Black Mountain College

From TensegrityWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Read here about Black Mountain College, where Richard Buckminster Fuller and Kenneth Snelson met and co-discovered early tensegrity structures.


In 1948 Black Mountain College was a critical gathering place for artistic talent escaping the Nazi onslaught in Europe. There Modern Art mingled with Eastern thought and produced significant innovations including Cage's Silent Piece, Rauschenberg's White Canvas, Snelson's X-Piece, Fuller's Tensegrity, and Fuller's Supine Dome. Later, the campus was the site for a renewal of poetry, particularly Beat poetry and African American poetry.

Fuller at Black Mountain

Richard Buckminster Fuller was invited at the last minute to teach at Black Mountain. He replaced Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, who had agreed to teach at the 1948 summer session at Black Mountain, but had to cancel at the last minute. David Louis Sterrett Brook [1] relates the following:

Despite Albers’s reservations about inviting an unknown person at the last minute, he extended the invitation, and Fuller arrived two weeks after the session opened. Only two days later, Albers wrote to Goldberg thanking him for sending Fuller, who the previous evening had given a three-hour lecture. The college hoped he would return.

In 1948 Fuller was at a turning point in his life. His Dymaxion Dwelling Unit (Wichita House), though hailed as a low-cost solution to the postwar housing crisis, had, like his previous Dymaxion inventions, never reached production. In the meantime, he had immersed himself in a study of the geometry of geodesics, a term that describes an arc of intercrossing great circles on a spherical form. His first application of this geometry was the Dymaxion World Map – a map which when flattened minimized the distortion of land and water masses. The map received a patent in 1946.

The second application of geodesic geometry to a specific project was the creation of hemispherical domes which could be used as houses or span vast areas. The project for the summer of 1948 was construction of his first dome based on geodesic geometry. When the dome of Venetian blind strips did not rise as predicted, it was christened the Supine Dome.

The summer at Black Mountain was Fuller's first teaching experience and it took place at a critical moment in his career. Most of the community sat in on his classes and students as well as many faculty were captivated not only by his presentation of geodesic geometry but also by his vision for a world in which technology would provide solutions to the worlds problems of housing, hunger and other dilemmas. Among the students officially registered in Fuller's class were four who would become architects and designer/builders: Albert Lanier, Lu Lubroth, Warren Outten, and Paul Williams as well as a young art student from Oregon, Kenneth Snelson.

It was the latter that would lead directly to the discovery of tensegrity.

Snelson at Black Mountain

Kenneth Snelson was born in 1927 to a camera shop owner in Pendleton, Oregon. He memorized poetry, played the drums, rode bicycles and built model airplanes, each of which embodied pent-up up energy: tension pulling against solid resistance; the airplane model's cloth skin shrink-stretched over thin frames adding strength; drumheads stretched for tuning; tension strung steel cables forming the bicycle wheel’s struts. Pendleton was a remote small town far from any center of culture, and Ken Snelson signed up for training as a radio technician in the Navy two months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He entered college paid by the G.I. Bill and chose art as his major for reasons he could not articulate, studied Bauhaus with Jack Wilkinson, whose Basic Design Course advocated for art as an intellectual exercise, with discussions of semantics, Gestalt psychology and mathematics. Ken was fascinated by Josef Albers and Paul Klee, and when he discovered that Albers, a former Bauhaus instructor, was Dean of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, he decided to apply for admission to the summer session.

It was at Black Mountain that Ken fell straight into the ever-narrowing gyre of tensegrity influences. Albers was teaching along with Fuller, a substitute for a professor of architecture who canceled a week before the summer began. Albers asked Ken to assist Fuller, the new faculty member, in assembling his assortment of geometric models for his evening lecture to the college. The collection was bursting with polyhedra, geometrical gossamer constructions and great circles, like models littering a kindergarten for geniuses. Fuller lectured that evening and mesmerized everyone with his ranging futurist ideas, and young Ken began to think of trying some sculpture. Albers saw an early work and said quietly six words that changed Ken's notion of his self: “These are the works of a sculptor.”

At the end of the summer session, Ken returned home to Oregon, obsessed with his sculptural explorations, moping and spending hours in his basement building things; small mobile sculptures mostly, using thread, wire, clay, metal from tin cans, cardboard, etc. He put to model making what he had learned about geometry as well as art and design from the Bauhaus. He made several small studies. Were they structures or sculptures? Undefinable, they incorporated the attitudes of both Fuller and Albers. One step leading to the next, Ken saw that he could make more mysteriously cohering structures by tying off movement altogether, tension lines stabilizing modules one to another. He sent photographs to Fuller, he did not respond.

And so, Ken Snelson brought his "X-column" with him when he returned for a second summer at Black Mountain. When he showed the sculpture to Fuller, it was clear from his reaction that he hadn't understood it from the photos he had sent. Fuller was quite struck with it, holding it in his hands, turning it over, studying it for a very long moment. He then asked if Ken might allow him to keep it. It hadn't been his intention to part with it, but he gave it to Fuller.

Next day Fuller said he had given a lot of thought to the 'X-column' structure and suggested changes. Ken went into town, purchased metal telescoping curtain rods to build the new idea, and Fuller had his picture taken, triumphantly holding the new structure. Tensegrity was born.

Cage and Silence at Black Mountain

John Cage is one of America’s top ten composers. He is widely disparaged for his concerts of nonmusical sounds which alarm audiences and caused him to be banned from some venues. He was shunned by the musical establishment, treated as a Viktor Frankenstein whose monstrosities were forbidden to share a program with Mozart, Brahms, or even the modern 20th-century masters. Yet by the time of his death in the 1990’s he had become one of the most recorded composers in America’s history. Cage stumbled into this reputation like a drunken sailor wandering from modern art to poems, from Zen koans to music, from old car parts to mushrooms, called by an elusive siren and never finding safe harbor. He adopted a tireless round-the-clock schedule, mastered the complex art of twelve tone composition, yet moved on having found no home in these manses, no experience of music like the one he barely imagined. He composed for toy pianos, percussion instruments, put screws nuts and bolts into Steinway pianos, and gathered more and more critical attention while he cruised on.

Cage’s journey relates to tensegrity as he collided with Fuller and Snelson there, He staged a play and cast Fuller in the lead role. In this environment, Cage began to experiment with chance-determined music, in an effort to free the sounds he emitted from conditioned reflexes. Listeners would later refuse to call the result music, but for many Cage's revolutionary non-ordering of sound freed them up to truly hear "sound" again, not just melody or chords.

Faculty and artists at Black Mountain College continued to explore art in the light of these profoundly Eastern perceptions. Four years later in 1952 at Black Mountain (after Fuller had left) Rauschenberg made a famous radical leap and painted his first completely white canvas. In evocative resonance with this creation, Cage composed 4’33” (four minutes thirty-three seconds), a piano score without a single note within, with instructions for the pianist to sit for three movements and not play one note. The previous year Cage had had the singular opportunity to enter an anechoic chamber—a room that is theoretically completely silent. Cage was surprised to find that there was a “sound of silence,” high and low. The staff who operated the chamber explained to him that the high sound was his nervous system operating and the low sound was his blood circulating. Cage experienced an epiphany in the anechoic chamber that day, realizing that, “There is no such thing as empty space or empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make silence, we cannot...” Silence is really a word for listening.

A student of Zen master Daises T. Suzuki, Cage artistically expressed the challenging, complex nature of Zen emptiness. Emptiness in Zen is nothing, but it is a charged and powerful nothing--like matter and anti-matter or the quantum charged foam of outer space. Science has proven that matter was mostly empty space. Yet, if so, why does a stone hurt when it is thrown at my head? How could there be objects and any reality? Clearly structure emerged from attenuated, almost invisible members.

The achievements at Black Mountain range from painting to dance, sculpture and poetry, and regarding tensegrity, it is also the profoundly inspirational nature of emptiness and silence. For the rest of his life, Fuller told audiences that silence was a critical step in his search for tensegrity—he said that he actually was silent for years, a fiction that emphasized the fact of emptiness at the heart of tensegrity.

Ongoing Impact on Fuller

David Louis Sterrett Brook [1] relates the following:

The summer at Black Mountain was one of the college’s most successful. The guest faculty included, besides Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Richard Lippold, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., and Beaumont Newhall. Besides teaching his class in architecture, Fuller played the role of the Baron Medusa in the production of Erik Satie’s Le Piège de Méduse directed by a student Arthur Penn.

Fuller spent the winter teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago where he lived with Warren Outten and Mary Phelan Outten (Bowles), two Black Mountain students from the 1948 summer.

At Black Mountain over the 1948-49 winter a crisis culminated in the resignations of Theodore Dreier, the last of the college founders, along with Josef and Anni Albers and other members of the arts faculty. On the recommendation of Josef Albers, the remaining faculty asked Fuller to return to direct the 1949 summer session. Fuller accepted and invited as summer faculty Chicago friends and colleagues: Emerson and Diana Woelffer, John and Jano Walley, and two Indian dancers, Vashi and Pra-Veena. He also brought a group of students, his “Twelve Disciples” (Black Mountain designation): Louis Caviani, Arthur Boericke, Eugene Godfrey, Mary Jo Slick Godfrey, Joseph Manulik, Alan Lindsay, Jeffrey Lindsay, Ysidore Martinez, Donald Richter, Robert Richter, Masato Nakagawa, and Harold Young.

The plan for the summer was to continue work on the Autonomous Dwelling Facility with a Geodesic Structure which Fuller and his students had designed at the Institute of Design. He brought with him a small model showing the dome and enclosed house. The dome, which could be collapsed and moved, provided a controlled environment; the house could also be collapsed into a trailer-like form and transported. The project for the summer was to make and test an double-walled plastic cover for the dome. The second project was to cast fibreglass forms for a different dome. Each form was to have a compound curvature (both concave and complex). A plaster mold was made and then laid with fibreglass cloth laminated with resin. Unfortunately, in the heat and humidity of the summer, the fibreglass would not dry, and the project was abandoned.

Fuller’s two summers at Black Mountain were to have far-reaching influence. Among other things, he attributed his considerable success in lecturing to Arthur Penn, a young student who was later to become a successful director of film and stage. Penn had used techniques to help Fuller forget himself and assume the role of another character. The friendships formed in the summer of 1948 with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ruth Asawa, Theodore and Barbara Dreier, and Josef and Anni Albers were to last a life-time. The Institute of Design students were to form the core of those involved in the further development of Fuller's domes.

Among the visitors in the summer of 1948 was James Fitzgibbon who had taught with Henry Kamphoefner at the University of Oklahoma. Kamphoefner had been invited to head the newly formed School of Architecture (presently, School of Design) at the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering (presently, North Carolina State University) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Fitzgibbon was to join him there. As part of his program to modernize and revitalize the curriculum, Kamphoefner planned to invite esteemed guest lecturers. Fitzgibbon recommended Fuller, and Fuller gave his first lectures in Raleigh in March 1949. In later years faculty assisted Fuller with technological and design assistance for the domes. James Fitzgibbbon was a Fellow in the Fuller Research Foundation, and in 1955 he started his own firm Synergetics Inc. in Raleigh.

Links and references

[1] David Louis Sterrett Brook, Henry Leveke Kamphoefner, the Modernist, Dean of the North Carolina State University School of Design 1948-1972 © Draft manuscript, May 1, 2007. Cited from