The Value of Civic Architecture in Rural Environments

AIA Wyoming - 2011

Today I would like to talk to you today about living in rural communities. the way we perceive ourselves in the world and show you some built examples of work that I believe supports rural communities, at the same time they teach about environmental conservation, sensitive use of natural resources and concepts of sustainability.

I would like to begin by considering the relationship civic engagement has to the built environment. In particular the rural built environment.

Civic – pertains to citizenship, civic duties.

The concept of civic engagement is definable as ” the connection one feels with their larger community.”

We typically think of civic engagement occurring in urban environments. If one wants to feel a part then one must go to the city.

This is the case because of the paradigm through which we construct our reality. And because of this, the activities of engagement, the economic development, and the infrastructure that supports such an identity of civic engagement, all that are primarily focused on investing in populated environments.

From forums to plazas and oratory halls to market places. our urban environments have been enriched and our societies have gained a sense of community and wholeness from gathering in such places.

Certainly these places accomplish an honoring of community through repeated activities of gathering or gatherings that express solidarity – such as the gathering of 10 of 1,000s of American citizens that gather when an official wins an election, or the looser sense of community when participating in the same activity- such as attending a weekly farmers market.

The primary intention of the civic structure or place in our cities is to provide context for honor and value of humankind and the community of human beings.

I would like to discuss where we are today, in the Northern Rockies.

57 % of the people in the Northern Rockies live in rural environments …

while people in MT and WY live an especially rural lifestyle with 65-70% of the people live in rural settings.

And knowing that Wyoming is about 98,000 sq miles in size, and Montana is over 145,000 sq. miles – there exists a vast landscape with minimal human density – in rural Wyoming and Montana resulting in extra rural compared to other rural areas across the United States. This is no news to most of us.

According to the national standards for identifying urban areas and cities, Wyoming and Montana- including our most populated cities, being below 200,000 people are totally rural.

And if we consider this condition in Teton County – where 98% of the county is public land and water, I conclude that any privately held land is not really experienced as an exclusively “human” domain. Instead, it occupies a landscape that moves like an interfacing ribbon through the wild and protected. Because of this condition people who live here and visit here experience a unique condition and identity I will return to.

Considering the overall environmental condition of this region it is recognizable that there remains a lot of wild places in the Northern Rockies that brush up against the rural. This is a terribly unique condition that should not be over looked when thinking about the rural development in the West our civic responsibility.

Remembering, that 2/3 of the population of this region lives in rural
environments .Where and how do these rural dwellers experience sense of community?

The rural – is most often not recognized with qualities or activities of civic engagement. Why? a “center” is difficult to locate in today’s rural environments – they are seen and experienced as isolated. Finally, funds are scarce for such infrastructure, due to the economic conditions of rural counties.

Different from 100 years ago, The human inhabitants of today’ s rural environments are a mix: ranchers and farmers, entrepreneurs, independently wealthy, working families, and creative dreamers.

This brings me back to civic engagement – and how we understand and experience community, who our community is, and the question of civic engagement.

In general is it possible for people living in these rural environments to experience civic engagement?

Is community defined by political boundaries? Or physical qualities?

Is community a mindset or a sensual experience (physical, can it be sensed)?

Is Community species specific? Maybe not.

Finally, I asked myself if there is a way to create civic engagement through built environments found in rural landscapes that encourage a sense of community at the same time preserving wild places?

The conclusion I have drawn from this question is YES, we can do this, ~?
BUT such places of engagement need to be different than what we provide
in urban environments. Not only because the “environment” is different, but
because the potential community engagements are different.

Considering that civic engagement Is the connection one feels to their larger community. I believe the rural “community” experience expands beyond humankind and into one that includes other species.

And If sense of community is bound less by species and more by place we need to find ways to connect to and know our fellow “citizens” and appreciate their lives through our constructions and cultural activities.

The question you may be asking yourself is why would we need to make places that encourage and support a sense of belonging to something that extends beyond humankind? The core of sustainability is ethics and beliefs.

For over the past 500 years we have managed to physically, intellectually and emotionally separate ourselves from the rest of the world. Yet I believe we are now prepared to recognize that the community we are a part of – (and especially experience in places that have large rural and wildland interfaces – experience community through multi-species interrelations.)

I think the answer to understanding civic engagement lies in if and how we are to become a sustainable society.

Perhaps a good way to begin consider a sustainable society in relation to civic engagement is with Aldo leopold’s LAND ETHIC

All ethics rest upon the single premise that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. We typically view ethics as human to human membership.

Leopold expanded the concept of community to include: souls, water, plants, and animals THE LAND

That we begin to shift out perception way from the land as resource to LAND _ and all its parts being a fully interdependent community, with us a part of the community. Each having inherent value.

If civic engagement , as I discussed earlier, is the connection one feels with their large community- and our community includes the plants, land, water, and wildlife where we live -perhaps we are ready to recognize what Neil Carter calls an ecological citizenship.

Carter believes that if we are to fully transition to a sustainable society we must not only restructure our institutions, but fully transform our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. Beliefs and behaviors are best transformed not through abstracted notions or lessons, but through real-world experiences and practices that occur in “places” that support such activities.

I founded Artemis Institute in support of the premise that a valuable relationship exists between nature and culture. And when we recognize and draw from this relationship our creative expressions result in positive cultural activities.

Over a decade ago I started the primary program of the Institute, called Remote Studio, which is now located here in Jackson.

Every semester I ask my students what such places should be like?

As you may have guessed, Remote Studio is not a typical program of architectural education. It is a holistic and integrated course of study for college students that relies on first hand experiences and knowledge to help students understand two conditions:

l. How the natural world inspires their creativity.

2. And consequently with an understanding of this inspiration, that we must take responsibility for the natural world as we are a part of it, and in order to retain the potential for our inspiration.

With these two primary lessons that are taught over a semester course, the students embark on the design and construction of a rural community project about 1/3 of the way through their semester.

Their work moves beyond a romantic sense of “wild” and “wilderness”, Although they may serve as places for reflection or in contrast to the civilized world, and sometimes they may offer “primitive” alternatives to the more modern. The community projects seek to connect us to the phenomenal experience of the place we live.

Because the students are considering the interrelationship of the land and animals, conservation and preservation comes naturally, material use and reuse is obvious.

They are designed with the intent of realigning our sense of belonging to something greater than humanity – extending our sense of community .

The work of Remote Studio – part building, part landscape, part intervention, provide context for an expanded sense of civic engagement not only by what they are, but how they are placed and given place with the land, and how they teach of environmental conservation, sensitive use of resources and sustainable concepts.

To better explain their work, I would like to show you Three Projects completed over the last several years located at the physical interface between the rural and wild.

Pine Creek Pavilion (2006)

Untrammeled gateway
Forest service public use for all

Fitting within a historic place without being nostalgic

Fully accessible

Interpretations of use


Trees, steel, rammed earth, concrete

City of Livingston Reflection Point and Sancturary park (08-10)

Greatest challenge to anticipate use in a loosely configured


Engaging as many senses as possible.

Sound, touch, sight, and smell

How to experience and understand the landscape.

Scale of intervention

to blend with place helps us experience that we are a part of place

materials, steel, willow, wood, steel grate

landscape to take over.

Childrens Learning Center – Natural Playground (11, in Jackson)

Children spending too much time indoors

Experiencing “tamed” nature

Playground serving as a bridge between their “tamed” to “wild” experiences.

How are these places changing the way people experience the world? Some years ago a community project was to design and build a Quail Watching “station.” When the structure was near completion and we had left for the evening a camper in the campground went to explore the pavilion and watch the quail in the evening. What he told me of this experience was that

” he sat in the pavilion as the sun was setting to wait for the quail to come down the hillside. When sitting in the carved out space and looking at the surrounding land at eye level he said he felt that he was a part of the place.”

The visitors experience of the pavilion was not of how pretty or well constructed the pavilion is, but how he felt that he belonged to the place.

It is this sense of belonging that provides an engagement with a larger community. Engagement with community provides a sense of value and necessity for something other than ourselves.

That can move us into Aldo Leopolds practice of a LAND ETHIC – that we are interrelated.

These experiences engender a sense of responsibility and CARE.


Architectural works that are built within the rural / wild interface have the ability to transform our sense of self extend the understanding of the civic engagement beyond humankind and into the larger world we all belong to.

This sense and experience is critical if we are to move from a people who reside over the world to one that belongs to the world.

A people who no longer dominate, but respect and care for a larger community. It will be from this cultural transformation that we will evolve a truly sustainable society.