An engineering whodunit at Black Mountain College

“[Buckminster] Fuller’s most prominent invention originated at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. Fuller arrived there in 1948 as a visiting architecture professor with an Airstream trailer full of geometrical models. Under Fuller’s supervision, students first tried to build a structure using venetian blind slats as trusses held in place via tension. It collapsed.

Kenneth Snelson was one of the Black Mountain students mesmerized by Fuller’s blend of design and futurism. Over the winter of 1948–49, Snelson built models whose parts were secured by taut wires, the balance of tension providing structural stability. Snelson showed Fuller his model. By the summer of 1949, the school’s students, guided by Fuller, successfully built a geodesic dome using metal curtain rods purchased at the Woolworth’s in Asheville….

“Fuller began to refer to the engineering principle Snelson had used as ‘tensegrity’ — a clever portmanteau of ‘tension’ and ‘integrity.’ He later patented this design concept just as he did the geodesic dome itself. Snelson’s name appears in neither patent application. (Fuller’s intellectual property claims notwithstanding, Snelson went on to have a successful career as a sculptor. His ‘Needle Tower,’ a 60-foot-tall tensegrity piece, sits in front of the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington.)

“Examples of simultaneous invention litter the past. In this case, the truth likely lies somewhere between Fuller’s ready opportunism and Snelson’s years of protestations….”

Epic art heist in Black Mountain College laundry room

“The artist Dorothea Rockburne… first met Robert Rauschenberg during their student days at Black Mountain College, the fabled school near Asheville, N.C., that was briefly the epicenter of the American avant-garde. One day, Ms. Rockburne was in the college laundry room unloading her wash from the dryer when she realized that her patchwork quilt was missing. ‘The next time I saw it was at the Leo Castelli Gallery,’ she recently recalled in a tone of disbelief, referring to the public debut of ‘Bed.’  ‘My first thought was: Son of a bitch! We were close friends.’

“In his defense, Rauschenberg, who died in 2008, at 82, could have cited Picasso’s oft-quoted [if not exactly original] remark about how ‘good artists copy, great artists steal.’ Granted, Picasso was referring to the theft of ideas, as opposed to actual objects….”

You knew Black Mountain was different, right?

Why the recurring preoccupation with [Black Mountain College], a short-lived, unaccredited school at the back of beyond, which never had enough students to pay its way? It could be the school’s believe-it-or-not story and how, the more you learn about it, the more unlikely it seems….

Between Black Mountain and most of today’s universities (and art schools), there lies an unbridgeable gap between teachers willing and able to make a full commitment to students who would do the same, and institutions staffed by poorly paid adjuncts who’d be mad to invest any more care in their fleeting charges than Uber drivers do in their next fare. It’s the gap between a society of members who take responsibility for the whole, and bloated administrations and boards that imagine schools can be run like corporations. It’s the gap between the desire to live and work together as a community day and night, and the fantasy that massive open online courses will allow fewer teachers to impart information to ever more numerous and ever more atomized recipients. It’s the gap between a desire for equality, on the one hand, and the bottom line of profit-making corporations, on the other….”

— From The Weirdness and Joy of Black Mountain College” by Barry Schwabsky in the Nation (Feb. 24, 2016)


What UNC might learn from Black Mountain College

Michael Behrent, history professor at App State, believes that the changes in how public universities are funded represent an ‘economic and political model that is hostile toward the very idea of public institutions’ — and one hostile to the teaching staff upon whose services it relies. Altha Cravey, a geography professor at UNC-CH… cites data from UNC showing that 59 percent of the faculty at Chapel Hill are now in non-tenure-track positions, versus only 12 percent in 2003….

“The future of academic work is at stake. The midcentury model of shared faculty governance in higher education is eroding, replaced by a top-down, corporate technocracy…. If current trends continue, an entire generation of academics will come of age in a world in which the gulf between the tenured and non-tenured is entrenched, in which work is precarious and low pay, in which profits flow upwards toward administrators….

“Black Mountain College reminds us that there are other ways forward….”

— From “The most influential college you’ve never heard of, why it folded and why it matters” by Sammy Feldblum at Scalawag (Aug. 24)

Feldblum makes a thoughtful and important argument, however quixotic. 


War foiled architects at Black Mountain College

On this day in 1939: At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, artist Josef Albers tells an audience about Black Mountain College’s avant garde educational philosophy, while Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer — key figures in the modern architecture movement — display a model of their proposed new campus overlooking Lake Eden.

The approach of war in Europe will derail fund-raising efforts, however, and the college abandons the Gropius-Breuer concept in favor of something less ambitious.


Aldous Huxley praises South for ‘livening up’

On this day in 1937: “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley, spending several days at Black Mountain College while driving cross-country, tells an Asheville reporter that he finds western North Carolina “wonderful country,” the rise of Duke University “most extraordinary” and the South “livening up.”


An unconventional faculty holds its first meeting

On this day in 1933: Black Mountain College, destined to become one of the most important breeding grounds of American art, literature, music and dance in the 20th century, holds its first faculty meeting.

The college is a Depression-era confluence of the progressive education movement in America and the Bauhaus design school in Germany, carried over by Jewish emigrants exiled by the Nazis.

It is at Black Mountain that composer John Cage will stage the first “happening,” a spontaneous reaction by a group to stimuli; Buckminster Fuller will build his first geodesic dome and choreographer Merce Cunningham will found his dance company. Among the school’s advisers: Albert Einstein and Carl Jung.

Its heyday past, Black Mountain will succumb to financial problems in 1956. Its campus is sold and becomes a boys camp.


Beethoven bonfire at Black Mountain?

“In 1948, his first year of teaching at Black Mountain College, John Cage gave a lecture on Erik Satie, at the time a little-known French composer. To make his point about Satie’s significance, Cage weighed him against a composer who needed no introduction. ‘Beethoven was in error,’ he said, ‘and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.’ All that could be said of the German composer is that his legacy was to ‘practically shipwreck the art on an island of decadence’….

“For his apostasy Cage not only alienated several friends among the Black Mountain music faculty but inspired, at least if the anecdotes can be believed, a number of students to torch their Beethoven records.”

— From “Roll Over Beethoven” at (Dec/Jan 2013)


Black Mountain: birthplace of the ‘flopahedron’

“By 1948, [Buckminster] Fuller’s geometric investigations had led him to the idea of the geodesic dome — essentially, a series of struts that could support a covering skin. That summer, he was invited to teach at Black Mountain College….  Toward the end of his stay, Fuller and a team of students assembled a trial dome out of Venetian-blind slats. Immediately upon being completed, the dome sagged and fell in on itself. (Some of the observers referred to it as a “flopahedron.”) Fuller insisted that this outcome had been intentional — he was, he said, trying to determine the critical point at which the dome would collapse — but no one seems to have believed this….

“The first commercial use of Fuller’s design came in 1953, when the Ford Motor Co. decided to cover the central courtyard of its Rotunda building, in Dearborn….  The structure spanned 93 feet [and]  received a tremendous amount of press, almost all of it positive, with the result that geodesic domes soon became popular for all sorts of purposes. …

“Few of Fuller’s ideas were ever realized…. Even his most successful creation, the geodesic dome, proved to be a dud. In 1994, Stewart Brand, editor of the ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ and an early, self-described dome ‘propagandist,’ called geodesics a ‘massive, total failure’:

” ‘Domes leaked, always. The angles between the facets could never be sealed successfully. If you gave up and tried to shingle the whole damn thing — dangerous process, ugly result — the nearly horizontal shingles on top still took in water….’

“Among the domes that leaked were Fuller’s own home, in Carbondale, [Ill.] and the structure atop the Ford Rotunda. (When workmen were sent to try to reseal the Rotunda’s dome, they ended up burning down the entire building.)”

— From “Dymaxion Man” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, June 9, 2008