Where We Stand

Where We Stand

The Native American wigwam could be considered the original Midwest architecture.
Courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

After completing my first issue as the Midwest editor of The Architect’s Newspaper in November, I find myself reflecting on what Midwest architecture might be, or if there is such a thing. And more importantly why we might need a newspaper for it. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in this very issue. As a combined East/Midwest issue, one region can be held up against the other,  but maybe this is just the completely wrong way to look at the situation. A Chicagoan will be the first to tell you not to compare their city to New York, as much as almost any other Midwesterner will tell you that Chicago is not the whole Midwest. This wish to define one’s self, or practice, with more specificity, or individuality, is not limited to the question of locality though. It is the defining characteristic of our field today.

The plurality of practice, project, and pedagogy is palpable. As much as some people would like there to be, there is no unifying movement, no zeitgeist-defined aesthetic. At most, we can find loose groups of overlapping sensibilities and ideological scenes. Just the discussion of this plurality has dominated much of the criticism, for and against, the current Chicago Architecture Biennial, an exhibition with the express mission of surveying the global field.

I, for one, find this atomizing of architectural thought intriguing, if not exciting. For better or for worse, it would seem that architecture has begun to respond to the greater tendencies of contemporary culture. Those same tendencies err on the side of the individual, the one-off, the on-demand, and the parametrically calculated skin, all without a single identical member.

So with no ideological center to point toward an organization of the field, perhaps locality is a viable way to grasp what is happening. In a time when technology allows for the instant and thorough transfer of knowledge, regardless of location, being physically in place still has not been usurped by the digital world. This is to say, one can know what it looks like to stand in the canyon of towers along the banks of the Chicago River, but one cannot know what it is like unless they are physically there. Until, if ever, that aspect of built architecture is overcome, location is going to matter. And even if paper architecture disassociates itself from site, it still is unavoidably taking a stand on the subject.

So what of a Midwest architecture, and a paper to report on it? Maybe there once was an architecture of the Midwest. Perhaps in the proto-architecture of the Ojibwa wigwams or soddies built by settlers when the Midwest was the frontier. Though the spaces designed today might not be quite so tied to their location as those first homes on the prairie, there is still a tie between space and place, despite any trends, movements, and polemics.  And though we may not be able to point to a Midwest architecture with absolute certainty, the Midwest, as a place for design and building is going through changes. My hope as I assume this position is to chart that shifting field, foster new conversations, and just maybe start a debate or two.