Kathleen Meaney | Essays

A Breath of Fresh Architecture

Our architecture tour ended at this meadow, overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains. Photo by Carolyn Commer.

Architecture is often breathtaking, and sometimes breath-taking, depending on where you're standing. I was standing in the Saarinen House, at Cranbrook, in an intimate space without breathing room. Strangers together on tour, crowded in the dining room, shoeless. Next stop was the living room, an expansive area where we could distance again, where we could exhale. This was planned space that confined and released you, on purpose, like the effects of a warm embrace.

But where to look first? Rugs with geometric designs like math equations already solved. Art Deco tiles in a flight pattern of petrified plumage. Mosaic windows made of clear-glass-turned-green from framing nature. Design was everywhere. And everywhere was Saarinen design (made by Eliel, Loja or Eero). But it was in the traveling to and fro, the design of navigation, like the rhythm of respiration, where the architecture came to life. And I was grateful for every step. But not in the way you're thinking.

Every step I took — my mom could not. She waited in the car because of an architectural feature that both invites and inhibits people — stairs. But that impasse did not matter today. Today we were on a driving tour of architecture, the start of many, with a quick stop inside for me. This mathematician. This designer. Problem-solvers trying to find the workaround for walking. The limitations of life defining the possibilities. No better way to travel in Motor City.

(And guided by generosity, while passing by, she said: Go! Take the tour. Just tell me all about it when I see you again.)

Wherever you live is an amusement park if you know where the rides are. In Michigan, where my family lives, you can ride past renowned works by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Nelson, Albert Kahn, Norman Fletcher, Zaha Hadid and Alden Dow. Sites that captivate. Facades that fascinate. Elevations that educate. Right next door. In Virginia, where I live, let's just say it's curb without the appeal. Or at least that's what I thought until social distancing made me realize that high modernism is not so distant.

Architecture and art education go hand in hand. Cranbrook and Bauhaus are two schools that come to mind. This kind of pedagogy travels. Lessons learned between teacher and student often in the form of ideas, sometimes in the form of buildings. You don't know where you'll find its physical lineage. I found it in the most remote place, in the middle of nowhere. And nowhere is where I live.

There it stood. A Bauhaus legacy. In my neighborhood. This house seen while trying to escape my house. One I was meant to live in but hadn't known it yet. Sitting atop a hill with a spanning rooftop that echoed both the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and a mountain range. Endless windows that reflected both Mies van der Rohe and the sky. Modernism in the mountains. But where am I? Weimar, Cambridge, Black Mountain? Getting closer. I'm looking at the Pagoda House, designed by Leonard Currie, in 1961, while he was director of the Architecture program at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. Come to find that Currie was a student of Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer while at Harvard. So I asked myself, if this home was here, what else was I missing? And my wondering turn into wandering again.

The Pagoda House is registered with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. This online database comes replete with well-written write-ups and well-shot images — of hundreds of buildings. Poof. Insta-catalogue. So I had the text. And I had the wheels. And I made a map. And we're off!

Colleagues with cabin fever met at my “cabin”. Three cars in tow connected by a conference call. Through the windshield, their mouths moved before their voices sounded, because of the delay. We drove through town like a funeral procession on a good day. And as we approached a landmark, a rhetorician recited the architectural history. A master naturalist spotted a bloom of white trillium. A colleague with a keen sense of humor kept us laughing.

I read limericks written the night before, per site, and all humor stopped, like yours will now:

Eczema, arthritis, gastric ulcer,
Come sit in a hot spring made of sulphur,
Yes it smells of rotten eggs,
Yes you're naked, drunk on bootleg,
But back in the day this was the high healing culture

This was recited near the site of a hot springs resort, completely razed, but 175 years ago the area lived up to its name as being a hot spot. The beauty of this area is a healing source in more ways than one. Architecture nested in the mountains offer therapeutic views, and new understandings. Our path took us through history, backwards, from colonialism to modernism and one thing led to the other, figuratively and literally. To travel was to time travel. Highlights included — A rustic gazebo, atop another healing spring. This one was built by contorted vines, commanded into place, like the visual effects of controlling a disease. An early 20th century schoolhouse, directed by the intellectual force of Booker T. Washington which practiced one of the earliest versions of design-build. A 14-sided polygonal barn, one of the most unique in the country; one of the most beautiful images on the website. A tetradecagon shape, and for cows who can't pronounce this word, they fondly refer to it as "moo".

Six feet of social distancing turned into a car lengths apart; sometimes longer depending on how bad the poetry was. Only once did we lose a car; only once did we lose the call.

Only once did I want to lose the call.

Exactly one year ago, my mom woke up and could not breathe. An infection from a virus had landed in her lungs. You know the story. You know how it ends.

The call came in on April Fools' Day. This was no joke. I had worked all day, then drove all night. I stayed up through the night. In the hospital chair, counting every breath. In honor of a mathematician. In a desperate tally of life. Was it trending upwards? This new term I learned. I thought so. They didn't think so. 50/50 chance of living, they said. An assessment that defined both of us, perhaps.

What takes our breath away is both the thrill of life and life threatening. This daily paradox. Inspiration and expiration. Breathe in, breathe out. Disabilities lead to opportunities. Distancing brings people together. A full stop prompts travel. In this painful year, I have never felt more grateful, more alive, more grateful to be alive. It's a formula that's hard to figure. But a mathematician with a kind disposition might look at this paradox, this 50/50, differently — as simply being whole.

So follow me.

First stop is modernism. Last stop is a meadow overlooking the Blue Ridge mountains. Exit the car. Keep your distance. Smell the lilacs. Look at the view. Doesn't it just take your —

Sites 1 through 5 were visited on the first tour; 6 through 8, on the second; and 9, on the third, on my own.

1. Pagoda House, 1961
Photo by Carolyn Commer (top)
Virginia Tech University Libraries (bottom)
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

2. George Earhart House, ca. 1840
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

3. Virginian Railway Underpass, 1906
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

4. Blankenship Barn, 1929
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

5. Montgomery White Sulphur Springs, 1855
Virginia Tech University Libraries

6. Montgomery Primitive Baptist Church, 1922
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

7. Alleghany Springs Springhouse, 1890
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

8. Fotheringay, ca. 1815
Photo by Carolyn Commer (top)
Virginia Department of Historic Resources (bottom)

9. Christiansburg Industrial Institute, ca. 1927
Photo by Dave Elmore (top)
Photo by Carolyn Commer (bottom)
Virginia Department of Historic Resources

* Meadow
Photo by Carolyn Commer

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Photography

Jobs | July 18