Actively Outside

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Graduate thesis by Jesse McClain (2014), grounded in field research conducted in the strip-mined coal fields of southern West Virginia and the oil tracking boom of North Dakota, "is an action of engagement that promotes the wellbeing of the public and does so without asking permission of the powers that be." (Wes Janz major advisor, Karen Keddy minor advisor)


  • A C T I V E LY

  • J e s s e M c C l a i n

    M a s t e r s A r c h i t e c t u r a l T h e s i s


  • C o p y r i g h t J e s s e M c C l a i n 2 0 1 4P r e s s , B l u r bC o l o p h o nD e s i g n e d b y J e s s e M c C l a i n u s i n g A d o b e I n d e s i g n .








    MAKING 49






  • A C T I V E L Y A C T I V E L Y1 2

    To be outside has many meanings. It can suggest an environment exposed to the elements or a rebellion to the status quo. Being outside indicates a removal from shelter and protection. Scales in size and power create insides and outsides. Operating outside of traditional power structures can create both vulnerability and liberation. This project has focused on developing a greater understanding of the inside and outside forces in the architectural profession. It has sought to examine how architecture is serving society and how it is truly protecting the publics health, safety, and welfare. It is a critique of the ever expanding growth system in which the profession operates and the human and environmental costs associated with such a structure. Geographical regions of vitality, destruction, and resources have been studied as catalysts for an active response. Sites of field research included Welch, West Virginia and Williston, North Dakota. The strip-mined coal fields of southern West Virginia are creating a barren landscape and toxic environment as we continue to pummel the earth with our insatiable appetite for more wealth and energy. Hours were spent driving through the Appalachian Mountains with longtime Welch resident, Hilda Mitros. She detailed numerous accounts of both personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the mining industry. Williston, North Dakota is at the heart of the nations oil fracking boom. This modern day gold-rush is creating numerous jobs, stimulating architectural development, and also acting as an incubator for transient violence, toxic fracking fluid dumping, and the destruction of sand dunes in supply states such as Wisconsin. Our obsession with immediate energy addresses our consumptive urges but does not offer a long-term plan to live and work in ways truly in the publics best interests. Through this research process, the power of the individual has emerged as a force of great strength. The destructive nature of unlimited efficiency and large scale has necessitated an opposing response. Such an endeavor both embraces elements of human inefficiency and encourages a smallness of building. This project is an action of engagement that promotes the wellbeing of the public and does so without asking permission of the powers that be.


    Figure 1: Tuckerton New Jersey post Hurricane Sandy on Oct. 30th, 2012. Image via via US Coast Guard via AFP/Getty Images

  • A C T I V E L Y A C T I V E L Y3 4

    Chris Hedges writes in his book, Days of Destruction Days of Revolt, about ongoing strip mining practices in Kentucky and southern West Virginia, That destruction, like the pillaging of natural resources in the ancient Mesopotamian, Roman and Mayan empires, is one of willful if not always conscious self-annihilation.1 This is a poignant statement concerning the future of the United States and the costs incurred when profit and greed are prioritized over humanity and decency.Commodification and Spectacle in Architecture is a compilation of essays examining the built environment and how this field is evolving. William S. Saunders writes in his preface to this volume, The design of the built environment has been increasingly engulfed in and made subservient to the goals of the capitalistic economy, more specifically the luring of consumers for the purpose of gaining their money.2

    Perhaps another excerpt from Commodification and Spectacle is helpful to gain a better understanding of the great reach of the corporation into all aspects of the American economy. Thomas Frank writes in his essay about a Frank Ghery Guggenheim exhibition in which sponsor and former Enron CEO, Jeffrey Skilling, provides the forward to the exhibitions catalogue, This is the search Enron embarks on every day, by questioning the conventional to change business paradigms and create new markets that will shape the New Economy It is the shared sense of challenge that we admire most in Frank Ghery, and we hope that this exhibition will bring you as much inspiration as it has brought us.3 What a cruel irony indeed to be listed as an inspiration for a company embroiled in a financial scandal.


    Figure 2: Mountaintop removal. Photo by Chris Dorst.

  • A C T I V E L Y A C T I V E L Y5 6

    Michael Hendryx and Melissa Ahern confront the inequality in the coal fields through their paper, Mortality in Appalachian Coal Mining Regions: The Value of Statistical Life Lost. In this analysis, the authors confront the disparity in economics between coal workers and coal companies. The researchers arrive at the conclusion that the areas of heaviest coal mining have the poorest socioeconomic conditions.4 And therein lies the cruel reality of the situation. The areas where the most money is being made are the same ones which are being sacrificed in the harshest way possible. The profits from these local resources are not returning to the communities, instead the corporations are pocketing the excess while the small town, its people, and resources are relentlessly ravaged.


    Figure 3: Black lung. Photo from United Mine Workers of America, Health and Safety on the Job.

  • A C T I V E L Y A C T I V E L Y7 8

    Reporting outlet, The Guardian, offers a challenge to big business by investigating the world of alternative investing. Paul Herman is founder of HIP Investor. He has developed a rating system which is designed to take societal, environmental, and human factors into consideration. This is defined as the Human Impact plus Profit rating and translates into the acronym HIP for the companys name. Herman says investors and donors are negating the impacts of their socially conscious investments because the majority of their other portfolio elements are running counter to these endeavors. He says that Many donors gave 5% a year to good causes and they felt like they were getting a great societal impact for the 5% of their portfolio, but the 95% of their portfolio was creating the problems that these non-profits and social entrepreneurs were solving.5


    Figure 4: Alternative investment options. Image from, The 2012 Alternative Investments Survey.

  • A C T I V E L Y A C T I V E L Y9 10

    Architectural scientist and sociologist, Garry Stevens, published a book in 1998 entitled, The Favored Circle, The Social Foundations of Architectural Distinction. Using the work and research of the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, Stevens begins to dissect the architectural profession and its members with a sociological scalpel of precision. In the process, he discusses the concept of symbolic power and cultural capital. Through Bourdieus theory, Stevens divides this idea of cultural capital into four basic types: institutionalized, objectified, social, and embodied. Institutional capital is acquired by academic achievements and the knowing of things. Objectified capital is demarcated as elements of cultural importance such as works of art or symbolic artifacts. Social capital is that asset which is developed through social skills and relationships rather than through technical knowledge or skill. Stevens illustrates this by saying, Knowing the Queen of England or the President of the United States will not get you a job as a computer programmer in a bank if you cannot program, but it could get you onto the banks board if you knew nothing about finance.6 Embodied capital is the asset which Stevens finds so important in Bourdieus work. This is subtle capital that might at first be seen as trivial and irrelevant and revolves around aspects of tastes, attitudes, preferences, and behavior. This is capital that differs from the other three in that it is not a possession but is simply a way of being and living. These forms of cultural capital may, Stevens argues, be exchanged at varying rates for the perhaps more familiar and obvious element of economic capital. The academic world is such an example in that those who possess this cultural capital are eligible for higher paying jobs in the upper economic sectors of society. Similarly, Stevens indicates that this is a turbulent rate of exchange depending upon the dynamism of the cultural climate.

    Stevens uses the example of the power of a Beaux-Arts education prior to the 1960s and how this academic experience was successful at propelling graduates into successful economic careers. He then remarks that the exact same Beaux-Arts education took a serious nose dive as time progressed and eventually, the Society of Beaux Arts Architects closed completely.7 This simply illustrates that cultural capital may disappear in the same manner as economic capital but both hold value and have a strong, complicated working relationship.


    Figure 5: Perceptions. Cultural or symbolic capital and its power to promote of inhibit social mobility. Photo from the