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Me, Myself, and the Built Environment

"The fundamental source of all our knowledge, however, still remain rooted in nature. That is to say that nature, as our first environment, was our primordial source of external knowledge and the subject of our speculation about ourselves in relation to all else." - Norman Crowe, "Nature and the Idea of a Man Made World," Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997 p. 4.

I couldn't begin to count how many times people have interrogated me on the issue of why I am pursuing a degree in architecture. When I have struggled to provide them with a straight answer, they are often dissatisfied. But unlike many of my friends and fellow college students, I am simply unable to say, "I'm going into math because I got good grades in high school algebra," or "I'm going into teaching because I like working with kids." Don't get me wrong; I do have reasons as to why I am pursuing an architectural degree. Actually, I have several reasons for doing so, making it very difficult to provide someone with a simple answer. A complex set of life experiences coupled with my inborn personality traits has infused, I believe since I was very young, a keen interest in my environment; the built environment in particular. This attentive observation of my environment has shaped my growth and childhood development.

While one's inborn personality traits are certainly highly influential on determining one's values, I am a firm believer that one's environment--both designed and natural--profoundly shape the human being. Think of someone you know very well and imagine that person had been born and raised in China. Would that person--biologically the same person you know--be the same person had his or her life experiences been so drastically different? You could personally attempt to answer this question for yourself with a close examination of the various experiential factors shaping who you are.

My Childhood Home from 1995-2006 in Detroit Lakes Neighborhood

I grew up in small town Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where the population is currently just under 8,000. Detroit Lakes is truly a beautiful community, rich in many respects. Consisting of predominantly Scandinavian and German heritage with a fairly sizable Native American community, White Earth Reservation, nearby, Detroit Lakes is culturally unique. While representing a rather small demographic of the global population, the area doesn't fall short in expressing its heritage. Historical vernacular architecture from the Norwegian and German lands along with elements of traditional Native American construction is intermingled in the area, and currently being juxataposed with modern.

Detroit Lakes Community Pavilion The community pavilion in my hometown architecturally embodies my core value of neighborliness and community interaction. Such architecture designed for the common good in my hometown have created, in me, a strong belief in social responsibility. My image of myself as one cell in the living organism that is our planet Earth has been shaped by my childhood built environment. I view myself and fellow man as part of the framework of the human race and the clockwork of intelligent life on Earth. In the same way, we human beings are part of the framework of living things, in the clockwork of the evolution of life on Earth. These values are well-represented in the Cheers theme song, as I often find myself wanting to take a weekend trip away from the big city and "go where everybody knows my name."

Typical Lake Home Architecture that engages its natural surroundings in some way or another has always appealed to me, likely due to the large number of lake homes, cabins, and rural farm houses that are commonplace in and around Detroit Lakes. Coming to Minneapolis this year was quite a change from the norm architecturally speaking. Unless architecture engages in some way with nature, I often have a difficult time appreciating it fully, as it's missing one of my key evaluatory elements.

The Cheers Bar Set The set for the hit TV series "Cheers" is a built environment in pop culture that well represents and supports my image of the world at its finest. The interaction of the actors with the set is the kind of human-environment interaction that I grew up in and hope to someday live and work the rest of my life in. The historic brick and dark wood clad bar interior is the kind of historic preservation/restoration architecture that I have been long exposed to, explaining my passion for bringing life back to old buildings and preserving the livelihood and structural strength of existing positive environments. But public life has always had its boundaries in my ideal image...

Tim and Wilson from "Home Improvement" With another reference to pop culture, I point to the interaction of Tim Taylor and his neighbor "Wilson." The physical fence separating the two neighbors' yards serves as a powerful motif in the television series. The fact that Wilson's face is never concealed to the audience or Tim, as he is always seen behind the tall fence or a similar obstruction, doesn't detract from Tim having a strong neighborly relationship with him. He shares his feelings, interests, joys, and sorrows with Wilson while maintaining a physical and mental separation. This separation...

Springfield, "The Simpson's" The fictional built environment of Springfield in the popular TV series well represents the kind of town I grew up in (minus the ridiculous people, of course). Spacious lots in quaint tree-lined neighborhoods, clean streets, plenty of green space, and a well-separated commercial and residential districts are characteristic of the American small town. From my architectural history class, I have discovered that is in the early European suburban model first proposed by Ebenezer Howard in 1898; a sort of fusion of the best aspects of town and country into a new living and working environment. In the small town/suburban city plan that I called home before my move to Minneapolis, I was cultivated to value this kind of blend of city and country; a separate but close civilization.

The Gable Roof Having a long tradition in northern architecture, the gable roof is everywhere to be seen in most of the United States. Its successful conquest of the architectural opposition of winter precipitation has made the gable roof one of the most overlooked and underrated architectural features of our local architecture. My first childhood drawings of houses all featured the gable roof. I thought nothing of it; it was simply what a roof looked like (my limited image of "roof"). Now that I am in architecture school, I have begun to appreciate some of these traditional local methods of conquering everyday architectural (and otherwise) natural oppositions.


Fargo, North Dakota - Historic Broadway Avenue

My life experiences haven't been limited to small town Minnesota, however. My travels have brought me frequently to nearby larger cities. Fargo, North Dakota, is 50 miles west of Detroit Lakes. In my childhood, on average, I traveled with my family into Fargo at least once a month to take advantage of the generous shopping and eating opportunities there. I also traveled to Minneapolis annually or biannually as a child to visit relatives and undertake such activities as watching a Twins game or shopping at the Mall of America. My family vacationed to Florida when I was 10, where I experienced the vast natural phenomena of the Atlantic Ocean along the sandy shores of Coco Beach. This past summer, I took in the deserts of the American Southwest in a visit to my retired grandparents in Green Valley, Arizona.

Gotham City, "Batman" Okay, you may have thought I was finally detracting from pop culture when you first saw the above image. I had to use Gotham City to represent the negativity of the metropolitan built environment in my image of the world. The crime-infested, smog-covered, cramped, unnatural concrete and steel city environment depicted in "Batman," which is a parody of New York City life, has never appealed to me. But it has been this exaggerated image of the city, presented to me through various mediums of pop culture and very occasional trips to certain parts of Minneapolis in my youth, that has created such a negative image. Moving to the city, while not completely changing my image of the city environment, has opened my eyes to the potential beauty in such.

Minneapolis Skyline My first time seeing an image similar to this was during an evening walk along the east bank of the Mississippi River with friends. Words cannot explain the sensual awe I experienced. What I can express is that it was an experience comprable, for me, to seeing such a natural phenomenon as a massive waterfall or the Grand Canyon. While natural phenomena was no stranger to a person who had grown up among the forests, lakes, and rivers of Northern Minnesota, man-made phenomena had never really struck me in such a way that the skyline did that night.

Foshay Tower, downtown Minneapolis Foshay Tower contributes to my growing respect and appreciation for big city life. Seeing the evolutionary story depicting the wonders of man's intelligence over time through architecture is something that cannot be easily done in small town USA. While there is very unique and special architecture there, state-of-the-art works of genius are hard to come by. Completed in 1929, Foshay was designed by the architectual firm Magney & Tusler, Inc., with the intention to imiate the Washington Monument. Wikipedia claims that the tower is considered the "first skyscraper west of the Mississippi." I think what speaks to me is the sight of the once-architectural marvel sitting in the shadows of modern day architecture with much less elegance than it once had, but now possessing a new strong sense of iconic magnificence.


There is D&F Tower in Denver looks similar to the Forshay Tower in Minneapolis.