May 17, 2021 -- "I always wondered about him,” said Steve Tatum, digital collections and art curator at the University Libraries. “There was a large black and white picture of his 1961 house that was sacred to architecture faculty that hung meaningfully in the Art and Architecture Library. I was so happy to have the chance to dig into his life. What a treasure this collection is.”
Tatum, who worked at the Art and Architecture Library for 12 years before coming to Newman Library has been scanning and cataloging the photos of the University Libraries’ new Leonard Currie exhibit for 10 years. With the help of his two metadata student assistants Carolyn Buonforte and Irene Baron, the trio created a historic exhibition about Leonard (Len) Currie (1913 - 1996) for the Art and Architecture Library, using photos from a slide collection the Currie family donated to the library.
Leonard Currie, a renowned architect and educator, led the architecture program at Virginia Tech from 1956 to 1962, laying the groundwork for the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. Before coming to Virginia Tech, he was the founding director of the Inter-American Housing Center (CINVA) in Bogotá, Colombia, an Organization of American States program that addressed the urgent need for low-cost housing in Latin America. After leaving Virginia Tech, Currie taught at the University of Illinois in Chicago for 20 years, then returned to Blacksburg to practice architecture. He spent the rest of his life dedicated to helping Habitat for Humanity and provided free architectural consultations for people who couldn’t afford an architect.
Currie was an avid world traveler. Wherever he went, he had a camera in his hand. Throughout his life, Currie constantly took photos and captioned the photos on the slide itself. This exhibit is based on these annotated photos, known as the Currie Slides, and also highlights Currie’s own architecture by showing the several houses that he and his wife, Virginia, built for their family.
The team conducted research on Currie’s personal life, projects he worked on, and his professional legacy. “Before we did the research, the collection seemed pretty random,” said Tatum. “But we were surprised to discover that the photo collection was such a complete, coherent journal of Currie’s career.”
The house that Leonard and Virginia Currie built for their family in 1961, locally known as the Pagoda House, is a landmark in Virginia’s residential architecture for its modern style.
“At Virginia Tech, we most often hear that Currie studied architecture with Walter Gropius, the founder of modern architecture, at Harvard,” said Tatum. “That makes him sound like an establishment figure grounded in the Western tradition. That’s not what he was. Currie was much more than that. The work that Currie did in Latin America before coming to Virginia Tech was monumental.”
One goal of this exhibit is to highlight Currie’s work where he addressed the housing crisis for the working poor in Latin America. “As Virginia Tech aspires to be a global land-grant university, it’s a good time to highlight the ethos of international service that Currie brought with him to Blacksburg,” said Tatum.
“Being born and raised in El Salvador, I have seen the necessity of housing,” said Baron. “Growing up I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, like Currie. I used to go and spend long days in the sun helping families build their homes. It’s a very challenging job, but it’s very rewarding, especially when you get to see and feel how grateful and happy people are to finally own a home.”
Currie was a pioneer in aided self-help housing and during its golden years, CINVA was a top institution that not only focused on this type of housing but also on education and research.
“As an engineering student, the research part of CINVA was particularly interesting to me, since new technologies were invented during this time, such as the CINVA-RAM,” said Baron. “The CINVA-RAM was a block-making machine that allowed the fast production of soil-cement blocks to build houses at an affordable cost. Up to this day, it is still used for aided self-help housing technologies.”
Tatum’s students played big roles in uncovering important items and information in the exhibit. Baron, an international student from El Salvador, began by cataloging the Currie slides, double fact-checking along the way for accuracy and translating any information that was written in Spanish to English.
“As my role progressed, I got the opportunity to help with the research for the Currie exhibit,” said Baron. “My area of focus was aided self-help housing, more specifically, in the CINVA project Currie worked on in Latin America, which led to me re-creating a 3D model of the CINVA Research Center using Rhinoceros 3D.
Buonforte’s work was key to the project as well. She catalogued and took inventory of the Currie slides and conducted research on Currie’s background, such as where he grew up, went to school, and the start of his professional life, which added in the information for the exhibit as well as for the Currie blog.
One challenge the team faced was deciphering Currie’s handwriting and abbreviations. “When reading articles about the people and places he photographed, we often serendipitously ran across clues for deciphering his notes,” said Tatum.
“Taking pictures is a form of journaling, just as writing is,” said Tatum. “They are a primary source of information. Collections that have been obscure for many years should be saved for the time that someone has an interest in researching and publishing them. Scholars of Latin America have thanked us for making these important pictures available.”
While this exhibit has an archive in Special Collections and University Archives, visitors can find the Leonard Currie exhibit in three places. There is a physical exhibition in the Art and Architecture Library. A WordPress site was created that expands on the physical exhibit with additional information including a bibliography. Visitors to the site hail from Columbia, Chile, Turkey, Spain, Ukraine, and France to name a few. Scholars of international development are studying the work Currie did with housing and are particularly interested in the Latin American photos from the 1950s and 60s. Lastly, Wen Ng, University Libraries’ digital collections, created a Leonard Currie section in Southwest Virginia Digital Archives virtual exhibit.
Leonard Currie is well-known to people who have been with Virginia Tech for a long time, and local history buffs are enjoying the historic photos. This exhibit brings him to life for younger generations and very likely provides a different perspective on his life to older generations.
Other University Libraries collaborators involved in this project are Cathryn Cooper, head of the Art and Architecture Library, who provided the exhibition space and the frames, and Scott Fralin, exhibits program manager and learning environments librarian, who printed the photos and labels. Additionally, professors Bert Rodriguez and Jack Davis, of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, identified the significance of the collection and encouraged Tatum’s work.
“Currie’s story is beautiful and his work reflects that,” said Buonforte. “I am passionate about this project because I believe it is our due diligence to make Mr. Currie’s work accessible to the world. Not only was he a member of the Hokie Nation and deserves to have at least the Virginia Tech community know about his work, but also he helped many, and I think that in and of itself should be acknowledged.”