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Middle Ground: Midwestern Architectural Fictions

Growing land like crops and mega-industrial scaled agriculture

By Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer, Assoc. AIA

From the AIA National Associates Committee journal Forward come two fictionalized design narratives about how the regional identity of the country’s most ambiguous and anonymous (yet largest) area are derived most purely from the land it sits on. From feeding a hungry nation a steady diet of developable land to tracing the arc of industrialized agriculture to its surreal (but satisfying) conclusion, in a true Midwestern tradition, these scenarios build a foundation for prosperity on land as it exists or as it can be created.

From the Rural to the City: the Chicago Institute of Land Generation

Chicago's Institute for Land Generation and the Accumulation Administration, which generates and manages more salvaged land, industry, and opportunity for civil expansion than any another land manufacturer in history, had its humble beginnings in the wreckage of a ship. The night was black with new moon; thunder cracked and lightening flashed as the steamboat the Ruetan, captained by George W. Streeter, plowed into a sandbar hidden just below the waves of Lake Michigan. Once the storm had receded, Streeter, a seasoned circus owner, took command of the submerged sandbar and declared from the bow of his boat the new-found land to be the sovereign United States District of Lake Michigan. Situated in the choppy waters just a few hundred feet east of the growing city of Chicago, Streeter envisioned his newly discovered land expanding into a thriving business just as the circus had under his direction as ringmaster.

Always resourceful and ambitious, Streeter saw opportunity in the tragedy of the Great Chicago Fire with his recently claimed land as a foundation. Encouraging and charging contractors to dump the charred rubble remains on his claim, Streeter's empire grew wildly. Padded by donated silt from the Chicago River, the land mass was free from the regulation and rules that hindered citizens trapped within the boundaries of the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois. Soon the demands resulting from its popularity could not keep up with its growth. Streeter sold deeds to parcels at a hefty profit, maintaining his own circus inspired law. However, as Streeterville (as it is now known) grew ever closer to Chicago's shoreline, city officials ordered Streeter to turn over the land he had cultivated. A feud began as shorelines kissed. Government officials declared Streeter an illegal squatter and preparations for his removal ensued. Streeter brought in reinforcements, mooring another ship named the Castle and readied for battle. He guarded his claim for decades with heavy fortifications and a trained army. Streeter grew old and eventually died defending his rights and his way of life. The city, recognizing no claim to the land for any of Streeter's descendants, buried the issue. Streeterville soon became part of Chicago proper and its independent status revoked.

More than a century later, as Chicago attempted to revive itself from brutal recession, the Institute for Land Generation (ILG) was formed. The Institute brought new industrial economy to the shoreline, replacing picturesque green garnish with production. With the city burdened by unfinished buildings and unpaid bills, the ILG set out in the spirit of G. W. Streeter to take the wreckage of the past and rebuild with it. Headquartered in the hole of what was set to be the greatest skyscraper known, the ILG was established to produce and oversee the process of land production and choreograph its distribution. Steered by the elected Accumulations Officer, materials salvaged from building demolition are transformed into P.L.O.T.s  (Patties Of Land Trash). P.L.O.T.s don't reach toward the sky, but instead spread out across the horizon, redefining the role of land and urbanism in Chicago.

The distinct regional mentality of the Midwest towards the role of architecture, infrastructure, politics and the regulation of land is the pressing issue occupying the Institute. What are the possibilities afforded by newly formed P.L.O.T.s? These land patties allow for the foundation of new political scenarios, new societies, and new relationships to land. P.L.O.T.s provide the nutrients to grow colonies never before imagined by Chicagoans. Like bacteria, these colonies can multiply and grow, mutate and adapt. Each colony has the potential for a new offshore infrastructure for the mother city of Chicago. Given the exciting and unpredictable method of their growth and geopolitical situation, the city becomes a lab, experimenting with ways to make the colonies useful. Some are more successful than others. . .

Chicago continues to define, layer and grow land in the southwest region of Lake Michigan. Streeter’s legend illustrates and typifies the cycle of conflict that results from growing land in the Midwest. From natural nuisance to debris re-distribution, the ILG generates a desirable commodity challenging the relationship to new land that defines a particular brand of Chicago urbanism. Mistakenly, recent developments have lost sight of this uniquely Chicago tradition and the narrative presented here through text and graphics recovers, extends and ultimately exports this lineage of urban progress.

From the City to the Rural: Farmland World

The nature of farming is forever changed.

Farming is a practice that by its own nature unites humans, technology and animals in productive combinations. Hybrids and various mutant bio-mechanical mixtures—Caterpillar combines, John Deere tractors, etc.—began transforming the rural landscape of America beginning in the early 20th century by subjugating the pastoral ideal to the ingenuity of human invention. By 1954, tractors outnumbered horses and mules for the first time. Since then, the farm has continued as a complex exchange between humans, animals, machines and land to the point where delineations between these categories are permanently intertwined and indistinct.

Today, the overriding agri-business attitude towards solving the problem of the farm is to remove humans from the equation. The everyday life of the average American is almost completely disconnected from the land and animals that support them. Even farmers perform their duties primarily through automated mechanisms that remove them from the subject of their industry. The constructed distance between the human “us” and the animal “others” is increasing to the point that distinctions between machines and animals look blurry purely from distanced detachment. From our removed perspective, the extreme demand for cheap food production and the diversion of the pet economy distorts animals until they look more like utilitarian machines (bacon) or anthropomorphic projections to entertain and decorate (tea-cup terrier). As we relate to animals and machines similarly, where each begins to exhibit characteristics of the other, their converging trajectories point to an impending crisis at their collision.

While we sift through the broken branches of our ecological dependencies, the need to reconnect with our literal and figurative roots is exposed in revealing ways. Eco-anxiety and eco-guilt are psychological disorders defined as the persistent nagging concern for environmental issues. These conditions result from the inability to grasp our contribution to the natural world and the helplessness associated with our disconnection from it. A potential cure is to carry a piece of bark in your pocket as a visceral reminder. Further, in 2010, the hugely successful on-line virtual farm, Farmville, engaged over 73 million users. It mixed humans, animals, social networks, commerce and the rural landscape in one giant collective gaming phenomenon. The virtual game broke all gaming rules, but remarkably revealed the ability of the farm to encourage social bonds.

The overlaps and mutable identities of animals and machines through technology are not just sites for crisis and detachment; they can also be the locus of unprecedented opportunity. Farmland World is a chain of agro-tourist resorts sprinkled across the American Midwestern countryside. Part theme park and part working farm, guests arrive to the resort via train and stay as part of 1-day, 3-day or 5-day experience packages. Capitalizing on both recent governmental investments in high-speed rail infrastructure and the plentiful subsidies for farming, the network of resorts combine crowd-sourced farm labor with eco-tainment.

Farmland World is a human/machine/animal hybrid adventure-land. As our animal-machine identity blurs beyond imagination, so does our connection with the land on which we roam. Metal monsters move, shape and contour the land and drastically alter our relationship to space, time and ecology. With this ubiquitous condition as our new everyday reality, our perception of the pastoral and the sentimentality of farm life must change to engage the human participation that shapes our existence. 

What are the techno-natural hybrids that will capture the wonder of today's urbanites? Farmland World proposes a new condition, which repurposes the rural, where animatronic appliances explore the world's largest free-range zoological garden. Can humans commune with machines, cohabitant with animals and cultivate the land in a mutually beneficial way? In Farmland World, Animal Farmatures create a majestic terrain of roaming beast, simultaneously cultivating farmland and entertaining in a rural-techno spectacle. The robotic performers extend the tradition of machines using and mimicking animals for moving, operating, branding and processing food crops while temporary farm excursionists work, sowing and harvesting fields, becoming part of the herd. Farmland World embraces this hybrid human-animal-machine relationship reinvigorating the rural landscape.

From the moment travelers arrive to the resort, they are instantly captivated by Farmland's hyper-techno pastoral views. Commanded by the spectacle of the behemoth Farmhouse Bulb Hotel rising from the prairie with sights once reserved for the gods, the farm excursionists are completely enraptured by Farmerlust. After all, their curiosity was piqued when the self-imposed daily chores promised to distract them from the toil of their daily lives. As train-loads of itinerant fantasy farmers arrive, they are herded to the Grazing Coliseum to receive their complimentary overalls.  From there, the adventure begins. 


The Chicago Institute for Land Generation. This bird’s eye perspective of the Land Institute shows some freshly minted land patties ready for export to the colonies All images courtesy of Design with Company.

The site organization and the process of material transformation is revealed from initial collection to patty export. Along the way, there is oversight from multiple offices responsible for material distribution, land molding, patty distribution, land speculation, and finally the officer who regulates the accumulation rate and patterns.

Farmland World as seen from the approaching train tracks. The glowing turnip of the Farmland World Hotel lets you know you are near, while the Animal Farmatures work the land for your nourishment and entertainment.

A Cow Combine Farmature at Farmland World. Land cultivation is made spectacular through the inner workings of the animal/machine hybrids. The head articulates by bowing and disengaging the combine to harvest corn, the body contains a processor and storage bin, the bladder houses the irrigation system, fuel is stored in the belly under the chassis, and the ears and tail articulate for exhaust.


Recent Related:

Prototypes: Bridging the Gap Between Representation and Production


Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer, Assoc. AIA, are cofounders of the practice Design With Company which was founded in 2011. They both live and work in Chicago, and teach architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. They practice what they call “Slipstream Architecture,” which reveals latent conditions of reality through design narratives and fictions. 

This article excerpt was originally published in the fall 2012 edition (PDF) of the National Associates Committee Journal Forward.


Back to AIArchitect February 22, 2013

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