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“By selecting regional cultural history and physical landscape, a vocabulary of design might be found to create places of strong visual presence and shared experience. Cultural and physical landscapes might inspire the creation of places that are rooted in the common American landscape. Design based on culture and land patterns can express social as well as physical elements intrinsic to the region. Today, much of our experience of environments is often casual, fragmented, aspatial, and generic. Place making that grows out of a region’s culture and man-made setting might restructure our perception of and response to our contemporary landscape.” -Terry Harkness

A Prairie Settlement: The Agrarian View

This project evaluates the potential of the subdivision to enhance a sense of place. Regional typologies are implemented in lieu of traditional land planning standards. This development proposes suburban development within the natural order of the Prairie landscape. Thomas Jefferson’s original vision for land development is reinterpreted within the modern cultural context. The checkerboard plan he proposed for Jeffersonville, Indiana becomes the generator for a regional land plan, resolved with respect to local topography. The moraine; the high ground, is the inhabited space, using the grid in a discriminating fashion. Urban spaces relate to the grid and landform, braided between prairie restorations, to be used as amenity and ecology. This vast proposal overlooks the agrarian ‘valley,’ acknowledging the scale and importance of crop production. In the subdivision, regional prototypes, native and cultural, are implemented in the formal order. Instead of large detention basins, prairie restorations slow and clean runoff. Drainage ditches, earth walls, and old field successions replace chain link and board fences. Employing these regional types, derived from the cultural landscape of the Midwest, may usher stewardship and a sense of belonging to place. Paul Groth has noted “Americans are like fish who can’t see water.” Regional design vocabularies, abstracted and implemented within the subdivision, have the potential to heighten the awareness of inherent qualities of region. Teaching people to see and value place, to strive to enhance the particular in our urban constructs, may resolve man’s inhabitation of within the natural order of a place.

“The agrarian view is where architecture and landscape grow from a cultivation of the familiar”- Barbara Solomon

This project examines the potential of exploring the ‘backyard’ as a place-making language for suburban growth. By examining the physical landscape and its natural history, and looking at our processes of cultivation, we may find a design method and language that relates our suburban constructions to place. The Midwestern landscape provides the setting for this work. For this design method of ‘backyard observation,’ a landscape reading is certainly germane. The landscape must be understood. This examination reveals the Midwest to consist of Earth, Sky, and Horizon-the place of life. This analysis sets the direction for a suburban land plan, a subdivision, and house construction. There are two types of prairie landscapes, the native and the cultural. The native tallgrass prairie is perhaps the most damaged ecosystem in the world. In the span of one hundred and fifty years, ninety-nine percent of it was destroyed, this after sixty thousand years of evolution. Now the cultural prairie-the agrarian landscape, exists in place of this native ecosystem. Both landscapes possess similar qualities. The Midwestern landscape is stark and subtle in its beauty. This region does not offer immediate visual reward; the prairie demands understanding before revealing its beauty. It contains no special features to ‘consume;’ there are no trees or mountains, for example. Its qualities lie in the intangible and ephemeral changes of natural processes, such as the sky. Sky The sky provides the drama of the prairie - it is the dynamic element of this landscape. Its qualities within the prairie landscape begin from the horizon. The sky in this landscape is vast, due to the open land beneath it; the distant horizons afford this size. These allow comprehension of the changing sky. The lifting of haze and fog, the oncoming weather systems, and the daily change of light display their movement in the big sky. Mountains, trees, and structures do not hide these changes, as in other places. The sky also provides direction in this bewildering landscape in the day and nighttime. During the hours of dusk and dawn, especially the former, the blinding light of the sun from the west actually forces one’s gaze eastward. Only the prairie landscape could accommodate this view of the sun at such a low altitude. At night, constellations track their way through the expansive void, as well as Mars, Venus, and Jupiter. These planets are often the most spectacular elements in the evening and pre-morning skies, occurring close to the horizon. Landscapes with dramatic topographic changes in elevation do not allow sight of these events. Earth The earth is brooding and enigmatic, as the sky is vibrant and exposed. The tremendous dominance of the horizontal sets us within the earth. In the prairie, the earth receives us; it is passive in its nature. We do not sit upon it like the mountain or the rocky desert; we live in the earth, under the sky. Physically, as we move into the earth, this mysterious character increases. We hear the communities of insects and feel its cool aura, but the earth still remains foreign. We walk upon the stuff of the earth, ground to dust by powerful forces of wind and ice. The prairie is distilled into the basics elements of life. Glaciers dumped mounds of till, leaving moraines, and eskers; aeolian forces shrouded these in loess from powerful dust storms. In the wake of these reductive processes, we inherit the most fertile soils on the planet. Images of soil washed out upon sidewalks, the tilled blocks of soil in winter, and our footprints remind us of the fluid nature of the earth in the prairie. This earth awaits force to impart form. The continental grid orders nearly the entire Midwestern landscape. This ordering system facilitates the agrarian ideal. Steel has afforded the ease of the dominance of the prairie, severing the earth’s symbiotic tie to the grasses, shaping the earth into an infinite repetition of line and grid.

Horizon We live between the Earth and Sky. The horizon is the biotic realm, upon thousands of miles of earth, and under many miles of atmosphere. Life occurs in the prairie within a hundred-foot zone in section. This is a delicate relationship, a stretched plane in which we are keenly aware of the horizon. There are two types of horizon in the prairie landscape. The first is the layered horizon, consisting of local horizon lines in between the nearest horizon and the terminal one. These layers play upon each other in movement, speeding or flowing by as a function of their distance and our method of travel. Lines close to our vision speed by, while those in the distance accompany the gaze longer on our journeys. Intermediate horizon lines anchor or float the elements on the prairie, depending on the clarity of the air. Humid air shrouds the grid, visually loosening the objects from the ground. On clear days, shadows reinforce the geometry of this landscape. These zones appear romantic or geometrical during hazy or clear days. These horizons may also block our view once we near them. From afar, one may see over a railroad, but upon nearing it, this becomes a single horizon. The single horizon suggests infinity, endless possibilities oncoming. The land runs straight to the sky, creating a sharp edge that one may not see beyond.

Steel Steel stands triumphantly in the prairie landscape today. In the open fields, steel buildings gleam in the light of the sun, contrasting the warm glow of the earth. Our urban landscapes glitter when the low sun strikes the ductwork upon the roofs. Steel absorbs the colors of the sky and its surrounds, and paints our landscapes with these subtle hues. Metals naturally respond to the light of the prairie; on cloudy days, metals are as dull as the sky. Colors lose their luster, unlike their bravado under the sun. Metallic construction appears as metaphor to the prairie form, each part may be read within the greater whole. Each panel or shape reminds one of the panels and rows of crops. These elements age individually, recalling the tears in the cultivated landscape. Perfect forms, characterized within the prairie by nature’s hand. Steel and its kindred metals occur in simple shapes and skeletal form. The round forms of silos and other prairie structures, be they colored or not, capture the light, and allow it to cascade over the form. Skeletal forms create distinct outlines upon the sky, moving over silos, or supporting power lines. Machinery possesses both the bold and skeletal form as it moves about us. The ease of movement through the grid, the railroads, and the farm machinery amplify the experience of the prairie.

Movement Modern machinery continues the tradition of movement in the prairie landscape. From the rapid spread of a prairie fire, to the slow migration of the glaciers, images of the prairie flow to movement. Settlers’ accounts of the prairie made frequent analogies to the ocean. The open landscape and the undulating flow of the grasses, reminded settlers of their journey to the land of wilderness. The prairie became the second journey, as the settlers moved through what they felt were barren lands, to the riches in the West. As we move through the prairie today, the landscape unfolds as a parallax. Local horizons move quickly by, while distant layers remain relatively anchored. The concept of movement is pervasive, appearing in the architecture of the prairie and grasslands. The moving parts of the grain elevators and their repeating masses cutting through the earth, animate the landscape. The prairie style provided a romantic image with the ‘frozen movement’ of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses. These evoke strong qualities the mind associates with the prairie. Wright’s houses recalled the line of repose within the roof silhouette through to the mortar detailing of the masonry. This repeating horizontal streamlined his buildings, giving them a machine like presence in the landscape. Portable architectures developed in these landscapes. Grassland landscapes historically demand movement from their inhabitants. The land traditionally did not support static settlements. In native North American grassland landscapes, Indians used teepees. In the Asian steppes Mongolian tribes constructed flowing fabric tents, rich with color.

Color, Communities and Vegetation One does not attribute color as a principle aesthetic of the prairie; but both subtle and vibrant colors exist within the native and cultural landscapes respectively. The open qualities of this landscape facilitate the bold colors of the buildings and machines in this landscape. There is no vertical earth-mass to absorb them, the bold tones add to their claim as objects in the landscape. The earth offers a much subtler range of hues. Its tones stay warm and glow with coming of the sunlight. The colors within the prairie landscape offer both the subtle ranges, from the grasses and the agricultural fields, as well as the bold, from the insects, animals, and man. Between the earth and the sky in this small horizontal zone live communities. Survival in the prairie landscape depends upon communal life-styles. The lone man did not settle the prairie; he and his family domesticated this landscape. In the natural landscape, we observe prairie life occurring in communities; this landscape is not the home of the individual predator or hero. Animals group for protection and survival, and buildings cluster according to function while providing scale for each other against the horizon. Native prairie vegetation occurs in communities exclusively, save for the lone oaks within prairie savannas. Grasses bond the earth, and crops stand together in panels of earth under the sky. The native vegetation binds the earth, its strong root systems creating a network equaling the grasses great height. The native grasses make visible the unseen phenomena of the prairie. Big bluestem and its kindred bend in the prairie wind, and glow with subtle hues in the prairie sun. The same may not be said for the cultivated, agrarian landscape. Crops stand stiffly, crying out sharply against movement from the strong prairie winds. The earth flows freely within the crops, lacking the deep root bond. Harvest separates the vegetation from its land, the relationship is temporal, unlike the native grasses which guard the earth during the harsh winter months. Only few crops provide the beauty of color which the native grasses and forbs extend upon the brown earth. Soy glows gold in fall, or absorbs in purple, claiming the sky and advancing or receding to the horizon in its purple tone.

Infinity and Repetition Infinity and repetition actually do exist beyond the suggestion of infinity offered by the single horizon. Repetition suggests infinity, while simultaneously furnishing human scale. The prairie contains an incredibly intense scale within its vast size. In both the native and agricultural prairies, plants repeat over acres. In prairie architecture we see repetition in the forms of silos moving through the earth, and the distinct elements that are used to create these larger forms. Natural processes erode the perfect forms of the cornfields and the architecture. Rows of crops in fields succumb to the running and standing water, the forms showing these tears in the agrarian structure. Streams and depressions destroy the perfect repetition of crop rows, and move independent of the continental grid. Barns and other prairie structures display the same effect. Nature tears away the structure over time, leaving a porous envelope, framing the landscape. The natural forms of the landscape repeat in the horizontal. Clouds, the branching structure of native trees, and the topography repeat this line of repose.

Landscape Types The landscape consists of two types: native and cultural. The native landscape consists of prairie grass. The cultural landscape has farm field and old fields. The old fields are remnants of past agricultural land that grow within the ‘cracks’ in the cornfields. These fields return to forest through a series of stages, from grasslands to forest. Many of these fields are an ecological palimpsest. Structures of old orchards, woodlots, or prairie are still visible within the cycle of succession. These fields link the landscape and are oases for flora and fauna.

Architectural Types Prairie architecture is austere; built from a fierce pragmatism. The Midwestern structures are simple in every way. Each building is tight in envelope; there is no extravagance in the footprint. The materials of construction are stock parts, lack of environmental resources led to structures designed from available products. Assembly of unit parts is the architectural order, with simple detailing and repetition of the parts. In this respect the architecture is analogous to the landscape, the simplest parts repeat and combine in new patterns.

The Context-The Land Plan Champaign-Urbana, Illinois sits upon Yankee Ridge Moraine. The moraine is a geomorphologic structure that is a remnant of earth from glacial episodes. The glacier carries earth bound in its snout. When the glacier melts, this earth drops from the grasp of the ice. Upon investigation using USGS maps, each town within the East-Central Illinois region sits atop a glacial landform (fig. 1). Suburban sprawl is destroying any perception of these landforms; the moraine is no longer legible to the eye. The landscape now appears ‘flat’ in developed areas. In the fields it is still possible to perceive the structure of the land The area of study ranges from the Southeast edge of Urbana to the town of Philo, about eight miles away. The Urbana Park District is embarking upon a massive prairie restoration project. This provides an anchor to the North, and Philo provides the terminus to the south. The moraine becomes the boundary for development (fig. 2). This high ground is well suited for building, and allows for views across the Embarrass River Basin. Prairie watersheds are the youngest on the planet, so the low areas of the watershed are to be lowland parks, allowing watershed development. The vast space in the middle is left for crop production. This landscape strategy affords the prospect of development overlooking the agricultural valley, displaying the possibilities of (sub) -urbanization. Without a food surplus, we would be incapable of achieving this population density. The moraine is the boundary for sprawl. Thomas Jefferson envisioned the grid implemented in a checkerboard pattern for Jeffersonville, Indiana. The layout of this checkerboard responds to the landform (fig. 2). Prairie restorations alternate with developed areas, hiding views of the developments, slowing and cleaning runoff, and creating a network for wildlife movement. The road layout reveals the moraine, which usually goes unperceived. The cardinal roads bisect the moraine, surprising one with the maximum elevation change possible. The new road system guides one along Yankee Ridge, revealing the landform as a system of location within the landscape, in addition to the cardinal roads.

The Subdivision: Landscape The settlement fits within the land plan. The cultural prairie and the native prairie complement each other in juxtaposition. Three prairie restorations divide two sets of housing areas. Each restoration speaks to a native ecosystem and the shape of the land (fig. 3). These three areas keep development from the high and low points of the site. They minimize the impact of built structure, leaving views free of clutter. The horizon is as clean as possible. The top restoration is a prairie savanna - a dry prairie commonly found on upland slopes. The landform of this area crowns in response to the top of the moraine. The middle prairie is a mesic type - alternating wet to dry. The landform slopes severely in this zone, displaying the erosion on the sides of the moraine. The corner of the site is a wet or lowland prairie, in place of the common detention basin. This site is a basin for water drained from the subdivision in times of severe flooding.

Roads bound two housing areas, acting as furrow ditches. Early settlers cut a ditch around their homesteads as a stop for prairie fires. The roadways are the ditches for the entire housing area. Prairie burning is seen from the houses, placing man within the cycles of nature. The houses fit within a community space of old fields. These succession areas form the public realms in the settlement. They provide privacy and linked space for humans and wildlife to move. These old fields consist of woodlots, remnant groves, orchards, and prairies. Each one gives a different level of privacy between units, but because this land is in the public trust the inhabitants bordering it must decide upon its form by consensus and action. The residents bordering the space must maintain these fields as woodlots or remnant orchards, for example.

The Subdivision: Architecture The lots are sunken between one and two feet from the level of the fields, with the lot tapering away from the house (fig. 4). Drainage ditches surround the lots experientially similar as driving down a Midwestern road. This combination of a two-foot drop, threefoot high grass, and drainage ditches provides the privacy of a fence, while leaving space unbound in the development. The houses are background architecture. Instead of objects placed in the center of lots, these houses frame one side of the space (fig. 5). The outdoor space becomes one useable space, rather than four segmented spaces that get little activity other than lawnmowing. The houses are diagrams of sky, earth, and horizon (fig. 6). They are simple 20’ by 84’ rectangular volumes. The construction, as with any in the prairie, begins with a ground breaking. The earth is dug; then combined with cement to form retaining walls to hold the two-foot grade. The walls display the earth in section, with the grasses behind, similar a wall bounding a Japanese garden. The floors will also be of earth construction, including radiant heat. This two foot dig affords the use of mezzanine levels, stacking two stories in response to grade change. In typical construction, full stories would be necessary, but this arrangement significantly lowers the profile of the house while increasing square footage. Additionally, this section engages the inhabitant with the horizon, placing eye within a few feet of a horizon line. The tectonics of the wall construction accent the horizontal. They are built of stock parts of steel or wood placed upon a six-foot grid in plan. The use of small members combined into larger ones allows for easy assembly by a community group. This ‘kit of parts’ empowers the users in the construction process. All members are joined with bolts or screws making the construction renewable. The roofs are made of steel, gathering the light of the sky. These curved forms keep the profile low, unlike a triangular roof that is inefficient in profile. These roofs protect from winds in winter and ventilate in the summer. On the interior of the unit, the roof is the sky. No walls touch the roof. This underside will be the interior sky. At night the roof may be lit with pinholes of light. The prairie settlement displays a design method based upon an examination of the ‘backyards’ of a region. This examination may provide suburban environments that are in harmony with the native ecosystems, as well as revealing the inherent qualities of the region to its inhabitants. Possibilities exist at all scales, from regional land plans, to architectural detailing for this type of design.

Thesis Paper  

A description of my thesis for the ACSA Conference in Fargo, ND.

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