A Rural Outlook // Brock Traffas
Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Population: 2,009. Image: google maps
Abstract: Simply because we approach problems in a different way does not mean that we do not want the same result. We each have our own way of doing things. I have come to understand that dismissing each other as ignorant is the most counterproductive thing we can do. Instead, you can benefit greatly and forge unlikely friendships by simply taking the time and effort to learn where someone is coming from, both geographically and ideologically.
Audience: My classmates who sometimes have a hard time understanding where my convictions and processes come from.
"A Rural Outlook"
Through these five years, there have been times that I have felt like a loner of sorts in the College of Architecture. Even though I am at Kansas State University, it is rare for a “small town kid” to take on one of the design professions. Through the four disciplines in our fifth year, I can count on one hand peers other than myself who come from a place as small as Medicine Lodge, Kansas. As a bit of background knowledge, my hometown’s population was 2,009 at the 2010 census. My graduating class was 39 people that most I had known since kindergarten. Most would consider this small.
So why are there not more of us in architecture? At first, I assumed this was because those of us who grow up in rural America are not exposed to “high design” daily. This early assumption was not aided by the fact that when I chose my major, I fielded questions like, “So, what does an architect actually do?” or, “Why can your job not be done by a contractor or an engineer?” After my first couple of years becoming engrossed in my new education, environment, and hearing these questions repeatedly, I (wrongly) concluded the place that raised me was ignorant to what has become important in my life. For a moment, I thoroughly believed that I had become better than where I have come from. This is what gave me insight to the real reason those of us from rural America don’t pick professions such as ours - or so I have come to believe. It is not because they don’t understand – far from it.
Where I come from, they believe professions like ours are plagued with excess. Most do not see the intrinsic value that an architect brings to the table. Architecture is a practice that can be self-serving and far disconnected from what the client might need. There is no room for an attitude like this where I am from. So, when an architect understands rural America, they open an opportunity for something special.
This “something special” creates work that means something deeper to me. It is this “something special” that sparked my desire to become an architect. It made me understand that we all want the same outcome – it’s just that we go different ways to achieve it.
Medicine Lodge Memorial Hospital pre-renovation. Image: mlmh.net
When I was in high school, our community hospital in Medicine Lodge was badly in need of help. To master plan, program, and design the new facility or renovate the existing one, they hired HFG Architecture out of Wichita, Kansas. Many assumed that the architects from the “big city” would come and project their wants onto us and simply tell us what we need. However, the process was quite the opposite. These professionals hosted public meetings, distilled down the unique needs and wants of our town, and even advocated for the hospital against a board of backward-thinking county commissioners (which is an entirely different story). The humility and honesty of HFG quickly earned trust, and a strong no-nonsense approach cemented it. This greatly influenced my decision to want to become an architect, and I have had the opportunity to work for HFG through two internships. In that time, I was largely focused on a replacement facility in Smith Center, Kansas. The process carried out there mirrored what had transpired in Medicine Lodge and further instilled in me these learned values. It is with this mentality that I have pushed forward.
Medicine Lodge Memorial Hospital post-renovation. Image: mlmh.net
This mentality suggests that the “something special” in architecture is not created by the qualities that most would associate with high design, like a strong concept, lofty spaces, or high-quality finishes. Instead, it suggests that a truly special project is the result of an intensive design process. This intensive design process is rooted in the act of problem seeking and problem solving. While that may be true, it’s the process that lies beyond problem solving that creates meaningful, lasting architecture.
In short, this project in Medicine Lodge wouldn’t have been nearly as special of a project if it simply “solved problems.”
Small towns aren’t an easy market to work in or even understand. Rumors and happenings spread throughout our 2,009 residents like wildfire. Thus, each of those residents had a strong opinion about all facets of the project: the size, cost, design, et cetera. While the project was certainly not “design-by-committee,” they took the time to understand each unique viewpoint and craft a solution that addresses these opinions on top of seeking out and solving problems. It was a crash course in architectural ethics.
It’s this delicate balance of ethics and a careful control of aesthetics that I took away from this project. Because of this, my home now has a community asset that fulfills every need and desire that we may have now, and will continue to serve us long into the future.
Thus, it is not surprising that a seemingly simple metal-clad duplex has been one of the most significant projects in my development as a young professional. This previous semester and the process we have gone through is exactly the process that I have come to appreciate. The time we have spent getting to know our clients, having happy hours with our team, and eating countless slices of Waldo Pizza dwarfs the time that we’ve spent designing and detailing the structure. Experiences like these add value to the project that cannot be quantified by any metric. This duplex isn’t made special through the lighting strategies we have implemented or the casework we have worked hard to design, detail, and build. Instead, what is special is that these unique experiences can be perceived through the nature of the place. Living in this duplex will be like getting to know each one of us in the Design+Make studio and each individual and organization on our team.
All of us in the Design+Make studio have been working towards a singular goal – creating a place that defies the stigmas of affordable housing. However, we’ve all approached this in different ways. Because of my personal experiences, it was truly important for me to get to know the place, and to put my preconceived notions and biases aside. Only then was I ready to start – working my way to create our own “something special” in the heart of Waldo.
Written by Brock Traffas