I arrived as a newcomer to the Midwest—not from the East Coast or from Europe, as did many early settlers to this place, but by an opposite, eastward migration. My journey brought me from the Pacific Northwest coast to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and came as a result of marriage to my wife, Nancy, a St. Paul, Minn., native.

  • The author designed a lakeside cabin to connect with the history and culture of its northern Minnesota locale.

    Credit: Heinrich Photography

    The author designed a lakeside cabin to connect with the history and culture of its northern Minnesota locale.
I left behind my experience working at James Cutler Architects (now Cutler Anderson Architects), a firm with strong attitudes regarding design for the Northwest environment, and joined the burgeoning practice of SALA Architects in Minneapolis. While both firms focus largely on residential architecture, I discovered I still needed to reassess what I knew about design. After all, I was designing for a new landscape, a different ecology, and an unfamiliar culture. Here, screened porches replace open porches, smaller windows replace expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass, and high humidity and vicious mosquitoes replace summer's cool breezes. All told, I had much to learn about this place I now called home.

In the Pacific Northwest, I benefited from a rich tradition of regional architecture. Influential architects drew inspiration from indigenous and Pacific Rim cultures as well as from the immense beauty and power of the native landscape, creating an architecture that expressed its own time and place. This led me to wonder if the Midwest had a similar tradition that guided the region's architectural work.

I began exploring my new home, looking for traces of a Midwest regional approach to design. At first glance what I saw was disheartening: either nostalgic strolls through vernacular farmhouse themes, or—at the other extreme—bland, Modernist boxes lacking a relation to the local culture or environment.

  • His search for a Midwest regionalism turned up a series of 1940s cabins by architect Edwin Lundie.

    Credit: Dale Mulfinger, FAIA

    His search for a Midwest regionalism turned up a series of 1940s cabins by architect Edwin Lundie.

Surely, I thought, there must be a successor to Frank Lloyd Wright, whose organic design principles and sympathetic lines brought the Prairie School to prominence at the turn of the 20th century. Did this powerful regional movement evolve with the times? I also wondered about the heritage of the early immigrants to the Midwest. Did they bring particular modes of building and construction with them? How have they shaped the architectural landscape of the region?

finding the answers

As I find with many facets of life, the things I am looking for are not always obvious initially. In the Midwest, I eventually found elements of regionalism, rather than a movement, in full force. I found the work of contemporary designers, such as my colleague Kelly Davis, AIA, continuing to develop the spirit of Wright's theories. Davis' houses have brought Prairie details in line with contemporary building practices, making them practical and affordable—feats rarely accomplished by Wright—yet carrying the same essential beauty and serenity. Beyond the Prairie School, I found evidence through another colleague, Dale Mulfinger, FAIA, whose writings on the St. Paul architect Edwin Lundie exposed me to a rich collection of finely wrought cabins designed during the 1940s for the rugged North Shore of Lake Superior. Lundie's cabins drew heavily upon the heritage of Scandinavian immigrants and their tradition of detailed timber construction. These examples further led me to the work of David Salmela, FAIA, of Duluth, Minn., whose early designs owe much to Lundie's interpretation of traditional Scandinavian craft. Yet Salmela's designs have evolved, gained strength, and risen to a level beyond nostalgia, even though much of his work is still vernacularly inspired.

In a way that is enviable, both Davis' and Salmela's designs are accessible to the conservative aesthetic values of Midwestern families, but they also stretch accepted boundaries by re-examining ordinary architectural forms in extraordinary ways. Their vocabularies are fresh and familiar at the same time.

  • A house designed by Kelly Davis, AIA, and the author fights the chill of Wisconsin winters with its passive solar orientation.

    Credit: Tim Maloney

    A house designed by Kelly Davis, AIA, and the author fights the chill of Wisconsin winters with its passive solar orientation.

In my own work, I've found regionalism to be a critical component of the design process. Investigating local vernacular examples, such as a simple weathered barn out on the prairie, allows me to discover elemental strategies for addressing native climate, light, and terrain. Existing details often show me new ways of understanding local materials or inspire me to reinvent traditional elements with new shapes and from modern materials. Regionalism also encourages me to design buildings that echo my clients' unique heritage and that respond to a local way of life. By interweaving the past with the present, I can help clients consider their ancestors' thumbprint on the land and also encourage them to contemplate their own impact.

think regionally

Regional architecture is valuable to everyone because it provides us with a keener sense of place. It roots us to a landscape that we can experience, understand, and safeguard. It connects us as a community, socially as well as ecologically. Most important, it grounds us in a world that is increasingly fast-paced, more mobile, and ever more similar—one where the same big-box retail stores and fast-food chains are found in each town across America.

Yet often when I speak with other architects about regionalism, I'm met with skepticism or even disdain. Many are wary of being tied to stylistic labels or dogmatic approaches to design. They seem to fear connotations of romanticism, nostalgia, or the vernacular that might lead them to be overlooked by the fashionable establishment. Despite this, when I peruse the latest design journals, I occasionally come across work that does display the sensitivity to culture and natural environment that, for me, defines regionalism.

While my expertise in regional design outside the West and Midwest is limited, I find much to admire in the work of Brian MacKay-Lyons, FAIA, in Nova Scotia, Rick Joy, FAIA, in the desert Southwest, and Lake/Flato Architects in San Antonio, to name a few examples. Their designs show sympathy toward the land, a development of architectural form that feels rooted to the local culture, and a graceful and economical detailing of materials.

By tapping into the spirit of regionalism, architects can move beyond superficial approaches to design and become true leaders for our profession and our communities. This spirit begins with a sensitive integration of buildings within their built or natural environments. It continues with an approach that honors our past by focusing on the heritage unique to each place. The most important part of it is found within each designer—in the patience it takes to identify with the inherent power of a place, in the spark of innovation that transcends the commonplace, and in the heart that takes our worn-out cultural symbols and transforms them into new and meaningful expressions of humanity.

David O'Brien Wagner, AIA, is an associate with SALA Architects in Minneapolis.