The Twelfth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2010
Berkeley Prize 2010

Maire O'Niell

In the Rocky Mountain region of the western United States it is the success and adaptability of agricultural settlement and the livestock industry that enabled the western territories to become states.  Making a living with the land for over 140 years, these farmers and stock raisers have made it possible for the towns and cities of the region to survive through hard times.   

The past sixteen years have seen an influx of population and incredible development in this region.  Since growth is good for the economy, which has experienced decades of decline, public officials are not inclined to regulate it. Developers promote the acquisition of a piece of the west and in the process they break-up the expansive agricultural landscape with low-density housing developments that look like anywhere else in the county.  Nearing retirement, a cash poor, land rich farmer or rancher is easily tempted to accept a good offer from a speculative developer.  The wide variety of historic log and light wood frame buildings that are the hallmark of these ranches are disappearing along with the open landscape.   
 
As many large acreages and historic ranches are turned into lucrative subdivisions, the land values rise sharply beyond farming prices, and soon farmers and livestock operators are priced out of business. The infrastructure of feed sources, sales stock yards, and equipment suppliers are gradually thinned-out until it is difficult for those remaining to operate. It is a well known problem that the selling of the west is based on an unsustainable marketing tactic, such that those who buy into it are contributing to the demise of the very thing that attracts them.  Newcomers are enthusiastic to enjoy the great outdoors and the open rural landscape, but they are unwittingly displacing the livestock and businesses that make it rural.  These years of growth have caused an exodus of the population that gave it its identity, a cluttering of the open landscape, and a loss of the farm buildings that supported agricultural work.  
 
The region has seen a resurgence of smaller scale agricultural and livestock enterprises, however, employing intensive land management practices and value-added marketing.  Many of these businesses market their produce and services to a new metropolitan population, and have maintained a foothold in agriculture which is thriving.  So while the wide open landscape is still disappearing, there is resilient agricultural practice and stock raising that continues the cultural heritage of the region.   
 
Various interests are now struggling to save aspects of these cultural landscapes.  Although it is costly to preserve obsolete buildings, there may be some merit in doing so.  These buildings tell a story that remains largely unwritten, of people close to the land who persevered.  They contribute a unique perspective to the narrative of settlement and economic development in the Rocky Mountain region – a perspective that clearly reflects its speculative and transitory character.  They were lightly-built, transitory in nature, and generally unspectacular.  Paradoxically, it is their light construction that makes them significant in telling a story of the nature of western architectural development.  
 
These agricultural buildings are the unstudied rural counterpart to the iconic false-front wood frame architecture that characterizes early urban settlement in the west. The light construction of these structures enabled several generations of farmers and ranchers to modify or diversify their produce based upon changing market conditions, evolving agricultural and climatic knowledge, the advent of electrification, the development of transportation infrastructure, and the availability of new farm technology. The rural structures are an avenue to expanding our understanding the architectural and cultural history of this western region, which, until now has generally been understood in largely urban terms through the study of mining boom towns, railroad towns, and urban investment capital. Historic preservation requires us to ask ourselves whose history is worth preserving.  The preservation of simple, modest buildings might help to teach us something about simplicity, modesty, and living close to the land. 
 
Maire O'Niell
Associate Professor 
Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana

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Maire O'Niell, Associate Professor; Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana
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