorm on the future of this housing complex and to strategize on celebrating its unique role in the history of African-American labor. Although I am not a Kahn expert, I had worked in Louis Kahn's archives as a student, and wanted to seize the moment that William Whitaker and Ben Marcus have set into motion with their spectacular new book, The Houses of Louis Kahn, and accompanying exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.

    Carver Court

    Carver Court is no ordinary house by virtue of its users, some of which are the original African-American steelworkers. Most of the better-known Kahn houses were commissioned by Philadelphia’s professional class and are located in the suburbs, while Carver Court engages Kahn’s early commitment to social and economic justice. If it were up to Kahn, Carver Court would not have been segregated. Race politics at this Pennsylvania mill town necessitated the residential division between black and white workers, even though both groups worked for the same Lukens Steel factory. The lynching of Zachariah Walker in 1911 underscored such ethnic tensions. Caln Township was initially settled by William Penn in 1714. Ironically, the white and black housing projects were separated by the Gardner-Beale farm, which had strong Quaker roots and served in the Underground Railroad. A farmhouse from 1811 survives and is now surrounded by Coatesville High School completed in 1968.

    Louis Kahn was a housing activist as early as 1931, when he founded the Architecture Research Group. His partner, Oscar Storonov (and Alfred Kastner), had designed the first Modernist housing project in America, the Carl Mackley Houses for the hosiery workers union (1932). Kahn’s activism helped fight Philadelphia’s resistance to public housing and led into the foundation of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Carver Court is the greatest physical manifestation of Kahn’s labor union vernacular.

    Coatesville is located half way between Philadelphia and Lancaster at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line and the Brandywine River. Coatesville’s steel mills, that produced the beams for the World Trade Center, are of great historical significance and, like Kahn’s housing, continue to operate (under new global management). Carver Court’s remoteness from Philadelphia and the general economic decline of manufacturing have contributed in a slow forgetting of both Pennsylvania’s labor movement and Philadelphia’s architectural engagement. Six decades after its original completion, Carver Court asks some important questions. It is only one of five housing projects designed by Kahn, Storonov, and Howe, and it the single specimen of their African-American architecture. Carver Court has slipped the radar of preservationists and historians because it looks nondescript and lacks the telltale signs of high modernist distinction. Its ordinariness, however, is what makes it exemplary. Taking cues from Le Corbusier’s elevated piloti, Kahn invented a scheme of adoptive design that reinterpreted the traditional row house. His “ground-freed” housing form elevated living quarters to the second floor and left the first floor open to the owner’s specific interpretation. Rather than limiting what the owners did with their allotted housing unit, Kahn wanted the occupants to exercise some freedom in how to use the first floor. It could function as a garage, a workshop, or added living space. The architect’s agency could be supplemented by the occupant’s agency, giving the community a sense of ownership and design engagement. Thus, the very indeterminacy of Carver Court that makes it a specimen of democratic design has also caused its progressive neglect by scholarship.

    The phone call from Carver Court and the meeting with Caln Township precipitated a series of questions on both the original significance of the monument as well as the pedagogical opportunities in its rediscovery. A call from a grassroots community generates a research opportunity beyond the obvious scholarly needs. Involving undergraduate students in the documentation of Carver Court’s story seems one of those rare opportunities to engage students with artifacts. First, it is astounding how much work remains to be done even on America’s most important modernist architect. Understanding the afterlife of Carver Court is one immediate challenge, but one of great potential in teaching what Delores Hayden called “the power of place.”

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  • Saint Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church: Modernity and Continuity

    By
    Jason John Paul Haskins, Assoc. AIA, LEED BD+C
     |
    Feb 20, 2014

    Note: This article originally appeared in the Docomomo US newsletter.


    Robert Mather brought an impressive Modernist pedigree to the design of St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas (1958-1960). This Mid-century abstraction of the primitive Christian basilica represents a synthesis of international movements in architecture and liturgy uncovering archetypal models of inhabitation and ritual. The church will be featured on the upcoming tour “Modernity and Continuity in Austin's Religious Architecture” during the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, April 9-13, 2014.
     
    St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. 
    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: PICA 25856, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
     
    The Problem of the Modern Church
    Even the most consciously Modern church struggles to escape some reference to precedent.[1] Religion is too steeped in tradition and encodes images too essential to escape in the interpretation even if absent from the design concept. For example, the highly functional a-frame structure famously employed by architects such as Frank Lloyd WrightEero Saarinen, and A. Quincy Jones[2] drew comparisons to scripture-based formal archetypes of tent and boat regardless of the architects' intentions. As countless congregations across the country replicated the form in the 1950s–70s, they described it in the more evocative impressions of praying hands or, according to Architectural Forum in 1954, "the warm, neighborly personality, the humble aspiration and some of the medieval magic" of the old north country village Gothic.[3]
     
    Such evocations of tradition and magic, social rejections of religion, and the secularization of the movement’s predominantly commercial-industrial building programs illustrate that the Modern church proved problematic for both the Moderns and the Church. What becomes of functionalism in a program that includes symbolism? And yet for all the incongruities there were also timely confluences. The canon of Modern religious architecture reveals precisely the numinous potential of formal abstraction and of purity of space, light, and material. Meanwhile, movements among Christian denominations led to analogous refinements in worship, buildings, and theology based in ancient practice.
     
    Saint Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church
    Changes surrounded the design for St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas. In 1957, St. Martin’s occupied a neo-Gothic stone-clad concrete structure that stood out proudly as the most prominent building between the dome of the State Capitol and the tower of the University of Texas Main Building. The congregation hired the local firm Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven (later Jessen Associates) to expand their campus to meet the needs of the growing church.


    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. George Louis Walling. 1929.
    Credit: C01129, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
     
    In January the congregation approved the architects’ plans for an education wing, offices and fellowship hall designed to continue the traditional Gothic flavor of the church. But less than three months later, the state announced plans to extend the Capitol Complex and take over the church property despite previously agreeing to a parking-sharing arrangement that enabled the church’s plans to proceed with city.[4] The congregation and their architects found themselves suddenly building from the ground up instead of extending an established traditional language. They made the bold decision to pursue a modern abstraction of the early Christian basilica. The church celebrated a ground breaking service in September 1958 and dedicated the church on March 27, 1960.
     
    The Dedication service used for St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin reflects changes underway in the structure and worship of the Lutheran Church in the United States. Amidst a liturgical transition, the service included a unique populist variation: the congregation assumed what was typically the Pastor’s action of the dedication prayer itself, repeating the response, “we dedicate this house.”[5] On a national level, a Commission on the Liturgy and Hymnal representing the cooperation of eight Lutheran bodies published a new Common Liturgy in 1958. Two years later, three of these bodies merged to form The American Lutheran Church. Whereas the nineteenth century saw Lutheran churches in the United States splitting into smaller factions and divided by national origins, the movement of the twentieth century was toward unity based at least in part on their liturgical retour aux sources.
     
    Liturgy & Architecture
    The new Common Liturgy was rooted in “deepened scholarship and broader fellowship, the rich treasury of ecumenical liturgy, … the ancient and medieval Christian Church, both East and West, and grounded on the historic German, Scandinavian and American uses,” and “a vision clearer than was sometimes possible in the turmoil of the Reformation controversy.”[6] Such scholarship was part of a larger movement among many Christian denominations where the desire to strip away the cultural accretions and excesses of the preceding centuries—but not to start tabula rasa—allowed for the rediscovery of essential forms.[7]
     
    A similar rediscovery of essential forms followed in the church's architecture. German Roman Catholic architect Rudolph Schwarz worked closely with liturgical theologians to develop his Vom Bau de Kirche (1938; translated in English as The Church Incarnate in 1958) with its seven plans. Each of the plans represents an archetypal spatial metaphor of the church a rediscovery of not only diverse ancient practices but the very gesture of the Body of Christ assembled. However, Schwarz demonstrated that each plan on its own is insufficient and suggested with the final plan a juxtaposition of their diversity.[8]
     
    Robert George Mather
    The synthesis of the liturgical, denominational, and architectural changes at St. Martin’s was predominantly the work of the principal designer, Robert George Mather (1921-1984), who brought an impressive Modernist pedigree and an international perspective to the project. During his studies at IIT under Mies van der Rohe, he "certainly learned discipline in drawing, creativity in graphics, integrity and efficiency of structure, and could apply his already acquired care for details in joinery with reward, as it was so fundamental to Mies' teaching" who fostered “the notion of huge, bare efficiently structured, and rationally proportioned edifices as being the architectural ideal, even beautiful.”[9]
     
    Mather worked for Walter Gropius and partners at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge for six months before embarking with his wife Jean on an exploration of the Middle East, Pakistan and India, East and North Africa, and Europe. When their money ran out in Stockholm, they worked in architecture and planning offices there until earning enough to return to the states. Robert Mather turned down a position as planner with Caudill Rowlett and Scott, opting to move to Austin for more architectural experience. He worked in the Jessens’ office for only one year, which was dedicated to the development and detailing of St. Martin’s, before transitioning to a long academic career at the University of Texas.
     
    These experiences coalesced into a design at the forefront of the world-wide movements of modern architecture and ecclesiology. The IIT influence manifested in the structural integrity and techtonic detail of the exposed steel structure and free façade.


    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013.
     
    The design relates more to the more contemporary post-war reconstruction underway in Germany than the American suburban expansion. The continental connection was appropriate for a church founded as a German Lutheran congregation. Archival materials from the design process reference a book of new churches in the Archdiocese of Cologne[10] featuring the work of Rudolph & Maria Schwarz, Dominikus & Gottfried Böhm, and others.
     
    Mather likely knew of The Church Incarnate, with its foreword written by Mies van der Rohe. But whether through direct influence or parallel confluence, St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran church successfully juxtaposes the diverse principles represented by multiple Schwarz plans. It combines the linearity of the Sacred Way with the inward movement of enclosure toward the altar / outward expansion into the world of the Dark Chalice without a formal dependence on their diagrams. Its sense of outward expansion comes not only from the increase in stained glass moving from the altar to the door but also from the decomposition of its planes and outward motion of its composition.
     
    Historical Continuity in Post-war Modernism
    As in the liturgical movement, the Modern movement in architecture rediscovered essential forms as represented by Sigfried Giedion’s emphasis on “constituent facts” against “transitory facts" in establishing a new tradition.[11] But Modern architects began to increasingly reintroduce certain components of tradition when—after the tragedies of the Second World War and the apparent failures of implementation of CIAM Athens Charter—some of the appeal of the utopian tabula rasa had worn off.[12] But they drew from traditions in which they recognized the universal principles of the earlier Modernist manifestos. For example, some recognized their principles in the North American vernaculars.[13] Christian architects looked to the recently unearthed pre-Constantinian churches, such as that at Duras-Europos.


    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013. The apse wall behind the altarpiece in this photo replaced the original curtain and tester as part of a 1990s renovation.
     
    Likewise the mode of the continuity was not the figural ornamentation or stylistic references of the preceding centuries; it was through spatial metaphor or social action. Rather than reflecting the primitive Christian basilica in style, the design of St. Martin’s builds on its ritual action of processional linearity. An austere brick planarity juxtaposed with the retained Gothic altarpiece replaces the inward focus of the apse with its mosaic depiction of the exterior other of heaven. The cellular structure of vaulted naves and aisles gives way to a tripartite plate folded into a planar barrel vault crowning the basilica. The geometric purity of the hemispherical vault with its impossible thinness embodied a structural minimalism further accentuated by the slipping past of floating planes.[14] Modern military vernacular reminiscent of so many nomadic dwellings made possible its efficiency: it was built from an off-the-shelf mass-produced Stran-Steel Quonset hut. Truly swords into plowshares.[15]
     
    A Modern Symbology in Stained Glass
    The stained glass windows in St. Martin's Evangelical church are figural, but they are modern insomuch as their symbols emphasize universally recognizable objects abstracted to the essential geometric form of their use and manufacture. Many are traditional Christian symbols, but their particular meaning is not dependent upon a closed historic system. In this way they are like Le Corbusier's objets types in his early still life paintings and architectural photographs which grew into the more explicitly spiritual La Poème de lAngle Droit or projections for the Philips Pavilion.


    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013.
     
    These distinct symbols were set in abstract flowing patterns modeled on the windows of the Dominikus Böhm-designed Maria-Koenigin Kirche, Köln-Marienburg (1953) and executed by the Botz-Miesen Stained Glass Studio of Cologne.[16] When the original intention to re-set the stained glass symbols from the 1929 Gothic church became technically impossible, the new suite of 57 symbols were designed with input from the pastors "to conform with the liturgy of St. Martin’s Evangelical Church.”[17] In this liturgical context and with content derived from Christ's teachings and social ministry, the objets types recall the familiarity and fundamental simplicity of the illustrative objects of the parables.
     
    Conclusion
    St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church is an excellent example of the nascent post-war modernism that sought to reincorporate traditions sharing in its constituent facts. By balancing distinctly modern developments and a commitment to retaining continuity with tradition, it was able to fully satisfy the complicated brief of the modern church with its symbolic functions, liturgical movements, and social changes.
     
    Jason John Paul Haskins, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a church-building researcher and design consultant who writes about liturgy, architecture and history on the blog Locus Iste (http://locusiste.org).



    [1] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe provided a notable exception in the Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior on the campus of IIT (1952) where its uniformity with the rest of the campus buildings—regardless of type—reinforces the concept of universal space, but ultimately compromises its function as a religious space.
    [2] First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1951; Kramer Chapel at Concordia Senior College, Ft Wayne, IN, Eero Saarinen, 1953-58; St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Pacific Palisades, CA, A. Quincy Jones, 1953.
    [3] “The Tent Form–A Village Gothic for Today.” (Dec. 1954). Architectural Forum 101(6), 128-131). For further discussion of this form in the Midwest, see Gretchen Buggeln’s lecture, “The Rise and Fall of the Postwar A-Frame Church” available online.
    [4] Danforth, F. M. (1984). Gods Century at St. Martins: A Pictorial History of St. Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church. Austin, TX.
    [5] St. Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church Dedication. Pamphlet. (1960, March 27).
    [6] Preface to the Liturgy. In Service Book and Hymnal. (1974). Minneapolis,MN: Ausburg Publishing House.
    [7] This was at the heart of Dom Gregory Dix’s monumental work The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), which traced the shared frameworks in the primitive development of Christian worship.
    [8] Despite this, The Church Incarnate was employed as a form book, even, it has been argued, by Schwarz himself. A notable examples in the United States of the most recognizable plan, the parabolic “Dark Chalice,” is Resurrection of the Lord, St. Louis, Murphy & Mackey, 1952.
    [9] Swallow R. P. (1987). Robert George Mather: In Memoriam 1921-1984. MATHR Box 1. Robert G. Mather Papers. The Alexander Architectural Archive. The University of Texas Libraries. The University of Texas at Austin. An abbreviated version of the memorial is available online.
    [10] Weyres, W. Neue Kirchen Im Erzbistum Köln, 1945-1956. Du?sseldorf: Verlag L. Schwann.
    [11] Giedion, S. (1967). Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. First publication in 1941.
    [12] Proctor, R. (2005). Churches for a Changing Liturgy: Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and the Second Vatican Council. Architectural History, 48, 291-322.
    [13] Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (1957), Aldo van Eyk’s inclusion of pueblos in his foundational Otterlo Circles (1959), and the 1964 MOMA exhibit ‘Architecture without Architects.’
    [14] A thicker steel frame was as used in place of the quonset ribs in the later Jessen Associates project for St. Ignatius Martyr, Austin, which has a similar roof profile but little of the finesse of St. Martin’s.
    [15] Decker, J., Chiei, C. (Ed.), (2005). Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press. When the Great Lakes Steel Corporation took over the quonset hut construction from the Navy in 1942, they introduced an innovate design that allowed the roof deck to be nailed into the steel rib. They also began marketing for civilian uses immediately. Bruce Goff pushed the architectural applications of quonset huts. For other churches built from the structures, see Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Abbey in Hunstville, UT or Our Lady of the Way, Haines Junction, Yukon Territory.
    [16] Botz-Miesen also executed stained glass windows with a very similar design for St. Dominic, New Orleans, Irving Kohler, 1961.
    [17] Vandeveerdonk, H. J. (1958, December 18). Letter to Wolf Jessen. Box 10, Folder 17. Jessen Associates Inc. Records and Drawings. Austin History Center. Austin, TX.
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  • Denys Peter Myers, Monuments Man

    By
    John A. Burns
     |
    Feb 7, 2014

    Denys Peter Myers, a Harvard Fine Arts graduate and one of the founding members—and a Fellow—of SAH, was working as director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. Through a chance meeting with one of its officers, Peter was transferred in to the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, the subject of the book The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and now a movie. The Monuments Men movie focuses on the most dramatic work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, the recovery of the priceless plundered patrimony of the countries overrun by the war. But, much of the work of the section simply helped those countries stitch back together their culture and heritage. Peter was listed in official reports as “T/5 D. P. Myers – Monuments Specialist Assistant,” a rank equivalent to a Corporal. He was first stationed in Versailles, then in and around Wurzburg in occupied Bavaria after the German surrender. Peter saved onionskin copies of the dry military “Monthly Consolidated Field Reports” (which he entrusted to Pamela Scott, who graciously shared them with me), evidence of his pride in the work that he and the other Monuments Men accomplished.


    MFAA Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle (image via Wikimedia)

    The city of Wurzburg had been devastated by Allied incendiary bombs on March 16, 1945, which destroyed ninety percent of the old town. Among the casualties was Balthasar Neumann’s Wurzburg Residenz, which was mostly gutted by the fires except for its core, where the stone vaults below the attics prevented its total loss when the roofs burned and collapsed. Peter played a critical role in saving Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's frescoes of the Four Continents on the vaulted ceiling of the Kaisersaal by requisitioning hydraulic cement from the Army to coat the exterior of the exposed vaults, which he then had tarred. He recalled in 2002, "That stop-gap kept the Tiepolos dry until the roofs could be reconstructed. Among the few accomplishments for which I would like to be remembered, certainly helping save two of the greatest works of art in Europe ranks high." A subsequent field report for February 1946 stated, “. . . completed slate covering to the newly constructed roof over the Kaisersaal, also boarded all windows and skylights to the hall.” The eventual restoration of the entire Residenz was not completed until 1987. It is now a World Heritage Site.

    Many of the reports Peter saved detail weekly inspections, conditions assessments, security assessments, and recommendations for protecting the myriad art and jewelry collections, books, and archives, which had been dispersed to locations around the region during the war, seemingly for their protection more so than for plunder, although there are accounts of returning objects to “rightful owners.” Regarding protection, one report stated, “It is recommended by this office that the Castle Triefenstein, owned by Prince Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg in Kreuzwertheim (L50/N23) RB Mainfranken be converted into a central museum for all the art objects belonging to the Cologne Museum which are at present improperly stored thruout the various small repositories in Mainfranken.” Regarding salvage and restoration, another report, about Castle Veitshöcheim, stated that, “Bomb craters in the gardens have been leveled off. Fragments of damaged statues in the gardens have been collected and safed for future reconstruction.” Not only objects were displaced, as this report entry notes, “Castle Kleinheubach (L5C/NO2), owner Prince Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, visited 7 February

    1946 by T/5 Myers and Dr. Berger. The 650 Estonian D.Ps. [displaced persons] on the premises maintain the best order possible under the circumstances. The owners have no complaints against the present occupants.” And, as evidence that the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section were succeeding in helping the residents of Wurzburg recover their lives and culture among the post-war chaos was the report entry that, “Request has been received by this office for permission to use certain rooms in the Festung Marienberg for the purpose of an art school.”

    ----

    Watch video of how the real Monuments Men rescued artwork from the Nazis (from BBC News). 
    An exhibition of their personal papers, photographs, maps and memoirs is on display at the Archives of American Art in Washington.

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