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Gallery opening, concert honors spirit of Windham architect and artist

‘An Architecture of Circumstance’ at Fourth Corner Foundation shows retrospective of the work of Robert Foote Shannon

WINDHAM — The Fourth Corner Foundation - an organization devoted to the artistic possibilities of designing with nature - will celebrate the life of its founder, Robert (Bob) Foote Shannon, with a free gala gallery opening and concert on Saturday, July 29.

Matt Brader is the executive director of the foundation, which is based 28 miles from Brattleboro, high on a mountaintop in Windham, in an unusual set of buildings that have grown to cover 4 acres since their construction began in the early 1970s.

"These buildings were the work of Robert (Bob) Shannon, an architect and artist, who died last winter," Brader said.

Shannon earned a master's degree in architecture from Yale in 1967 and moved to Vermont to begin his career. His work focused on sustainable living through creative design. He began the Fourth Corner Foundation in 1995.

Brader has been working with a small team to ready a new accessible gallery to celebrate Shannon's life's work.

"This large addition to our gallery was a really an overboard solution to a pretty small problem," he said. "We didn't have handicap access to our top floor of the gallery, so by creating a system of ramps, it ended up being an addition that is 1{1/2} times the size of the original gallery."

Brader described how Shannon, who had already had two cancer scares, was aware this might be one of his last projects.

"That made this project even more important to him," he said. "Danny Wyman, a talented contractor from Cambridgeport, came on board to help. He, his brother Dale, and I did about 80% of the construction."

According to the press release, the show's title, "An Architecture of Circumstance," was Shannon's "description of his own emergent process."

His work in Vermont "exemplifies both the inventive, ecological approach of the design/build movement, as well as a passion for the history of architecture itself," the organization said. "People will find his concern for the environment and his vision for sustainable housing are as relevant as ever."

"What we are showing is a lot of beautiful architectural drawings from throughout Shannon's career, along with restored models," said Catherine Despont, the retrospective curator for the gallery.

"They are very detailed and playful," Despont said.

One example? "We've also created a few paper doll houses from Bob's plans and laid them out on an interactive shelf for visiting children to cut out and make their own paper houses," she noted.

Despont suggested that "Bob was first and foremost an architect. Seventy percent of his time was spent on architectural projects. In the winter, he would paint. He was constantly designing and making things: cards, pamphlets, models - all kinds of things, including photographs of the buildings as they went up."

Included in the show will be what Despont describes as "playful ephemera," including a selection of greeting cards designed by Shannon, as well as a case study on a housing development called Grassy Brook in Brookline, for which Shannon was the chief architect.

Proposed as an "ahead-of-its-time, solar power, wind power, wood-heated affordable housing community," Grassy Brook was built to three quarters of completion before funding ran out. The project gathered a lot of community interest and was also covered in national media.

In addition to the gallery opening, visitors will be free to experience the buildings and the extensive grounds.

The meticulously tended 3 acres of gardens, also of Shannon's design, were executed over a period of years by his partner, Steven Fellows.

Now they are the responsibility of landscape designer Kate Quarella.

"The goal was always for the gardens to intertwine with the shapes of the buildings," Quarella said. "They play with foliage colors, mass plantings, and have multiple season interest."

Winding pathways lead to three bodies of water. A bridge over a gentle stream guides visitors past sculptures and explosions of color through the seasons.

Despont said that these are "very unique spaces," describing them as "in harmony with the surrounding gardens."

"Some people don't know how to approach Bob's work, as it has patterns everywhere. The space asks you to slow down and to take your time."

She added that "the actual space, the patterning of the materials, the shapes of the metal work, the colorful painting that happens between the materials used on the buildings complete this work of art."

The press release explains that visitors "will travel up a continuous ramp, though walls of wood lattice specially designed to display art. The building's sculptural metalwork, colorful patterning, and layered textures echo the sensibilities of Shannon's painting and drawing to create a uniquely blended work of art both inside and out."

A graduate of Yale Architecture School in the late 1960s, Shannon's work in Vermont exemplifies both the inventive, ecological approach of the design/build movement as well as a passion for the history of architecture itself.

The opening of the gallery begins at 5 p.m., and a classical music concert performed by the Windham Philharmonic begins at 7 p.m. Refreshments will be served. Attendees are invited to pack a picnic and blanket and arrive earlier in the afternoon to enjoy the grounds. The show will remain up for one year.

The Fourth Corner Foundation gallery, 578 Hitchcock Hill Rd., Windham, is open daily, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., for self-guided tours. For guided tours by appointment and more information, visit or email [email protected] to learn more.

This The Arts item by was written for The Commons.

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