Texas design studios explore smalltown America.
Long before Rem Koolhaas declared the countryside the future, another European duo was exploring rural America — and its “urbanism.” While it sounds like an oxymoron, Greek architects Sofia Krimizi and Kyriakos Kyriakou have been traveling across the U.S., investigating what they’ve dubbed “Micropolitan America.” Micropolitan stands in contrast to metropolitan: the United States Office of Management and Budget defines micropolitan as an area with some kind of urban core and a population of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 (above which is considered metropolitan). Additionally, there is technically no designation of “rural”; the micropolitan and all other non-metro areas, which make up 72 percent of the country’s land area but only 15 percent of the population (according to the 2010 census), are considered rural. However, there is no legal distinction between what we usually envision as a city and the small, remote American town. Yet places like Lampasas, Lufkin, and Littlefield all possess urban conditions just the same.
History & Methodology
Following their baccalaureate studies at the National Technical University of Athens, Krimizi and Kyriakou headed stateside to study at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Once they received their master’s degrees and were contemplating what would come next, the pair applied for a traveling scholarship — the William Kinne graduate travel fellowship from GSAPP — to see a place that seemed unfashionable when compared to the capital-A architecture they had been studying in New York City: the broad American territory that lies outside the metropolis. Krimizi recalls writing the proposal inside the Seattle Public Library — which was completed in 2004 by Koolhaas/OMA and Joshua Prince-Ramus/REX and is perhaps the preeminent example of “starchitecture” in the U.S. — while on a Fulbright trip. “It couldn’t have been a starker contrast, writing about getting out where there is no ‘architecture’ as we understood it.”
Despite the lack of familiar references to guide them and the architectural penchant for snubbing the mundane, the vernacular, and — frankly — the conservative parts of the country, a sincere interest drove Krimizi and Kyriakou to the micropolitan town. Says Krimizi: “We had to check with ourselves whether we were being earnest and curious and respectful towards the places we were visiting. There needed to be a constant purge of any kind of colonial or superior lens — that ‘we know better, let us tell you why this is not working.’” And, of course, while there are things that don’t work in small towns, such problems are characteristic of urban conditions of any scale; they are just much louder when the noise is stripped away.
The architects managed to parlay their curiosity into a pedagogical tool — as a series of research-based design studios at architecture schools across the country and, lately, across Texas: Kyriakou is now a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture following a stint with Krimizi as the Ruth Carter Stevenson Visiting Professors in 2019 (during which time, in full disclosure, I had the pleasure of taking their course and serving as a visiting critic the following semester). In addition, there were stints at the Texas Tech College of Architecture and the University of Houston Hines College of Architecture and Design. But curiosity does not a hero make: No savior complexes allowed! The professors are quick to point out to their students repeatedly that the studio isn’t about “fixing” these towns, as if architects had the answers for whatever may be ailing them and the problems could be resolved in the space of a semester. Instead, each course starts with an intensive research period, including a road trip to a series of towns that cluster around some theme (the suffix “-ville,” for instance; or railroad towns; or towns with highway infrastructure), where students engage in dialogue with the local communities; follow city hall meetings; interview political leaders, teachers, and citizens; visit town archives; and/or immerse themselves in the town life for an intense week. The trip is followed by a period of photo documentation archiving, digital modeling of the towns, and analysis of what was found — before any “design” even begins.
Texas as Microcosm
While the project began as a survey of the entire American territory — or wherever they could get themselves to, at least — happenstance and opportunity have led Krimizi and Kyriakou to focus on Texas for the last several years. They don’t see this as limiting, however. In fact, though Texas claims a singular autonomy from the rest of the U.S., its sheer size and geographical diversity make it instead something of a microcosm of the country. Lawrence Wright made this observation when he finally turned his critical pen back on his home state in 2018 with his book “God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State.” Noting Texas’ political turmoil (and the national attention it garners), he writes: “Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America — the South, the West, the plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities — what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.”
Krimizi echoes Wright’s words, commenting: “Teaching in Texas allowed us to focus in one area and be thorough and methodical about understanding a much more concentrated territory. I think what’s interesting about Texas is that it has an autonomy of scale, of resources, that it can almost operate as a substitute for the whole American territory…. The fact that it’s on the border, it touches the seas, the political controversies [and so on] — almost magically we ended up where we should’ve ended up.”
While Krimizi resides primarily in London now, finishing her Ph.D. at the Architectural Association, Kyriakou has taken up residence in Texas and feels much closer to the culture, despite the growing attention the nation has focused on the state in recent years. “You have all these corporations moving here, a project of the last decade, which was reinforced after the pandemic when people realized they can work remotely,” says Kyriakou. “So we have all these new ‘foreigners’ moving to Texas from other states: from New York, from California. And then we have these very extreme political issues which are being observed and fought against.”
Politics are particularly relevant to the nature of the research and for the studio as well, though not necessarily in the typical partisan manner. Micropolitan America was established long before Donald Trump’s 2016 victory, although that presidency gave the project added layers of interest, importance, and complication. But whether a small town appears to lean Republican or Democratic (and they do, of course, tend to be much more conservative), a more fundamental issue for residents is how the very system that promised the town growth and prosperity has often failed it.
Kyriakou, re-emphasizing that the issues seen are not “fixable” by architects, and certainly not in a semester-long project, described the situation this way: “What we’re seeing are very complex, systemic inefficiencies and inequalities — places that are taken over by capitalism in ways that seem unresolvable.” Referencing industrial, mining, and even prison towns as examples, he continues: “These towns are products of that system. And then you see moments where industry fails, or the resources are extracted and you’re left with a ghost town, or a town that’s been trying to redefine itself and find the next industry to plug into.” Yet this continues to be the story of Texas: Today, it takes the shape of attempting to lure large corporations to the state — sometimes to big cities, as with Austin and Dallas’ bid for the infamous Amazon HQ2 competition that began in 2017, but also out in the open territory, as with SpaceX in Brownsville and Tesla’s Gigafactory in Del Valle.
Projection, Speculation, Representation, and Magic Realism
It should be noted that while, in general, the remote town has seen better days, these towns are not exclusively ghost towns and dead places; some are thriving. In either case, Krimizi and Kyriakou say they haven’t been anywhere yet where they’ve felt unwelcome. While the project is a thorough and critical examination of the micropolitan condition, the outlook and the work of the studio can be quite optimistic — or perhaps a better term is “magically realistic,” a twist on the magic realism genre of literature to which the output of the project has often been compared. The gallery during a final review of Micropolitan America is entrancing: wall-to-wall colorful, fantastic (but not deliberately surreal) plans, sections, isometrics, maps, illustrations, diagrams, and so on. (Photorealistic renderings are all but forbidden.) Students “perform” a narrative, cosplaying as a citizen of the town, a journalist, or a mayor that occupies the world their project has imagined, as opposed to reading a prepared statement about what their project is trying to do.
This approach comes from a fundamentally different perspective on the position of the architect, on the power of architecture, and — particularly — on the role of an architectural education. Says Kyriakou: “We were never interested in engaging with problem solving, pretending to be the ethical genius that is there to fix things, for a number of reasons. We wanted to push for the students’ imaginations, as designers, as thinkers — to challenge them to think on multiple registers of complexity and, of course, to speculate on the future.”
The structure of the first half of the studio — researching and analyzing — plays a crucial role in that it requires students to digitally reconstruct and model what they have seen on their trips. This reconstruction does not entail a one-to-one re-creation of an entire town, complete with topography and existing buildings, but is rather a distillation of features essential to the character of the town. It can assume the form of literal buildings, blocks, and streets at a one-to-one scale, but this digital twin is more of a younger sibling (and perhaps just a cousin!). Kyriakou describes the process, saying: “We usually find the creation of a new world that is slightly removed from the original town — let’s say, it’s a fictionalization of the original town that is based on the town’s reality, but it also obtains a certain autonomy.”
After creating a series of analytical drawings, diagrams, maps, and other props to try to better understand the urban conditions of both the micropolitan town and its digital representation, students are challenged to intervene — with no prescribed program, scale, or scope. Kyriakou explains the charge to students by saying that their task is to “take that found reality and exaggerate, distort, accelerate, or project it into a future, imagining new realities that come as a kind of reaction to that.”
They construct a narrative, a future scenario, a speculation upon which an architecture can act, and to which it can react. And, indeed, many of these proposals are magical: Daisy Limon and Xiuyin Hu (Texas Tech, Fall 2018) utilized extracted topography as an object for creating new public spaces for both recreation and mourning, challenging traditional notions of death and ceremony. Ian Amen and Patrick Till (UTSOA, Spring 2019) investigated how fear and paranoia, both of war and of government oversight, had imparted artifacts in the landscape, and imagined Eldorado reclaiming their water underground, complete with a new town square/swimming pool. Meg Bunke and I (UTSOA, Spring 2019) noticed how architectural typologies conformed to the scale and comfort of automobiles and highway infrastructure in drive-by towns and proposed a revitalized city with new architectures that manage to accommodate those unwilling to part with this car comfort in a future scenario where their personal vehicles are outlawed in metropolitan areas. Lexi Benton and Zeke Jones (UTSOA, Fall 2019) considered the border town of Roma, along the Rio Grande, and how the industrial building materials of Trump’s infamous border wall — stacked uselessly in the town after the (then-future/now-present) administration canceled the project — could be repurposed by local citizens for new typologies of indoor-outdoor living.
Fundamental to the effectiveness of these proposals is the role of drawing. Firmly in the Robin Evans camp that says that “architects don’t make buildings, they make drawings of buildings,” architectural representation becomes vital for communicating this narrative. “Drawing becomes the only way of accessing this world … everything is condensed into a compact image that contains a lot more information than typical architecture or urbanistic conventions,” Kyriakou says. Thus, a Micropolitan America final review contains fantastical, colorful drawings appropriate for the culture of rapid image consumption that we now occupy.
As a tool for world-building, these images are both concrete and architectural in nature but also contain far more information than a conventional architectural drawing: context, objects, figures that, quite literally, set the scene. Yet they tend not to be heavily post-processed, which is partly conceptual but also pragmatic. (Photoshop alterations, necessary as they may be at times, can undermine the believability or realism of a particular world.) Kyriakou adds: “When you have a digital model, there is this process of trying to take it out of the computer so that it becomes an image. And that might take very long in some approaches. We try to flatten that part and almost have direct correspondence of the actual model with the final image. We try to eliminate the steps of post-production but instead let these worlds that exist in the computer, in ‘Rhinospace,’ become the image itself.” The imagination should be both as vivid and accessible as possible.
On the political nature of the research, this all promotes a larger role for architects within society and, by proxy, its distribution of power. This pedagogical model points to a definition of an architect that is not simply a designer of buildings and a problem-solver for those with the capital to hire an architect and build a building, but as “imaginators” — people who see complex systems and their consequences and can concretely and visually communicate how things could be otherwise, how a better world could be possible if we could only take a step back to reconsider what the narratives are that have created the world we inhabit now.
Across the several iterations of the studio that Krimizi and Kyriakou have taught at this point, there are, of course, individual projects that particularly stand out in their minds. But, just as the point of the studio was never allowing a sole genius to resolve a problem, individual projects aren’t the point either; the professors view an entire semester’s group of projects as a single entity. It’s also why they require all projects to be pinned up in the gallery at the beginning of the final review — there is no pinning down or switching out through the entire duration of the studio’s review. Instead, as Kyriakou reasons, it is vital to see each proposition in relation to the next. “All group projects complement each other, and they become part of a greater question, a greater argument, and one even provides context for the other. So when you see them all together, the sum of the parts is much more than the individual elements.”
As for where Micropolitan America goes next, that is still to be determined. The Greek duo is working on a potential exhibition that would compile work from the past few years in what would be the ultimate, super-review; they are also considering publishing a book that would do the same in print. But no matter what comes next, the project has already been profoundly meaningful, as it has always been so much more than a single building, a single town, a single architect. Instead, it has educated a collective of designers to think critically and to imagine what is possible — and to make some magical drawings to boot.
Davis Richardson is a licensed architect in the state of Texas and works at REX in New York City. He is a regular contributor at The Architect’s Newspaper and has taught at NJIT and the Architectural Association.