Southwest Minnesota: A Place of Many Places

(Crossings Press, 2008)

A Meditation on Enclosed Space

Because enclosed space is expensive to construct and expensive to maintain, what a culture does with its enclosed space reveals a great deal about its values.  The Greeks used theirs for temples; the Romans used theirs mostly for baths and gladiatorial spectacles.  Greek and Roman markets were open forums; Greek and Roman palaces were relatively modest.  What does this tell us about Greek and Roman culture? 

The Middle Ages invested enormous labor and capital in cathedrals, each designed to reach higher, build larger than the last.  Notre Dame de Paris rose so high that the walls needed buttresses to keep the weight of the roof from blowing them out.  The limestone deposits under Paris were quarried into a honeycomb of tunnels to produce stones for the city’s churches and monasteries.  Even the castles of the nobility did not rival the house of God.  What does this use of enclosed space tell us about the values of the Middle Ages? 


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In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the largest enclosed structures in out-state Minnesota were barns, including enormous structures like those at Lake Wilson and the Million Dollar Farm near Granite Falls.  Homes were modest; some were tiny.  In the Cities, the largest enclosed spaces were warehouses and factories, power stations and mills . . . as well as St. Paul Cathedral and the James Hill Mansion.  The nineteenth century was an age of work and money. 

And what about today? 

What are the enclosed spaces in Minneapolis-St. Paul today?  Mall of America, the Metrodome, and the X-Cel Center.  What are the new large structures at Southwest Minnesota State Uni-versity? The RA Facility, a student center that looks like a shopping mall (hallways leading to larger hallways leading to even larger hallways), and, in construction, a football field with a plastic bubble for winter “events.”  The 2006 Minnesota bonding bill was mortgaged to football stadiums, from Minneapolis to Duluth to Marshall.  What does that tell us about Minnesota values today? 

The bottom line is that shoppers and athletes—not Holstein cows or library books—are exactly what the country is all about these days.  That is why our athletic complexes are in tiptop shape, and barns are not.  Why Southwest State has a football field, a soccer field, a softball field, a baseball diamond, another football field under construction, one indoor gym for volleyball, another indoor gym for basketball . . . and one floors of books in the library. 

In any building we read the culture which created and maintains that enclosed space, and we generalize from the evidence.  You can generalize from the photographic evidence in this book.  Decaying or abandoned enclosed spaces: country stores, train stations, churches, small town schools, barns that hold no hay and granaries that hold no grain, and—there they are—old rural homes!  Well maintained, expanded, or newly built: ethanol plants, gymnasiums, business facilities, consolidated schools, government offices, new shopping malls, large urban condos and country McMansions.  The older buildings tend to be practical yet attractive: size and aesthetics are balanced against maintenance expenses.  The new ones—built, perhaps for the idle rich or a globally warming environment—are lavish but impractical.  Modern architectural theories of vertical space override con-siderations such as heating/cooling expenses and the sensible use of square and cubic footage.  While a church vault might soar to draw us to God, while a barn roof rose to accommodate a greater volume of hay, and while a gymnasium ceiling needs be high enough to accommodate a long set shot or a blocked spike, there is no real necessity for a shopping mall, or a student center, or a Wal-mart, or a private home ceiling to rise thirty, forty feet into the air.  This is enclosed space as conspicuous consumption.  See what we can afford! 

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Driving past abandoned houses in the Southwest Minnesota countryside before arriving at a newly built home or public building, one is struck repeatedly by the Spartan practicality of the old ones and the almost contemptuous lavishness of the new.  Those old farm houses were tiny—and they sheltered many people.  An abandoned farm house on the south side of highway 19, a few miles west of Redwood Falls, shows it all: two rooms down, two small bedrooms up a steep stairs, a kitchen attached to the back. You can see for yourself from the highway.  This building is no log cabin: it had lathe and plastered walls and nice floors.  But it is tiny, almost, as a Mongolian ger.  And this was the standard dwelling for a farm family.  In this building, I am told, a family raised “five or six kids” not half a century ago.  Paul Gruchow’s family lived in such a home in the early 1950s: “The house had two main rooms downstairs, a living room and a bedroom.  An enclosed porch served as kitchen and dining room.  Up a steep staircase, snuggled beneath the attic crawl space, were two tiny slant-roofed rooms tall enough for a child to stand in, but not everywhere, and just barely.  My twin sister and I occupied these rooms when we were old enough to leave the main bedroom.  After our younger sister came along, I moved to the summer kitchen, which had neither insulation nor interior walls. . . .” 

The barns, of course, look huge, until you remember that the first floor—on which the animals lived—had a ceiling so low a tall man might scrape his head on the timbers, and that in November every cubic foot of that second floor was stuffed with hay.  Those granaries were full, too, and the cribs and silos.  Enclosed space was never wasted; no enclosure was merely for show or pleasure.


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Contrast this to a newly built home or public building.  A day before writing this essay, I was shown through another home in Redwood Falls, a house which friends had purchased and remodeled for their daughter, her husband, and their two children. It had bedrooms upstairs and downstairs, bathrooms upstairs and downstairs, a living room and a rec room, a computer room, an empty room or two where they weren’t sure what would go.  In the back yard was a newly constructed cabin with cedar siding walls, a bay window, a bed, TV, computer hookup, telephone, and a seven-foot-wide porch around two sides.  The “Shack Out Back” was as large as some home-steaders’ cabins.  Large is today’s lifestyle.

Then there’s the student center at Southwest.  The façade bears an uncanny (and suggestive) resemblance to the recently demolished Community Party Headquarters in East Berlin, to an old commie-era high school I saw in Riga, Latvia, and to my 1950’s era Springfield High School.  But it is the inside which wonders me most. 

Sometimes when I need to clear my head or puzzle my way through a problem, I take a long walk through the college.  If it’s late afternoon, or Friday, or a weekend, almost everything is deserted.  I wander through empty halls past empty classrooms and empty offices, their doors locked and the lights off.  It’s like being in a resort town in the off season, in a museum after closing.  The student center is especially eerie, with its lofty ceilings and hallway full of street lamps and sofas and computers, with its remote “conference rooms” and “heritage museum” rooms, with the Women’s Center where the lights are always out and the door is always locked.  (In the spring of 2006, I made it a point to pass the W C four times a day, and not once from early March to early May was anyone at home; when in the fall of 2006 I finally saw the rooms open, the lights on, and a young lady sitting at a table, she turned out to be an International Student, who was using the space “just for a bit.”)  Each time I take this walk I am reminded of that chapter in Di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, where a young prince and his girl friend explore remote wings of the great palace, wandering through rooms unvisited for decades, where odd things may or may not have happened, exploring a past frozen in enclosed space nobody uses any more.

We might also evaluate, from the outside or inside, the aesthetic value of new and old enclosed space, asking ourselves “What works?  What does not work?  Why doesn’t it work?”  The University of Morris is now in the process of reclaiming as much of its original look as possible.  This pruning of architectural and landscaping dissonance has apparently meant different things to different people, but one thing everyone agrees on is that the fifties-looking student center is an eyesore that “doesn’t work” and needs to go.  Why is it that the fifties look—and the neo-fifties look—“just doesn’t work”?  If the exposed wooden braces and bents of an old barn are pleasing, why are the exposed ducts of a new cinderblock YMCA not pleasing?  Just why should the swirling colors of the SMSU library, or the floor and ceiling of the commuter lounge look like a meta-amphetamine dream, or a McDonald’s, or, to quote one of our students, “like some seasick sailor lost his cookies?”  Is newer always more attractive?  Is the old better or worse than what they propose?  Would the downtown Marshall which visionaries insist on reshaping be better preserved or redone as planned?  What enclosed space works best with our landscape?

Are the promised benefits always worth the price—the immediate price and the expense of maintenance?  One reason enclosed space in America is expensive is that it is constantly being reconstructed.  It has always struck me as odd that in America, which has never suffered the utter devastation of a World War, enclosed space is built so provisionally; whereas in Europe, where holocausts have followed one upon the other, buildings are constructed to last for all eternity. 

One reason is the American marketing of New: New, we are told, is always better—even if it’s cheaper, tackier, more likely to blow away in a tornado or hurricane.  So down with the old and up with the new, and that’s gonna cost you $16,000,000, buddy, and clear us about $3,000,000, and that’s how we make money in this country, in case you hadn’t heard. 

But New is only one reason for the constant rebuilding.  Equally to blame is America’s incessant population redistribution.  At the very moment suburban school districts are proposing bond initiatives for additions on overcrowded buildings, schools in small towns or center cities all around the Midwest sit empty, or are being rehabbed into apartments or old folks’ homes.  This is a function of population redistribution, and while the “unsettling of America,” to borrow a term from Wendell Berry, is not an exclusively American phenomenon these days, Americans seem more prone than citizens of other, older civilizations to relocate. 

The paradigm works something like this: Americans move toward where they can find work, but being by nature mobile, they balance commuting costs against housing prices against jobs and what they call amenities.  They settle in suburbs they can afford and commute to jobs and amenities in places where they could not buy a home.  Or perhaps the company intentionally locates in a relatively remote area because of low taxes and a labor force that can work for less because it does not pay high-end rents.  Inevitably the company and the low-end rents attract more people.  Inevitably, the increased population requires certain things it left behind—schools, hospitals, gas stations, convenience stores, churches, police protection, fire service, not to mention high-ways—and it offers a population base which might support amenities abandoned elsewhere: golf courses, professional sports teams, shopping malls, theaters, and even libraries. 

These are the very enclosed spaces abandoned in depopulating areas like Detroit and even the inner suburbs of Detroit.  Inevitably land values increase in the developing area, along with taxes and other expenses . . . and before long workers are looking for someplace cheaper to live—maybe farther out in the country, maybe in the gentrified slums of an old city.  So construction, or reconstruction, begins again.  And the population of America chases its own tail all around the country.

 
The most interesting spin of all is the argument, invented by I don’t know whom, that amenities are needed in depopulated areas to attract growth.  And they have to be New amenities—old amenities somehow won’t do.  So at the very moment America is rushing to construct the New needed by places with exploded populations, it’s also being asked to construct more New in out-of-the-way places like Southwest Minnesota. 

The upshot of the whole mania for new enclosed space everywhere is, in my opinion, tacky design, cheap construction, an almost guaranteed obsolescence.  And, all over the country, a state of nervous exhaustion. 

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