figure grounds

Ongoing, with Brian Rex, Federico Garcia Lammers, Fang Xu, and Sushmita Shrestha. The following essay was written for a 2017 exhibition of DoArch Public Works in Webster, SD.

At first glance, the maps of small, Midwestern towns look a lot alike. We can thank some fairly well known forces for the similarities: the Jeffersonian grid, the consistent geography, a railroad line extending from the east, a pattern of single family homes surrounding a small stretch of attached buildings on Main Street. Blocks 330 feet square are a perfect reduction of the original townships (36 miles square), and sections (640 acres) measured for the first survey of western lands. Cardinal street directions correct for a single, diagonal rail line struck through and preceding each town. Even the size and scale of the first mercantile buildings relay their construction, function, and role within the community. The maps describe qualities, both physical and cultural, that continue to inform how these places operate today.

The similarities reinforce the shared history of the region. Towns were built to support a burgeoning agricultural industry made possible by the access to rail. These are not cities that were scaled for the automobile; most were not connected by highways to neighboring towns until county and state roads coalesced prior to WWII. The maps also show that these towns were initially built on “one side of the tracks.” The railroad generally wasn’t interested in providing a crossing, and the maps are evidence of an original Main Street extending to one side or the other. Indeed, the Main Street crossing in Mobridge wasn’t completed until 2013(!) Even then, its construction was negotiated through a trade: by eliminating the 4th Avenue crossing, previously the only one (at grade) in town.

But the differences start to appear with some study. Occasionally an important street grid will be interrupted. The Grant County Courthouse in Milbank is located on a block that ends the straight line of Main Street, a formality familiar in Texas but unusual in South Dakota (other exceptions can be found in Flandreau and Aberdeen). The “terminal” view upholds the position of law and justice. Meanwhile, in Mobridge, the City Park interrupts Main Street, but with no grand building on the site – community above government. Can this attitude be attached to most South Dakota towns, where the courthouses are distinctly sidelined a block off Main Street (Webster, Brookings, Huron, and many more)? Or is it a simple matter of pragmatics, the maintenance and enduring power of the original, surveyed street grid?

Water is the sole geographical marker. But while the maps of Webster, Wagner, and Volga are all bounded by rivers, they can only hint at the real limits formed by flood plains and high water tables. More noticeably, the Mobridge map shows a town curiously detached from the edge of its lake. What we don’t see is that at the time of settlement (1906) the Missouri River was at least a mile from the lower tip of Main Street, and Lake Oahe was still a half-century in the future.

The angle of the railroad, the location of the depots, and the left over wedge-shaped parcels are another commonality. Virtually the same plot exists where Main Street strikes the railroad in Brookings, Webster, Mobridge, and Wagner. In Mobridge, the site was once known as Wrigley Square but had never been officially platted. The name was lost, and the site was used to park cars for decades until DoArch claimed it again as a public place for community activity.

The largest figures on each map indicate newer, public institutions. Wagner, Volga, and Webster each show enormous footprints of school buildings that of course serve the community in a multitude of ways. Other large buildings (Milbank, Volga, Brookings) point to industrial and institutional uses. All of the maps indicate larger, more recent buildings that have responded to the speed and force of vehicular traffic along state highways. These are the figures of buildings fronted by parking lots rather than sidewalks.

The maps shown here are a sample of South Dakota towns that DoArch has had the privilege of working with as partners in a variety of ways. The collected efforts have come to be known as “Public Works.” The “figure-ground” map is a well known, representative method for understanding an object in a field, and allows for these important comparisons as Public Works continue to challenge and improve South Dakota’s public spaces. Figure ground drawings work by using a straightforward graphic language to map and analyze cities. The comparison between ‘solid and void’, for instance, indicates buildings vs. open space, and therefore, can indicate the scale, density, function, and potential of the various parts of a city. The similarities between these disappear quickly with a second glance. The curious observer can speculate not only on a town’s history or economy, but might also identify the opportunities for repair, growth, and change. The differences here mark individual personalities in towns that are all part of the same family.

 detail, Webster, SD

detail, Webster, SD

brookings-milbank pair.jpg
mobridge-volga pair.jpg
 figure grounds: Brookings, Milbank, Mobridge, Volga, Wagner, Webster

figure grounds: Brookings, Milbank, Mobridge, Volga, Wagner, Webster