Taking on Shaker

by Mary Martialay on September 1, 2010

How might modern architecture look if it were steeped in Shaker culture? Check out the possibilities imagined by Rensselaer architecture students next weekend at “Material Manifestations, cultural and material affects of Shaker artifacts,” sponsored by the Shaker Museum & Library.

A students design

A student design of the Shaker Museum and Library

Saturday’s exhibit, book launch and discussion grew out of a semester-long study of Shaker artifacts in the spring, 2010 architectural design studio coordinated by Andrew Saunders, assistant professor of architecture.

Each student in the studio chose a Shaker artifact – tools, furniture, containers – and conducted a study of the piece including a digital generative analysis drawing. That study informed the students as they designed and modeled a hypothetical 10,000 square-foot archive and exhibition center for the Shaker Museum and Library. The museum is in the process of planning such a structure for its recently acquired site at the former “North Family” grouping in Mount Lebanon Shaker Village.

“Their artifacts contain hints and clues about their culture, and those aspects began to influence architectural strategies for the building,” Saunders said. “One could look at it in the way that this culture is extremely prolific in their material production, and what we attempted to do was to approach building design almost in a way that they approach material design.”

Third-year master of architecture student Lauren Thomsen studied a basket, an item that lead her to design a building “where spaces were interwoven,” with galleries and public spaces melding from one to another.

“It really made you think about the properties of an object. Is it hard? How is it shaped? Is it heavy? How was it made?” Thomsen said. “You didn’t know when you picked the object what you would do with it. “You learn to appreciate how every decision you make is so deliberate.”

Saunders said the unique properties – its use and design – of each artifact produced a surprising variation in building design.

“That’s what made the studio exciting. We were all as a class working through the same analysis process but the individual artifact lead to completely different results,” Saunders said.

See if you can match the artifacts in the left-hand column with the building they inspired in the right-hand column: 

Shaker Artifact Building Design
1 A
2 b
3 C

The project is a collaboration with the Shaker Museum and Library, which was founded on a private collection belonging to John S. Williams. The collection was housed for many years in a barn in Williams’ Old Chatham farm. In 2004, the museum acquired a 30-acre portion of the former Mount Lebanon Shaker Village in New Lebanon.  The museum is in the process of restoring the existing buildings on the property, remnants of the “North Family” cluster of Mount Lebanon Shaker Village.

Shaker Museum and Library president David Stocks said the presentation promised to be “a modern way to look at Shaker objects and see, in detail, how Shaker design can influence architects of the future.

“Instead of what we normally do in a museum – tell the history of people through objects – this project involved taking the objects and seeing how they might influence the future,” Stocks said.

Material Manifestations runs from 10 a.m. to Noon on Saturday, Sept. 11 at the Darrow School Tannery, 110 Darrow Road, New Lebanon, NY. For more information about the exhibit or the museum, visit the Shaker Museum and Library online at http://www.shakermuseumandlibrary.org/ or call 518-794-9100.