Observation, Not Entitlement
Reading the Room
Discourse on architecture in rural contexts is developing, especially given the recent growth in the leisure industry, which has largely abandoned interest in cultural and landscape significance and instead focused on creating spaces for commercial consumption. Unfortunately, adaptive reuse projects that transform authentic villages into wellness resorts are unsurprising;1 within discourses of modern architecture, an ingrained binary relationship has relegated the landscape to elements that are not the architecture.2 Historically, this thinking has made it easy to ignore ingrained and natural contexts. Even if urban-based designers don’t have a major role in the design of rural architecture, they’ve often carved out space for themselves by either criticizing existing typologies or proposing “better” new ones.3
Analyses of rural ecologies are often communicated via external urbanized perspectives.4 This “outside” territory has always been imagined from the perspective of the “central” city, and current architectural research continues to ignore narratives of the countryside coming from people within. There is a long history of architects’ engagement with territorial processes, using industrialization and rural exodus as the rationale for new types of non-urban projects.5
In 2013, when the partners of Studio Gründer Kirfel arrived in the German countryside to open an architectural practice, they described their expectations: to move into the quaint village, meet and form a relationship with the locals, and introduce new examples of non-urban architecture. However, they were shocked to learn that the village was “unromantic”; they couldn’t find a way to enter daily life with the local villagers and nothing was as aesthetically charming as they’d expected. The team quickly identified areas for improvement and even held workshops for locals that demonstrated how technical building strategies could be used to create more beautiful architecture. One such workshop was called “Hands On: Do-It-Yourself Building, Between Hardware Store-Chic and Architectural Masterpiece.” Though they’d expressed concern about not wanting to arrogantly tell people to create more beautiful buildings, they quickly pointed out that what the locals build is neither sustainable nor attractive. Further, when the architects reflected on what was needed in this village, they said, “people need to see alternative examples, otherwise, they won’t change.”6 ]
In order to uncover solutions to this problematic type of approach, it’s perhaps helpful to explore an analogy outside of the architectural realm: Imagine you are a chef. You enjoy using various site-specific herbs and produce in your dishes, and you’d like to know more about how your flavors are created. When you visit the sources of your ingredients, you meet local farmers and growers, and they explain how the environmental context helps inform the character of the harvest. In order to respect the quality of the food, would you try to learn about how your ingredients are grown and the best practices for their cultivation? Or, do you tell the grower how to care for their land based on cultivation techniques you learned elsewhere? Problems arise when people who refuse to read context are also interested in a perpetual sense of ownership. Architects must foster deliberate practices that allow us to acknowledge and appreciate contextual lifestyles, practices, and cultural memories.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of architectural precedents to learn from. In 2020, architect Niklas Fanelsa hosted a series of workshops called Patterns of Rural Commoning throughout various local networks in rural Gerswalde, Germany. In contrast to typical efforts to assemble narratives of countryside communities, Fanelsa sought to understand it from within, all while giving credit to the generosity of its inhabitants. The locals shared their resources, rendering rural life visible to its participants from the city and inviting them to engage with their context.7 When approaching unfamiliar contexts from the outside, architects should hold an underlying intention of learning from and deferring to local communities.
Having recently moved to New York City from the rural Midwest, I’m increasingly interested in the general misreadings of perceived “non-architectural” areas. Within the first week of moving, someone who grew up in the city asked me: “How does it feel to suddenly live around such a wide range of architecture after living in the Midwest?” Though I know this person was genuinely curious, the question was representative of the common belief that rural ecologies have little to do with architecture, not to mention a wide range of it. Architects have a role in transforming environments, whether it’s mediating between a client and market trends, or owner-driven design explorations. It’s essential that we give prominence to learning from the immediate context surrounding each project. Beginning from a place of observation, not entitlement, will be the only model that allows rural contexts to have a critical role in future architectural discourse.
Kayci Gallagher is an architectural designer based in New York City and a recent Master of Design graduate from RISD, where she studied adaptive reuse and the processes of generating context-based architectural interventions.
- See Level 2: Leisure and Escapism of Rem Koolhaas and Samir Bantal, Countryside: The Future, 2020. ↩︎
- Elizabeth K. Meyer, “The Expanded Field Of Landscape Architecture,” in Ecological Design and Planning (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997). ↩︎
- Corinna Anderson, “Architects in Agriculture,” in What About the Provinces?, Canadian Centre for Architecture, June 1, 2018. ↩︎
- [Niklas Fanelsa, “Countryside Narrative,” in What About the Provinces?, Canadian Centre for Architecture, December 13, 2020. ↩︎
- Milica Topalović, Architecture of Territory: Beyond the Limits of the City: Research and Design of Urbanising Territories (Zürich: ETH Zürich D-ARCH, 2016). ↩︎
- Anika Gründer and Florian Kirfel, “Gründer Kirfel x PIONIRA,” filmed 2020 in Bedheim, Germany. ↩︎
- Niklas Fanelsa, “Countryside Narrative.” ↩︎