Architecture for All?

A few days ago, I left the world I’d become accustomed in order to revisit the one of my early childhood. Four hours of flying and fifteen hours of driving later – and probably an equivalent number of coffees – my younger brother and I found ourselves driving through the south of Maine in the early hours of the morning. Late, for us, if you take into account the all-nighter on the road and a short night of sleep before that – hadn’t gotten ‘home’ from the airport until a few hours from dawn.

Hence the caffeine coursing through my veins, then and now.

As we flew past the exits for the more populated southern towns, the rising sun increasingly illuminated the fogs settled over all the fields as well as the occasional, what-looked-to-be-abandoned farmhouse. All the while, we both would keep commenting, “This is kinda depressing,” without knowing exactly why.

Was it sleep-deprivation? The mood was temporary, though, only striking when we passed by a farmhouse or drove through town after town, each smaller than the last.

I was not doing anyone any favors by deluding myself; the buildings were depressing us.

Now, two years through grad school, I could rationalize why in likely a hundred ways. They’re not energy efficient, I might say. Or, they lack an appropriate material palette, or they aren’t responsive to their surroundings. But what’s the use of post-rationalization? They’ve always tugged at me, even as a child who never had a conscious thought about it.

To offer most simply, and not as a criticism, the small towns we drove through all have vernacular, but they all lack architecture. Populated, developed areas often lack architecture – worse, they barely support an industry for it anymore, it seems. How could the ‘deep north woods’ do any better?

As I write this, staring miles-across an open lake and preparing for an hour drive only to find internet, I struggle even to define what much of this area lacks, or to figure out what Architecture could even offer. I do not know enough at this point to understand what architecture even is, it seems.

Even the smallest of these towns needs and has access to medical care. While they will not have a thousand-acre medical center, they’ll at least have ‘the basics’ covered, scaling up in the level of care from town to city. Might architecture be the same? I don’t think any of us in the field are exaggerating or up-selling ourselves when we describe our field as ‘vital,’ but we might need to articulate the ‘why’ a little better.

Or perhaps we just need a set of ‘basics’ to offer people, but what would those basics of ‘architectural care’ be, and how would even create – and charge for – such services?

2 thoughts on “Architecture for All?

  1. I think there is actually much to be learned from the vernacular, backwoods architecture of Maine – for Maine and New England architects (and architects of other cold climes). How sustainable is it to have main house connected to tuber shed, connected to work room, connected to equipment storage, connected to hay loft and cow barn? What better way to supplement your home heating system than by parking the sheep in the walkout basement? And what could be more energy efficient than a chicken broiler coop in the middle of a farm field – churning out fertilizer within feet of where it’s applied?

    I’ve often thought that in my “spare time” it would be fun to study the way such buildings come to be. There’s purpose, logic and beauty in those seemingly casual accretions!

    • I appreciate the thoughts, Nan – even though it took me so long to respond. I hope you find the spare time someday to study the logic and beauty of the accretions that you describe. I’d have to agree with your exact sentiments about them not only being purposeful and beautiful, but sustainable in their own right – as well as how those organic accretions might serve as very useful studies to inform our own practices, from the building scale to the city.

      I often have a problem with not being specific enough in my writing. The vernacular that I saw the most of wasn’t in any way adapted to the colder climates. My cousin owned a house in a small town in the center of Maine, and I believe her heating bills ran as high as $500 a month for oil. With many folks experiencing the same, in an area already economically depressed… Whether architecture could fully resolve that, I don’t know. But offering some manner of architectural strategies would alleviate that to a great extent… And, in the vein of what you suggested, I wonder how the field could learn from the vernacular there and then build upon it to give them something unique, something that they deserve to have

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