Flyover Utopia: On Keith Krumwiede’s “Atlas of Another America”

By Mimi ZeigerMay 30, 2017

Flyover Utopia: On Keith Krumwiede’s “Atlas of Another America”

Atlas of Another America by Keith Krumwiede

IN THE DAYS following the 2016 election, as a percentage of the US population partied and another reeled in disbelief, a flood of poll data poured in. Analysts and journalists sifted, categorized, and created slick infographics coded in blue and red. A trend emerged: the polarization of urban and rural America.

The Washington Post reported that “[t]he majority of counties with populations greater than 500,000 — where roughly half of Americans live — swung further to the left.” (Even in stalwart red states like Texas and Georgia.) Small and midsized counties, on the other hand, shifted right. Yes, despite our digital interconnectedness and the seeming ubiquity of globalized commercial culture — a.k.a. a Starbucks on every corner — the city and the country are still divided, splintering the American Dream.

It is into this divide that Keith Krumwiede forges with his Atlas of Another America (Park Books, 2016). An architectural proposition in the form of a historical treatise, Krumwiede’s Atlas presents an agrarian-minded “Twenty-first century settlement scheme for the American Nation.” His is a vision of a vast suburban landscape that substitutes pastoral for rural and collective for urban. Gone are the Walmarts and Monsanto acreage. Gone are brownstones, bodegas, and third-wave coffee baristas. Or, in the words of David Byrne: “This was a Pizza Hut / Now it’s all covered with daisies.” Across 270 pages of text, illustrated with 150 images, Krumwiede lays out a fantasy for another way of American life, built from the failures of the recent past and probable near future. It is a non-place, a utopia called Freedomland.

At the core of the Freedomland fiction is a riff on Thomas Jefferson’s grid system. The Virginian imagined a democratic landscape populated by yeoman citizens. His vision was, in duly democratic fashion, both expansive and scalar, national and individual. The heartland would be divided up into 24-by-24-mile quadrangles, which would then be split into six-by-six-mile townships, and one-by-one-mile sections — that telltale patchwork produced by the Land Ordinance of 1785 and Public Land Survey System. Lastly, the sections are divvied up into 40-acre homesteads, each the domain of a family farm and the prototype for the single-family home.

Freedomland follows the Jeffersonian model at the start, but differs at the scale of the township. Subdivided into quarters, each township holds two towns and two natural preserves. The result, writes Krumwiede, is “an alternating arrangement of town and country” — a checkerboard covering the flyover states.

Within Freedomland’s grid a secondary pattern emerges: a new infrastructure for this reconceived pastoral. At the center of each town is a four-part civic core that includes a circular reservoir, a half-mile square array of solar panels, a market square (part public forum, part big box store), and “an ever-growing, manicured pyramid of refuse.” Krumwiede skirts details on local politics (and the identity politics embedded within) by suggesting that each town is an “independent self-governed community.” Architecturally, he’s reduced civic life to its most elemental: water, power, talk, and trash. His quaint, simple arrangements reflect local prescriptions for global ailments of the Anthropocene: shared water resources in the face of drought, solar panels instead of oil pipelines, a town square rather than fake news, and sculptural landfill instead of floating islands of plastic debris. The omniscient logic of the grid and the elemental drawings of the infrastructure — pyramid, circle, array, and cross — imply that order itself could be a sustainable solution to larger crises. It’s an architectural conceit, which Krumwiede enters into knowingly.

Architects have long fetishized grids of all kinds. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (who, along with Jefferson, is a chief protagonist in Krumwiede’s tale) wrote of the Manhattan grid in his early theoretical opus Delirious New York (1978): “it claims the superiority of mental construction over reality.” And then there is Superstudio’s The Continuous Monument of 1969. Krumwiede never mentions the Italian radicals’ endless black-and-white grid, but it is an implicit critical counterpoint as much as bedfellow. The Continuous Monument’s grid is urban, the product of an architecture of reason. Freedomland’s grid is suburban. Nevertheless, both share an understanding of architecture as responsive to societal, political, and economic conditions. In Domus, the Superstudio described the role of an architecture of reason: “To bear witness becomes working in history, with history and for history.”

Atlas of Another America pegs to the late 2000s and the economic downturn triggered by runaway real estate speculation. Krumwiede began his project amid the recession. Embedded in his fiction is a key lesson from the subprime mortgage crisis, which laid waste to large swaths of the suburban nation. Namely, as Krumwiede writes, the single-family house is not only “the preeminent representation of its owner’s aspirations,” it is also a disposable commodity. (This lesson also lies at the heart of the Make America Great Again narrative.)

The pre-crash housing boom ushered in a plethora of model home types — catalogs of construction that catered to a mass-customization market and could be tailored to a buyer’s identity and bank account. While the real results proved economically, environmentally, and socially unsustainable (cue the ruin porn footage of abandoned Sunbelt subdivisions) the decayed conditions spur the imagination — especially the imaginations of those in metropolitan areas who weren’t directly impacted by the trauma. The debris of the bust became an evergreen story during the downturn, with writer after writer calling for reassessments of the suburban frontier. Krumwiede builds the housing in his neighborhood estates not from stacks of two-by-fours and drywall, but from the bounty of model homes types — an intellectual resource long overlooked by critics and practitioners alike.

In Freedomland, the home designs are drawn from catalogs of the nation’s most popular model home builders and collaged into lumpy aggregations of pitched roofs and family rooms — communities of shoulder-to-shoulder McMansions. For example, the Walden eight neighborhood farm estate in Section 14 comprises 16 houses assembled in two closed loops; at the center of each loop is a shared green space and water feature. For this, Krumwiede appropriated the 4,625-square-foot Shea Homes, Plan 2, at Maravilla (a luxury planned community in Chula Vista, California). The premise is as perverse as it is postmodern: the object of singularity, the single family home, is packed tight into figural villages.

In certain cases, Krumwiede doubles down on his postmodernism, producing seamless Photoshop illustrations that sneak his mashed-up McMansions into the backgrounds of paintings of idyllic country life. Thus the Russian realist Grigoriy Myasoyedov’s The Mowers (1887) becomes The Mowers at A Chateau. In the foreground, bearded and babushka’d peasants harvest waist-high wheat, while A Chateau — a portmanteau estate composed of eight 4,217-square-foot Meritage Homes — looms in the background. Others depict more gentry scenes: a hunting party (after Swiss landscape painter Jacques-Laurent Agasse’s work from 1818) or a Sunday stroll (after an 1841 canvas by German romanticist Carl Spitzweg).

The township drawings pay homage to the concept of the phalanstery, a self-supporting utopian enclave first conceived by French philosopher Charles Fourier in the early 19th century. As a building compound, the phalanstery is meant to combine aspects of both urban and rural life, with different areas for labor, leisure, and living set within a greater landscape. The Freedomland plans, based on homebuilder “found materials,” are not as prescribed as Fourier’s, but they are still willfully utopian. In the stylized images, however, Krumwiede’s intentions are less clear, especially when it comes to class and labor.

While texts in the Atlas suggest a communal society, the images depict a social stratification left over from another time: farmworkers and gentlepeople, with little in between. This hollow center devoid of artisans and merchants (and those other occupations that span between the two) could be Krumwiede’s commentary on the blitzed-out middle class — the stratum of society most attached to the American Dream. But that narrative runs counter to Krumwiede’s sustainable, holistic fiction. He never answers what work looks like in this other America? How do his Americans support themselves at the intersection of urban and rural life?

Two of Krumwiede’s touchstones — 18th-century French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux and Koolhaas — offer competing ideas. Late in life, Ledoux produced a series of visionary sketches illustrating the concept of architecture parlante. His designs argue for an architecture that represents the vocation of its subject — such as a barrel-shaped house for a cooper, or a house for a woodcutter that’s shaped like a pyramidal stack of logs and bears a graphical resemblance to the Freedomland waste pyramid. There’s a direct correlation between architecture, labor, and identity. Koolhaas suggests the opposite. In September 2014, British design magazine Icon published his article on European “countryside architecture,” in which he discusses his firm OMA’s research in rural villages in Holland, Switzerland, and Italy. “What we found,” Koolhaas writes, “was a thriving prototype of the non-agricultural countryside — a new genre of land use called ‘the intermediate’ — a well-manicured place where surface appearances bear almost no relation to what is actually happening on the land and in the buildings.” OMA’s investigation uncovered Southeast Asian and Indian populations tending the land, automated farms, and digital husbandry. These regions have been reshaped by the same changes (immigration, mechanization) that have affected the United States, inspiring anti-immigrant sentiment and conditioning the appeal of #MAGA.

In truth, Krumwiede does hint at a form of work — or, at least, a unifying activity for the citizens of Freedomland: demolition and construction. Toward the end of his opening text, he sketches out a process akin to crop rotation for the buildings he proposes. “[T]he entire estate, including the dwellings, which are dismantled and rebuilt, rotates counterclockwise every twenty years, completing a full rotation after eighty years,” he writes, noting that “advances in home building technology” would eventually lead to less material waste and more efficient methods.

Perhaps then, images of Freedomland should depict the settlement in continual rise and fall — its populace not mounted on steeds or wielding a sickle, but instead wearing hard hats and toting crowbars. The story of reconstruction, repurposing, and recycling permeates the Atlas, both in the collaged images and in the texts themselves. For example, Notes on Freedomland, a numbered list of 40 remarks, is essentially a mixtape of 18th- and 19th-century commentary on housing and residential architecture, with a few more contemporary bits thrown in. It is akin to “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Jonathan Lethem’s 2007 essay for Harper’s in which the author lifts texts from other sources and self-consciously plagiarizes them into a single voice — though Krumwiede is careful to footnote. Point 23 begins, “It is not good for either town or country to live alone,” and is pinched from William Arthur’s self-published volume Our Home City (1911).

“Atypical Plans,” is another postmodern textual exercise. Using Koolhaas’s essay “Typical Plan” as a starting point, Krumwiede redacts letters, words, sentences, and inserts his own language.

[A]Typical Plan[s] is are minimalism maximalism for the masses; already latent in the first brutally exuberantly non-utilitarian explorations, by the end of the era of [A]Typical Plan[s], i.e., the sixties NOW, the non-utilitarian is refined as a sensuous science of coordination—oversized columns grids, massive multi-layered facades modules, coffered ceilings, marble tiles, accent lighting, luxurious bathroom fixtures, partitions, abundant electrical outlets, hardwood flooring, artfully staged furniture, tasteful color schemes, central air-conditioning grills—that transcends the practical to emerge in a rarified existential domain of pure guilt-free objectivity subjectivity.

The result remakes a mediation on the American office building into a reflection on residential architecture in the 21st century, a bruised and battered topic in design circles. Indeed, for all the talk of local agriculture and yeomen farmers, the real agenda of the Atlas might be to foreground the act of repurposing itself. Architecture is a field obsessed with the “new” and “now,” a solutionist discipline carried by belief in itself. On occasions when architects do look back, they cherry-pick the best, highest-minded examples of their profession to use as precedent. Repurposing, then, becomes a self-reinforcing enterprise, one that preserves the myths of singular genius and creative authorship. Krumwiede asks architects to mine what they would have considered waste — the aspirational writings of previous generations and dreamy model home plans. In assembling this refuse into a possible utopia, Krumwiede offers a fertile methodology to a discipline glutted by its own speculative production.


Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles-based critic, editor, and curator. She has covered art, architecture, urbanism, and design for a number of publications including The New York Times, Domus, Architectural Review, and Architect, where she is a contributing editor.

LARB Contributor

Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles–based critic, editor, and curator. She has covered art, architecture, urbanism, and design for a number of publications including The New York Times, Domus, Architectural Review, and Architect, where she is a contributing editor. She is a regular opinion columnist for Dezeen and former West Coast Editor of The Architects Newspaper.


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