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Alfred Lawrence Kocher

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Alfred Lawrence Kocher

American, (1885–1969)
Standford University (BA); Pennsylvania State College (MA)
Black Mountain College; McIntire School of Art and Architecture at the University of Virginia

Lawrence Kocher’s contribution to architecture in the United States was both as a pioneering advocate for modern architecture and as an advocate for the preservation of architectural landmarks.

Kocher studied history at Stanford University (B.A., 1909). He also studied at Pennsylvania State College (M.A., 1916), at MIT, and at New York University. From 1912-26 he taught at Penn State and established the School of Architecture there. In 1926 he was appointed Director of the McIntire School of Art and Architecture at the University of Virginia.

When Kocher was appointed Managing Editor of The Architectural Record in 1927, the magazine issued a “Delphic utterance” that it was embarking on a new chapter in its history which would probably include “something about ferro-concrete, about architectural polychromy, about a more effective direction and use of the allied arts and crafts. Possibly the impulse originated by Sullivan, developed by Frank Lloyd Wright and amplified abroad will bring repercussions from Europe. No doubt standardized shapes and machine-made surfaces will find their logical place in design. That there will be movement, enterprise, new feeling is clear....” (Architectural Record, January 1928, p. 2) Under Kocher’s direction the magazine was transformed from a beaux-arts periodical into one espousing a broad concept of modern architecture encompassing education, social responsibility and concerns, modern design, and contemporary materials and methods of construction.

Although his early writings were about traditional architecture -- The Art of Lancaster County (1919), Fireplaces in England (1926), and Early Architecture of Pennsylvania -- fifteen articles in Eighteenth Century architecture published in The Architectural Record (1920-22) – he was equally committed to the use of modern materials and construction methods and to contemporary design in new buildings. This was reflected in his private practice. Of special interest to Kocher was the design of small, affordable houses. Three houses – one of aluminum and glass, one of canvas, and a third constructed of plywood (except for the sheathing for the roof) – attracted national attention. Ideas which he proposed in the 1920s such as well-designed, prefabricated interior components for storage and utilities have become commonplace. A design for Sunlight Towers, an apartment tower, placed the towers at forty-five degree angles to the street. The saw-tooth shaped facade provided for light and for cross-ventilation.

Kocher had been interested in Black Mountain College from its beginnings. He included Black Mountain in a series of articles on the education of the architect in the September 1936 issue of Architectural Record, and soon after the college purchased the Lake Eden buildings, he proposed that the campus should be modern. He suggested a collaboration between the Black Mountain’s Bauhaus contingent – Josef Albers, Anni Albers, and Xanti Schawinsky – and Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer, who had only recently arrived at in the United States to teach at Harvard University.

In the summer of 1940 when Black Mountain realized it could not construct the buildings designed by Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer for the Lake Eden campus, the college turned to Kocher to design simpler buildings that could be constructed largely by faculty and students working with a contractor. At the time Kocher was visiting professor at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. In the fall of 1940, he was appointed Professor of Architecture at Black Mountain, and he moved to the college with his wife Margaret Taylor Kocher and their two small children Sandra and Lawrence. For the first two years his salary was paid by the Carnegie Foundation in New York, and for the third year, by a gift of $1,000 from Philip L. Goodwin, architect for the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Over a two year period, several buildings designed by Kocher were constructed at the college. The main building which Kocher designed had four wings providing for administration, a library and exhibition hall, student studies, faculty apartments, and rooms for social gathering. One wing, the Studies Building, was constructed in 1940-41. The studies themselves were finished by students in the fall of 1941. Although the faculty considered construction of the additional three wings after the war, Kocher was not able to return to the college to supervise the construction, and the project was dropped.

In addition to the Studies Building, Kocher designed a barn, music practice cubicles, and two small houses, one for the music teacher and his wife and one for the kitchen staff and other black workers. The substandard houses in which many mountain people lived without running water or electricity rekindled Kocher’s interest in small house design. In a review of William Lescaze’s On Being an Architect (Putnam, 1942), he decried the lack of “the proportional space or emphatic appeal which the social aim of architecture deserves. It is a curious inconsistency in modern life that the architect contributes so little to the devising of statues or other instruments of action which would further the elimination of squalid slums in cities and within the shadow of factories.” (New Republic, August 1942, pp. 237-238.) In the same review he stated that the architect would design small houses that would be varied in design – not monotonous boxes – and visually appealing, economical, and mass-produced. While at Black Mountain a long essay on the modern small house, "Homes to enrich our national standard of living" was published as a pamphlet by Revere Copper and Brass, Inc. (ca. 1942).

By 1942 most of the men students and American-born male faculty had left to join the war effort. The college was greatly diminished in size, and wartime restrictions on building supplies prohibited continued work on Kocher’s designs for the campus. In the spring of 1943, he was granted a leave-of-absence to complete an article co-authored with Howard Dearstyne, who had taught briefly at the college, on a comprehensive architectural center which would bring together architects and industry to “investigate the psychological, social, economic, and technical aspects of building” through an organization “uniting research with planning and design; design with experimental construction; and experiment with the ‘trial-by-use’ of model building.” (New Pencil Points, July 1943; abridged in New Architecture and City Planning: A Symposium, edited by Paul Zucker (1944)). Kocher returned to the college briefly in the summer of 1943 and officially resigned in 1946.

Since 1928 Kocher had been a member of the Advisory Committee for Architecture for the Restoration of Williamsburg. In 1944 he was appointed editor of the Architectural Records of Colonial Williamsburg and was instrumental in the monumental task of reconstructing the colonial village. He retired from the position in 1954. From 1944-59 he was Lecturer in the Fine Arts at the College of William and Mary. He also was supervising architect for the restoration of Washington Irving’s home in Tarrytown, New York.

Kocher invited Howard Dearstyne to serve as Assistant Editor of Architectural Records of Colonial Williamsburg. Working both together and separately, Kocher and Dearstyne prepared monographs on approximately fifty buildings. They coauthored two books: Colonial Williamsburg: its Buildings and Gardens (1949) and Shadows in Silver: A Record of Virginia, 1850-1900 (1954)., accessed 09/11/2017

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