CRITICAL RURALISM

2010

 

 

Embracing the rural condition of the middle continent, I am inspired by the sublime horizontal space and the simple structures built upon the land to humanize its vastness.  Built with common techniques, the prismatic barns, silos, corncribs, and grain elevators are the simple structures of rural industry. The recognizable vernacular forms evoke communal ideals deeply embedded in our cultural DNA.  Working with this typology provides me with a base for restraint, discipline, and collective meaning with which to create architecture.  

 

I am also interested in the role of detail in refining, altering, or undermining the larger idea.  Because of the inherently mute quality of architecture, telling a story open to multiple interpretations can be considered its natural condition.   I combine the subtly peculiar, off-the-shelf, out-of-date, syntactical narrative, and semantic resonance to create meaningful, evocative spatial experiences that summon deep, personal reactions.  As a result, my work is shaped by blending figuration and abstraction, the common and the quirky, the large gesture and the narrative detail, Platonic ideals and Aristotelian empiricism.  Between these oppositional couplings are the unrelenting horizon, barns, silos — and my projects — recognizable forms pushed in provocative directions to suggest an innovative middle ground within the middle ground. 

 

Among my explorations are three meditation huts of similar size and program.  Each is a formal reaction to the unique qualities of the landscape and the surrounding built context.  They evolve from the typologies and construction techniques in both obvious and intuitive ways. At the same time, each expresses ideas through universal symbols that transcend the place and the landscape.  Each is of a size somewhere between a piece of furniture and a building.  I have found through my own and my students’ investigations that working at this scale can help to elicit a sought after personal interaction with architecture.   Through close-up construction and detailing, each project develops a personality of its own.

 

Two self-built huts located in two Urbana gardens were built over a period of eight years.  Each was given a unique shape determined by site, construction method, and symbolic emphasis.  The experience of creating them was a retreat both from work and into work — the hands-on construction process in itself was cathartic. The forms emerged from the process of making (and re-making).  Leftover and salvaged materials  — windows, plywood, insulation, and structural lumber — were integrated into the design wherever possible. 

 

Each began with a space for three 3’ x 6’ tatami mats, the hybrid floor/furniture/objects derived from traditional Japanese modular design.  The result was a roughly 6’ x 9’ meditation room. Both basic structures were connected to the ground by four posts.  In recognition that I have built these unnecessary structures upon some of the richest and deepest growing medium on the planet, minimal disruption to the topsoil underneath means the hut locations can be returned to the garden at any time.

 

 

Meditation Hut I is located in east Urbana, among small, traditionally working class dwellings.  It takes its place behind the neat line of houses in the shaggy and fragmented world of suburban backyards, an eclectic arrangement of mature vegetation, garages, shacks, aboveground pools, and dog-runs.  

 

Rainwater collected from the hut’s butterfly shaped roof fills a ground pool to nourish the plant life.  A pool fountain provides meditative foreground sound to mask the noise from a nearby road.  Oversized east-west aluminum double hung windows, purchased at a builders salvage yard in Farmer City, are oriented to ensure a continuous play of sunlight across the V-shaped ceiling throughout the day. 

 

The shape conjures up thoughts of flight or transcendence. Wallpaper* Magazine described it as “an enlightened modernist’s fairytale.” 

 

 

Meditation Hut II: Le Cadeau is located at our current residence in the Urbana “Professorville” neighborhood.  After countless unsuccessful developmental studies the hut ultimately de-evolved into a simple archetypal house shape―like a child's first attempt to represent a dwelling in drawing form, with the connotations of comfort, security, and innocence. 

 

Much like a wrapped gift, a single material — inexpensive white cedar underlayment shingles, full of interesting knots and imperfections — were hand-cut to tightly cover the entire exposed exterior surface.   Small windows were collected from various sources and placed throughout the surface for cross-ventilation and to frame specific views. A flagstone path leads to the hobbit-like entry that is intended to call to mind a gateway, tunnel or transition, such as birth. 

 

The surrounding trees filter a restrained level of light into the space throughout the day.  The freestanding, floating structure softly resonates with the songs of birds from surrounding trees.

 

A commission for a third Meditation Hut served to express these principles as they are considered in a less personal and more ambitious design and construction process. 

 

The site for the hut is a 15-acre property just beyond the micro-urban fringe of Champaign-Urbana.  It consists of two landscape fragments as well as the strikingly unique house co-designed by the owner and another local architect. 

 

One enters the West side of the site through a grid of trees in what was originally a tree farm, but that remains unharvested. 

 

The East side of the site is a remnant of the "Big Grove" that originally spread out for miles as an island of shade amidst the tallgrass prairie. 

 

To the South is the charming but unceremoniously named Saline Drainage Ditch that quietly flows through a corner of the property but transforms into a wild torrent after a heavy rain.   This last feature reminds us that most residents of Central Illinois live in a former swamp  — groundwater is always nearby.  This fact forced the new owners to construct a borrow pit alongside the Saline embankment that provides the fill on which to build their house.  This pit was shaped into a pond with naturalized edges.

 

 

After testing several sites and designs, we decided to build the new hut at the North edge of the new pond (Site "C").  Two of the four concrete piers supporting the structure are within the normative perimeter of the pond.  The piers are built high to keep the floor above the flood plane, giving the hut a sort of “awkward years” support base.

 

For Meditation Hut III: Victor, the butterfly roof was again employed as a reaction to the opportunity to play with the light movement, and also the reflection of water.  Facing the “V” toward the South created large tilted soffits to catch the sunlight reflecting off the pond.  At midday, with the sun high, the reflections dance around the entire perimeter.  This form is also a response to the unique y-shaped house:

 

 

House:    shaped plan   /   simple section           

Hut:         simple plan    /   shaped section

 

 

As in the previous huts, the interior is small and intended to be experienced in a sitting or supine position.   A large vertical window across from the door frames a composition of mature oaks. A small casement window within an adjacent tea cabinet captures the sound of groundwater draining into the pond below.  A low horizontal window stretches the width of the tatami space to visually frame a fragment of flux and flow of the pond surface. 

 

This experience is then mirrored in the V-shaped ceiling and soffit.  Although the space is removed from the water, it utilizes the water phenomenon to enhance the inner experience.

 

 

 

An earthen approach ramp emerges from the edge of the gridded tree farm and leads to the approach bridge, composed of horizontal and vertical 2 x 2 cedar strips alternating with an equal void, to create a staccato visual approach — material, light, and shadows energize the space and the inhabitant — a prescription to keep moving. 

 

In contrast to the emphasis of the approach, the door is concealed within the rhythm of the vertical cedar siding and is constructed of the wall materials.  The vault-like door is heavy and low, so low so that most adults bow to avoid contact with the lintel.  

 

 

Creating architecture that responds to these vernacular characteristics of form and place is to recall the polemic of critical regionalism first used by Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre and then adopted by Kenneth Frampton thirty years ago as his reaction to the growing homogeneity of a built environment controlled by corporate globalism. 

 

This reverence for the authenticity and embedded wisdom of the local and the locale is not an arrière-garde bit of post modernism but a timeless position.  Or perhaps more urgently, it is timely.  It is a recognition that our lives are better served, and our planet is better managed, if we enrich and support the unique qualities of a place: through local food and materiel production and distribution, the creation of thoughtfully organized communities that respond to our physical and psychological needs, local crafts, music and storytelling, community media and politics, and the development of buildings that recognize site, locale, or place as a principal motivator of form. 

 

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© Jeffery S. Poss, Architect