Getting Over Flyover Country
Sarah Aziz and Lindsey Krug push back against the coastal domination of American architecture, advocating for a greater role for the Midwest.
What does it mean for a few wealthy coastal areas to dominate the American architectural field, and what might it look like to distribute this power more evenly throughout the nation? These questions lie at the heart of Sarah Aziz and Lindsey Krug’s ongoing explorations of the Midwest, where they met as fellows at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
The League’s Rafi Lehmann and Sarah Wesseler spoke with Aziz and Krug about their practice.
Rafi Lehmann: So much of your work focuses on the Midwest. What sparked that curiosity about the region?
Lindsey Krug: Sarah and I have an interesting joint perspective on the Midwest. I grew up here—I was born in Ohio and raised in Illinois, just outside of Chicago—but I didn’t receive either of my architecture degrees here. Sarah is from the UK but got her graduate degree here. So we fill in gaps in each other’s understanding of the region.
Sarah Aziz: And we met here as fellows at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. We both started in July 2020, which, as you know, was an enormously tumultuous period.
Krug: No one was going anywhere, students were stuck in their dorms or in their families’ homes, and the lack of connection became kind of painfully obvious. Students could barely connect with their classmates in the most basic ways, let alone with other architecture students around the Midwest.
Aziz: But this was true even before the pandemic. When I was a student in Chicago, two local practitioners, Katie Soven and Nora Ames, started a short-term initiative called Field Notes that brought together SAIC, IIT, and UIC—the city’s three schools of architecture. It was the first time we really spoke to each other and learned about the different departments. It was remarkable; we were in such close proximity but needed an extracurricular program to help us connect. So never mind the 44 schools of architecture spread out across the region.
Krug: I think that number, 44, is kind of staggering to most people in this field. A select group of Midwestern schools typically come to mind, and they’re often the ones that have these fellowship programs.
Aziz: There are 19 architectural fellowships in the Midwest, which is astonishingly high. There’s this unspoken thing that young scholars, young architects, go out to the Midwest early in their career, experiment, do whatever they want, and then return to the coasts. The Midwest is this engine for a coastal discipline, and we don’t understand why this is, or what the consequences are.
Is the way that the Midwest is being used and mined sustainable? And why does the Midwest have so many fellowships in the first place? What does it have to offer that other regions don’t?
As someone who’s come from the UK and went to two lesser-known institutions, I find it perplexing that the majority of architecture department chairs and deans in the Midwest are from the Ivy Leagues. Why is this the case, and what are the repercussions?
I’ve taught at universities where there’s been an enormous disconnect between the local context and visions of senior admin. In one case, there was the ambition to transform the school of architecture into “the next Princeton,” which I’ve never understood—we should valorize the creative capacity of students from across the flyover states. And we want to know if there’s a shared ideology amongst the people who are leading these schools, and, if so, how does it relate to the students who are committing an exorbitant amount of money and time to learn from their pedagogical outlook? It’s further inflecting the coasts’ hegemony over the Midwest.
We’re haunted by that famous image by Saul Steinberg in The New Yorker, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” and want to highlight how the Midwest is unquestionably a space of emergence.
Krug: And we’re also thinking about the region’s role in the next 5, 10, 50 years, as climate migration leads people to move to more stable areas. There’s going to be such an influx to the Midwest in the future.
Lehmann: So even within the Midwest, it sounds like there’s a kind of dismissal of the region in the architecture profession.
Krug: Right. I mean, in so much of architecture, we have no understanding of the land around us, the landscape, and the connections or disconnections between things.
Aziz: In 2020, when I coordinated the students’ first undergraduate architecture design studio at UWM, I had them walk—or, if they were unable to, bike or drive—110 miles around the outermost edge of Milwaukee over six consecutive days. And it was horrible! Some students were very reluctant to circumnavigate the city and confront their misconceptions. They sent multiple complaints to admin about the absurdity of the project: That this was fundamentally not architecture, because architecture only resides in a certain areas. That they were going to get mugged, stabbed.
Lindsey can attest to this, too, because she ran another version of a walk the following year, but this time through Milwaukee’s interior.
And it’s like, wow—imagine if we scale that up to the regional level! Forget the social and cultural and economic expectations the students have, but even just the topography, the climate of the Midwest. All of those things will radically reshape their understanding of themselves, where they live, and the world that they’re in.
Krug: Yeah. There’s so much value in testing out new models for learning. As a discipline, we certainly haven’t mastered the best and the only ways to teach and learn architecture. So much of our education in architecture happens inside the building, in the lecture hall. To create a tradition of learning outside of those venues—that’s so exciting. And we look to pedagogical experiments like the AD/AA/Polyark Bus Tour in 1973 that took architecture students around England and the Australian Communications Capsule that did the same in Australia two years later.
Sarah Wesseler: I’m from Ohio and went to Ohio State, and most people I met there were also from Ohio. I would imagine that a lot of other Midwestern schools also draw very heavily from their specific city and state. Is that the case, in your experience? And if so, what does it mean to teach a group of architecture students in the place they’re from as opposed to, say, an Ivy League school where people come from all over the world?
Krug: Yeah, my perception is that that’s very true. At UWM, most students are from Wisconsin or Northern Illinois. Many of them have grown up in similar-scale towns or suburbs and have, more or less, seen similar things. It’s not like a melting pot where you have a student from this state and this country and this city, and they’re kind of filling in gaps for each other.
You know, these students are young: They’re teenagers or in their early 20s. I get the sense that they understand the ecosystem of architecture in Milwaukee and then they understand that there are architects from New York, from Switzerland, from places that they’ve never been that feel kind of unattainable for them—and there’s nothing in between. Filling in that middle is what becomes really important.
Aziz: Another really important thing is that the Midwest is often left out of what students are learning and what’s being canonized. One of my favorite buildings is Walgreens on Brady Street in Milwaukee, because it is an unmistakable copy of the Vanna Venturi House. You can trace the architectural lineage of everyday Midwestern buildings with the students. And they have associations that you likely don’t have, which can give them a stake, a sense of ownership—an ability to be confident and assertive when observing things.
And I think the privilege of being a fellow is the assumption that you’re not from the place where you teach. So it already sets up an understanding that unless, I don’t know, you’ve done multiple PhDs on the Midwest, you are no expert on it, right?
A major benefit of the tours was that it clearly set a different hierarchy for students. It helped to break barriers down between students and fellows, because they knew that you were also there to learn—that you were not an institutional figurehead. It was a collaborative effort.
Lehmann: In your entry portfolio for the League Prize competition, you included a project called the Midwest Stack Exchange. Could you tell us about this idea?
Krug: At its core, it’s about trying to bring together the 44 schools of architecture in the Midwest.
Most schools have some type of internal annual event, like an end-of-year show—something to take stock, something that we can return to and plot a set of data points from. But there’s nothing like this at a regional scale. And, again, because of the people coming and going from these institutions and the region, there’s institutional amnesia. So we think some infrastructure needs to be built around this activity. The region needs something to return to that could be documented and tracked, and that more than just one school would have access to and could learn from.
In our proposal, as a first step, the 44 schools would each build a kind of repository: something that can collect and store things out in the landscape, either close to campus or somewhere completely off campus. Part of our goal was to bring architectural education out into the landscape through these 44 eyedropper moments. And each school would plan an event at its respective repository. Some could be more academic: a reading, a performance, anything. It would be up to the school.
And the goal is to have a traveling tour over the summer that stops at these 44 locations—essentially a 4,200-mile-long traveling pedagogical experiment. Maybe there wasn’t so much an expectation that everyone would do the full 4,200 miles, but, for example, if you live in Michigan, you could plug in for the five schools that are within a two-hour drive, then go back home, and the tour would continue on. Like a traveling circus of sorts.
We were working on the project during the pandemic, so things happening in person felt really important. Maybe we were longing for it. I think we still are. You can go on Google Maps and “walk” around the city of Milwaukee, but it’s not the same as going out and physically doing it.
Aziz: In the very first wonderfully naive and optimistic grant that we wrote, petrol was our largest budget item, which we now realize isn’t that glamorous or appealing to granting bodies. Lindsey and I were going to rent a U-Haul truck and drive around the Midwest. We wanted to get 44 Infoboxes from Home Depot and drive them into the ground with stakes at 44 points between the institutions.
Lehmann: What’s the current status of the project?
Aziz: We’ve applied for the same Midwestern grant several times but haven’t had much luck. Whenever we discuss the Stack, we always end up on tangents that lead to other, smaller Midwestern collaborations: our work on dollar stores that we explore through teaching and exhibitions, or the work on car culture and scrap through stage designs for the Ragdale Foundation, and so on.
Interview edited and condensed.