Editorial: Return to the Rustic

A view of the Alberta countryside, an idyllic landscape in the minds of many city-dwelling Canadians.  Elsa Lam
A view of the Alberta countryside, an idyllic landscape in the minds of many city-dwelling Canadians. Elsa Lam

Call it the latest in farm-to-table cooking: hay is emerging as a signature ingredient in some of the world’s cutting-edge kitchens. I recently dined on a whole chicken baked in hay and, on a separate occasion, hay ice cream. Hay-smoked bread, hay-roasted veal chops, and duck cured in burnt-hay ash are also making appearances to much foodie fanfare.

To some, hay reeks too much of barnyard. To my palate, raised in a suburban neighbourhood where visits to the farm were carefree school field trips, the hay-infused dishes I sampled were intriguingly grassy, subtly earthy, and quite delicious.

Rustic forms are increasingly appearing in North American architecture, and a similar dynamic is arguably at play. In the urban environments where the majority of Canadians reside, farm life is quickly receding into distant memory. Agricultural land is yielding to suburban and recreational developments on the fringes of most major cities, while family farms are being displaced by higher-efficiency agribusiness. In the past 20 years, the numbers of workers directly involved in crop and animal production in Canada has decreased by approximately 25%.

These economic shifts are mirrored in cultural shifts: the sights (and smells) once associated with the hardships of rural life are now widely accepted symbols of blissful escape from city life. The popularity of pioneer frontier-life blogs, country-home décor, and DIY preserving testify to nostalgia for what, through the lens of time, now appears to be simple, wholesome farm life.

Two projects in the current issue explicitly reference rural forms. La Ferme, a newly opened hotel in rural Quebec, uses a farm analogy both to inform its pavilion site strategy, and to brand the resort as a distinctive destination. Its luxe rooms and serene spa are far removed, incidentally, from farmyard dirt and din.

The Brooklin Community Centre and Library in Southern Ontario models the scale and form of its building volumes on barns. The reference is clearly present, although again, one would be hard-pressed to mistake its light-filled, airy interiors for actual farm structures, with their solid doors and tiny windows.

In both cases, the finished buildings are presented as contextual responses to the history of their sites. However, it’s interesting to note that the analogies they embrace are neither absolute nor inevitable. La Ferme, for instance, could just as easily have taken the grand, Château-style Manoir Richelieu–a landmark of early landscape tourism in the region–as its model. A retrofit of a barn that resided on the site until a fire in 2007 would, for its part, likely have produced a heavier, more monolithic hotel.

For Brooklin, the architects at one point proposed a more contemporary rendition. While this may have functioned equally well in accommodating the program, the local community rejected the flat-roofed proposal. Had it gone through, a review in a magazine such as this one might have suggested a certain resonance between the complex and modern bungalows in the area.

In buildings embraced by local communities, stylistic choices often reference their historical context and cultural landscape in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. But perhaps most revealing is what these decisions tell us about a community’s relationship to its past–which history it accepts as its official story, how it interprets this history, and how it chooses to build on it in the present.

Some legitimately see barns as utilitarian sheds and hay as animal bedding. But if a barn can inspire a lovely library, then why not hay ice cream–or for that matter, hay sundaes?

Elsa Lam  elam@canadianarchitect.com