Sense of place: sense of tele-place?

Abstract

I consider three meanings for a single place, a mid-twentieth century residential suburb at the time of development, the same neighborhood at present day, and an online representation of that constructed landscape. I thus explore both place and tele-place as materialized and understood then and now.  Thinking of the inter-relationships and memories created by each, I unfold a particularly localized story with international parallels.
The site of three interpretations – a Greensboro, North Carolina neighborhood – stands as a ubiquitous post-war American suburb with single-family of primarily Ranch and Classical Revival examples. In this context, Modern style residences stood as discourses of non-conformity to tradition and the white-columned mansions of the Piedmont South. The second place consists of alternative readings of the same neighborhood from the current century and its now-embedded Modern structures, once forms of civil disobedience, now quietly speak of a heritage to be preserved. The third place – a digital representation – draws on the physical sense of place, a memory aid to investigate identities all based on virtual “realities” of the materialization. Through this newer form of social discourse, the thoughts and insights of the past re-make the mid-century based on available pixels and bytes that shape artifacts encountered online.

Sense of place: sense of tele-place?

I offer here three readings of the same place, two experienced in person and one of the same place represented online.  This third reading results from the process of curating an actual place in making a tele-place where people come to know and understand a landscape without direct encounter.  By investigating three readings of the same place, I hypothesize that computers have impacted how we communicate, as Christian Norberg-Shulz coined, the special “spirit of place” or genius loci that informs about the particularities of human intervention in specifically sited and built works.(Norberg-Shulz, 1980) As we continue to re-define relationships of humans and machines, and shape corresponding digital identities for all manner of material and physical things, I posit that we organize our understandings of the past and present in an intertwined way, no longer able to separate place from tele-place.  I hypothesize that the juxtapositions possible in layering these modes of experience bring whole new insights for uncovering relationships and revealing identities.  Through this single example of three readings of the same place, I hope to demonstrate interconnections that call into question the distinctions between the virtual and physical.  In doing so, I hope to use the mid-century architecture of an American suburb as a framework to interpret three inter-related times of the same place, resonating with one another.  Fundamentally I ask: how do we come to know a place?  And I suggest that it is possible to know a place through a digital interface in addition to direct encounter.

Place 1: Mid-Century Suburban Neighborhoods

With a population of nearly 75,000 people, Greensboro, North Carolina in the 1950s was described by some as a “sleepy southern community,” a characterization that obscured the progressive spirit of the Quakers who settled the community in 1808 after the Revolutionary War, near the site of the battle of Guilford Courthouse.  The characterization of sleepiness also belied the importance of the community as a major crossroads in the rail transportation system, a location that brought together the Southern Railway (with routes north and south along the east coast) and the North Carolina Railroad (providing access to eastern North Carolina), resulting in train traffic at its peak of some 85 passenger and freight trains daily through its downtown.(Arnett, 1955) Too, the railroad attracted attention from northern industrialists to the sleepy southern community, including Moses and Ceasar Cone of Baltimore, who established large-scale textile plants, transforming Greensboro from a village to a city in the last decade of the nineteenth century.  By 1900, Greensboro stood with other places in a web of Southern textile industry towns, with workers producing denim, flannel, and overalls in large-scale factories.  At the outbreak of World War II, the United States government established an Overseas Replacement Depot at the edge of the sleepy city to process soldiers – again using the train lines – and send them onto military bases in the eastern part of the state and then into the world.(Fripp, 1982) All of these readings of progressive and busy place lay behind the appearance of the community as a city mired in Southern ways, with columned houses along stately streets, and a quiet understanding between classes and races of people in maintaining order and decorum.[1]

At the conclusion of World War II, like other communities in the nation, Greensboro found itself on a different kind of crossroads, one that had little to do with transportation or industry – one that was about sorting out identity for all of its citizens across the landscape.  Particularly with the influx of GIs returning home or settling for the first time in the community, Greensboro experienced a shortage in housing (again echoing the challenge in many places), one that architects, designers, and contractors labored to close within a decade.(Shanken, 2009)
By looking at this housing stock, though, we find the opportunity to better understand the mindsets, values, and hopes of thousands of its citizens.  This reading of place, then, centers on the suburban landscape and the ubiquitous ranch house found there. With Classical and Colonial Revival-style details and features, architects, designers, builders, and owners through these ranch houses tethered their visions of themselves to political and social leaders of the past – elite white men carrying out the American colonial experience.(Archer, 2005; Baxandall & Ewen, 2000; Beauregard, 2006)
In sharp contrast, the Modern house on an open lot with its fluid layout and its eclectic furnishings schemes suggested an alternative to suburban dwellings within a lexicon largely defined in the first 200 years of developing the American house – the traditional ranch house full of period antique reproductions in closed, paneled rooms surmounted with elaborate trim, casings, and decorative wallpaper.  In sweeping aside this architectural rhetoric with Modern structures, design professionals, builders, and owners forecast no less a stable world but one that borrowed on contemporary understandings of materials, spaces, and issues – houses “of the age.”(Isenstadt, 2006)
A house in between, the reality for many, suggested a structure perhaps with an open plan but a traditional exterior shell, or a house with a somber front facing the public thoroughfare but with expansive, fluid spaces at its rear, enclosed with glass to maximize the connection to the outdoors.  In either scenario the hybridization of architecture, interior design, furniture, and finishes represented the uncertainty of fitting in or standing out with one’s neighbors.  Often more easily or readily changed, house interiors and furnishings embodied an ephemeral way for homeowners to modify their near environment and thus their identity.  The landscape of buildings also could be readily modified, providing a truly outward sign to all passersby about values and identities of the residents.  Sitting between these two ever-changing zones in the human environment, the building’s more steady physicality and the relative high expense of alteration, suggested the semi-permanence of the structure, one mediating between old and new, past and present, inside and out, in a conversation about values expressed in the  “dream house” of the mid-century.(Spigel, 2001; Hayden, 2002)

Enter the architect.  Chicago native Edward Loewenstein (1913-1970) moved to Greensboro in 1945 with his wife, Frances Stern, following Army service in World War II and modernist architectural training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.(Lucas, 2013)
Frances, a native of the Greensboro area and stepdaughter of Julius Cone, local businessman of the textiles magnate family, provided access to a large social network of contacts within and outside of the Jewish community.  Through this web of relations, Loewenstein secured design commissions for residential projects that redefined Greensboro in the post-World War II period.  As the only Modernist practicing in the community – and because of his family connections – Loewenstein said something different with particularly his residential structures.  They stood in non-conformity with their traditional counterparts in a Southern community that, in the same time period, saw the beginning of the sit-in movement in the downtown Woolworth’s store, less than two miles from the residences designed in Loewenstein’s firm.
Celebrating his Modern approach to design, several magazines published Loewenstein’s own work as well as that of his firm: Architectural Record, McCall’s Magazine, Bride’s Magazine, House and Garden, and Southern Architect.  The North Carolina American Institute of Architects bestowed an award for Loewenstein’s Martha and Wilbur Carter House (1950-1951), 1012 Country Club Drive, the community’s first Modern dwelling.  In that vein, Loewenstein brought to the landscape nearly two dozen houses following the Modernist idiom, mostly located within the Irving Park and Starmount neighborhoods of Greensboro, but spread further afield in Sedgefield, Summerfield, Pinehurst, Alamance County, and in southern Virginia (Danville and Martinsville).
Committed to the community, the firm hired the first African-American architects and design professionals in Greensboro, among them the late William Street (Loewenstein’s MIT classmate who eventually joined North Carolina A&T’s faculty), the late W. Edward Jenkins, and Clinton E. Gravely, all of whom went on to establish prolific architectural careers in North Carolina and beyond.  He mentored hundreds of students in the office as interns, many of whom continued with success, going on to design award-winning buildings and interiors throughout the United States.   Loewenstein also taught history of architecture lecture courses and studios at the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina from 1958 through the late 1960s, where he offered design studios in three years resulting in the development of a student-designed structure dubbed the “Commencement House” in each of those studios – a story that we pick up later in history and in this account.
Because of Loewenstein’s active community engagement, the firm completed buildings for the greater good of Greensboro.  These public structures – schools, hospitals, and religious institutions, as well as buildings for industry and commerce – included the development of the master plan and the completion of twelve buildings for Bennett College, a traditionally African-American women’s campus.  Beyond Bennett College, Loewenstein embraced the African-American community and some of the inequities in facilities existent among segments of the population. Before his death, Loewenstein completed the design for the YWCA Building (1971) to bring together membership from the black and white branches that had existed through the 1960s.   In the more tumultuous 1960s, Loewenstein remained true to his open-minded spirit and sense of civic engagement as he forged additional avenues for commercially based work. The Greensboro Public Library (1964), the most lasting community building and the symbol for the progress of the town, demonstrated that the building emblematically remained an important landmark and anchored the civic pride of the community in troubling times.
As significant as this commercial work was to understanding the power of design and the presence of Modernism in traditional Greensboro, Loewenstein’s greatest contribution to the emerging contemporary architectural lexicon of the Piedmont is best represented by his residential commissions where he created livable houses that mediated between the crisp high style Modernism of his training and the traditional buildings on the local landscape.  Working with a diverse clientele, including some of the chief leaders of the Jewish community, Loewenstein said something different with these innovative buildings in a community that valued the tried and true, starting with his own home, the Frances and Edward Loewenstein Residence (1954), 2104 Granville Drive, featuring slanted exterior walls, curving interior fieldstone walls, and broadly reaching horizontal overhangs in antithesis to conservative, upright Colonial Revival neighbors.  With the Eleanor and Marion Bertling Residence (1953-1954), 2312 Princess Anne Street, Loewenstein found unsolicited support from the neighbors to the property, all of whom signed a petition to the Greensboro Zoning Commission to allow a Modern building to be constructed in the Kirkwood neighborhood, comprised almost exclusively of Cape Cod-style houses.  Through homes like these, Loewenstein’s clients brought an avant garde cultural and social agenda to the community attempting to redefine itself in the 1950s and 1960s.  Alongside the Modern structures, Loewenstein-Atkinson designed numerous Ranch and and Colonial-inspired structures with more traditional details.  More than two-dozen residential commissions incorporate both Modern and traditional spatial organizations, details, and landscape relationships, blending the two different approaches to design within the same buildings, as in the Joan and Herbert S. Falk, Jr. Residence (1964-1965), 2044 Marston Road, and the Bettie S. and Robert S. Chandgie Residence (1958), 401 Kimberly Drive, a building that features a curved fieldstone full height wall to define the dining room space, lurking behind a middle-of-the-road Ranch-style façade.

In stating difference through his buildings, Loewenstein designed mid-century Modernist homes deep within their lots achieving unity with the landscape.  Unifying residences under low slanting horizontal roofs, Loewenstein successfully tied them to the land with large, over-hanging eaves that created visual and physical transition zones from interior to exterior.  Screened rooms and covered porches, often located adjacent to living rooms and dining rooms, served as extensions of living space outdoors, particularly at the rear of each structure.  Glass walls and well-placed windows created the sensation of being simultaneously projected into the landscape as the outside areas of each site were simultaneously pulled into the houses. Large-scale windows provided additional light to public areas in most houses, including provision for many clerestory openings. Such open fenestration made for very little privacy, yet Loewenstein embraced this approach and did not provide for significant interior window treatments, rather relying on landscape elements and plantings to screen interiors from public view.
Loewenstein separated public and private spaces within residential commissions through the development of L-shaped plans, with the confluence of the ells often containing the public entrance to each building.  Self-contained maid’s rooms, a regular feature in Loewenstein’s residential commissions, spoke to the economic level of homeowners and provided evidence of two separate worlds coming together in these mid-century Modern residences.  Large central chimneys served as focal points in living and dining rooms and provided vertical punctuations in strongly horizontal floor plans.  Built-in features, shelving and drawer units, storage closets, dressing rooms, bars, and the like lessened the number of furnishings required in these houses, in turn reducing the need for larger rooms, most particularly bedrooms. In his use of indigenous building materials, Loewenstein brought together natural finishes and exposed materials in the construction of mid-century Modern residences.  He incorporated Carolina fieldstone, brick, slate, and pecky cypress paneling, and juxtaposed these indigenous materials to expanses of clear glass and steel structural frames, the latter more in keeping with purely Modern buildings.

Place 2: In and Around the Present-Day City

The architectural legacy of Edward Loewenstein, cut short by his untimely death in 1970 and inherited by two subsequent generations of Greensboro residents, experienced some significant losses, with two major houses demolished to make way for cul-de-sac developments on their large lots.  Other than these losses, by the first years of the current century, many had come to appreciate the timelessness and utility of the Loewenstein designs, and continued caring for – or in some cases meticulously rescuing and restoring – the two dozen buildings.  As an initiative of the modern art museum in town – the Weatherspoon – the university’s Department of Interior Architecture in 2005 was asked to organize a symposium and tour of homes.  The idea here was to celebrate the terrific qualities of the houses and their neighborhood contexts. Over the course of two days, property owners graciously shared their well-loved residences as more than 525 Modernism enthusiasts toured eight houses in the community…and an additional 380 people attended the symposium on the subject.  Clearly, there was interest in the community about the mid-century time period and the buildings that expressed, alongside their traditional counterparts, something a bit more progressive about the community than typically is recognized.
So great was the success of the symposium and tour that an exhibit on Modernism took form in the fall semester 2007. Credited with bringing Modernism to the community, Loewenstein stood as the exhibit’s focus as students explored the discourse of non-conformity that mid-century Modernism represented.  Encountering Loewenstein’s designs as reflections of community aspirations and challenges, students examined buildings as conscious shapers of values and as containers for social discourse and action – but importantly removed from the landscape they attempted to interpret. Designers faced the challenges of making this story come alive in two separate exhibit spaces, working within a large design team (18 students) mediated by a design review group and a team of advisors to the project. Because the network involved in producing the exhibit spread far and wide, crossing off of the university campus, the exhibit served as a form of conversation itself, reaching out from university to community, in the interpretation offered by the students.
An exhibit on architecture presents particular challenges to designers and viewers as the very artifacts interpreted represent the subject through mediated images.  The designer does not have the actual buildings, spaces, and materials at hand but instead relies on a leap of faith by the visitor to set aside a real world experience for an artfully managed view of the subject matter.  In the case of one exhibit on mid-century Modern architecture, the designers – in this instance, a team of eighteen students and their professor – undertook an exploration of one local designer’s work in two very different exhibition spaces as well as in various mini-sites throughout the community.
Throughout the design and fabrication process, students explored in several forms contemporary practices surrounding the interpretation of Loewenstein’s own work as an explicit built environment within its historical and ideological contexts. Together students examined issues of sited-ness, representation, story telling, and the accommodation of physical artifacts ranging in size and complexity from photographs and drawings to entire neighborhoods.  Each step in the design process allowed the group to examine place and context as they amassed material, proposed design work, and created experience.  In the schematic phase, students modeled proposals for internal studio review, selected three to move forward with for further development, and presented these refined models to the design review panel in the second week of the semester.  Following this meeting, the teams again addressed suggestions from the panel and refined the schematic to a single scheme.

Concept : datum + moment

Two ideas offered by the students repetitively arose throughout the schematic development for the exhibits.  In absence of the actual architecture but in an attempt to classify it and to elicit an emotional reaction to it, students kept coming back to the horizontal as a direction of emphasis in Loewenstein’s architecture – and in Modernist architecture of the mid-century.  As expressed by a broad, sweeping gesture, this horizontal tied all components of the exhibit into a single mark on each space considered for their designs.  In addition, the datum helped provide a structural manifestation of the long legacy of Modernism to the Greensboro scene.  The horizontal line also linked the various sub-themes of the exhibit (Modernism in Greensboro, Residential Design, Loewenstein’s Design Approaches, Collaboration, and the Commencement Houses) into the overall expression of Modernism outside the style centers in the United States and abroad.  The second recurring idea – a moment – materialized by the students began with a conceptual notion of a de-centralized exhibit spread throughout the community.  Just as a moment of understanding comes from the discussion of ideas in a variety of settings, the architectural moment explains something about Modernism in a textural as well as experiential way.  Since this was a key concept for the development of the exhibit in the community, the students turned the idea inward on their own thinking for the exhibit, resulting in a [mod]moment as the core to the gallery space.

Installation : challenges + opportunities

With the exhibit, students elucidated conceptual and practical approaches to curating architecture and design in two interior galleries separate from the city’s physical context. The first of the gallery spaces (one in the studio building on campus) allowed students a huge volume in which to interpret the historical data and contemporary responses to mid-century Modernism as borne out through the work of students in three undergraduate art studios.  The second space, an 80” wide, 72-foot-long hallway (in a building downtown), challenged students to think about how the carefully crafted volumetric and information experience of the gallery could be translated into a linear encounter while still relating back to the look and feel of the whole.  Both of these spaces afforded their own particular challenges and opportunities, and to mediate some of the dis-connects between the two major installations, students designed a dozen [mod]moments, information kiosks placed throughout Greensboro at significant buildings and spaces to aid the broader citizenry in understanding the impact of Modernism in a community that valued the tried and true.  These kiosks served as three dimensional, experiential signs for the exhibit and spread the ideas generated by the students into the community.  This deconstructed, multi-sited exhibit thus helped to ask questions about the social impact of artifacts both situated within and removed from the community, about how novice exhibit designers responded differently to the blank canvases of gallery spaces and highly contextual mini-sites, and about the strategies for curating urbanism and architecture in particular, sited installations.
From the physical realties of the exhibit and each [mod]moment, students carried forward the assessment of Modernism through [mod]haus, an exhibit cyberspace that manifested a whole new sort of virtual place, delocalized and decontextualized, existing in mediated form and entirely removed from the realities of the buildings it represented. This tele-place afforded an investigation of mediated images, information, and ideas alongside material manifestations and representations to question the validity of staged reconstructions of the mid-century work in both physical and digital realms.  The decision made by the students to make parallel the content of the physical exhibit alongside that of the digital experience provided much rich comparison between the transfer of ideas to users and visitors.
Despite the success of the exhibition (well over 2,000 people in one month at all locations), developers eyed yet another property on which sat a structure designed by Loewenstein – and in this instance, 23 women from the university’s design studios in the form of their beloved 1958 Commencement House.  As with many preservation stories, this one has a sad ending and the house was demolished late in 2010, despite a number of efforts to purchase it, renovate it, or move it.  Thus the chapter on the current day physical city comes to a close.

Place 3: The Digital Realm

But our story of mid-century place does not end there.  With a team of student collaborators and support from the Graham Foundation, Loewenstein’s work took form in a new kind of space – a permanent website which served as a forum to bring together all of the information generated from the symposium, tour, exhibit, and an ongoing research agenda.[2] This latest iteration of Loewenstein’s buildings, located even further from their physical realities in a mid-century community, distant from their evolved characters over the last fifty years, and un-moored from the physical setting of the exhibit – still continue to shed new light on our understanding of his story – and that of mid-century modern architecture and design.   Abstracted further into pixel form, admittedly with many layers, this web presence allows people to encounter the suburban milieu from which it sprung in a non-physical way.  This mediated space brings as many answers as it does new questions, not so much about the mid-century work at its core but in the ways that we negotiate a digital world to understand the one around us.  In a landscape now populated by mobile phone users and digital apps, we tend to forget the physical one in front of our noses.  In exchanging a walk in the neighborhood for a digital stroll through space, we trade place for tele-place and risk disconnection with each other, our homes, our neighborhoods, and our communities. By relying on the digital place to tell our story, we communicate to others that the tangible, physical links we have in our environments can be translated, packaged, and squeezed onto a computer monitor, thus making it possible for developers to sweep aside social meaning and cultural exchange for two other ubiquitous architectural forms in today’s suburbs – the snout house and the town home.

The mid-century world is safe, though, encased in digital amber only a keyboard away.  Sealed hermetically in its curated space, the legacy of architecture and design – and the attendant social and cultural messages attached to it – remain for others to study, all around the world. Fortunately, the vibrancy of Loewenstein’s designs continue to provide a means to allow us to critically question the interpretation of architecture and design in contemporary curatorial practices – and to learn something about mid-century Modernism and its currency today.

 

References

Arnett, E. (1955).  Greensboro, North Carolina: The County Seat of Guilford.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 171-174.

Archer, j. (2005). Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Baxandall, R. & Ewen, E. (2000). Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened. New York: Basic Books.

Beauregard, R. (2006). When America Became Suburban. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Chafe, W. (1980). Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Fripp, G. (1982).  Greensboro: A Chosen Center.  Woodland Hills, CA: American Historical Press, 59.

Hayden, D. (2002). Redesigning the American Dream: Gender Housing, and Family Life (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Isenstadt, S. (2006).  The Modern American House: Spaciousness and Middle Class Identity.  Cambridge: Yale University Press.

Lucas, P. (2013). Modernism at Home: Edward Loewenstein’s Mid-Century Architectural Innovation in the Civil Rights Era.  Greensboro: Weatherspoon Art Museum.

Norberg-Shulz, C. (1980). Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture. New York: Rizzoli.

Shanken, A. (2009). 194X: Architecture, Planning, and Consumer Culture on the American Home Front.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Spigel, L. (2001). Welcome to the Dream House: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham: Duke University Press.

 

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This is a theme taken up in Chafe, W. (1980). Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom.  New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. www.modernismathome.net
About the author(s):

Patrick Lee Lucas, Director + Associate Professor
School of Interiors
University of Kentucky, College of Design

patrickleelucas@uky.edu

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