Megan Torgerson (narrating): Our lives involve an endless dance through doorways and stairwells, front porches and bank lobbies, mudrooms, museums, restaurants and hospitals. The choreographers who design this dance across threshold, space and time, are architects. And their dreams mold the very reality of our waking lives.
Miranda Moen is an architectural designer who holds fast to the dream of creating spaces designed specifically for the needs of small towns and rural communities. As a designer working toward licensure, a researcher, practitioner, Minnesotan and friend, Miranda views the built environment as a bearer of culture and heritage. She discovers clues about her Norwegian-American lineage through floorplans, siding and even wallpaper, and finds satisfaction in supporting the exploration of small town identity through attainable architecture and creative community-driven projects.
Last fall, I had the good fortune of meeting Miranda through a Rural Arts Anti-Racism Zoom Meet-Up facilitated by Fergus Falls-based nonprofit, Springboard for the Arts. Miranda wrote to the group that she hoped European-Americans could develop empathy and activism for BIPOC communities by first processing their own unresolved generational trauma stemming from emigration and the Americanization process.
Having just learned about the work of Minneapolis-based trauma specialist, Resmaa Menakem, and after delving into my own family’s immigration story for a podcast episode, I was eager to connect with Miranda. We became fast friends, discovering we share Scandinavian and German origins, a passion for genealogy and a similar career structure. We are both independent contractors and cultural workers with client work and our own creative projects that require us to conduct deep personal research into our rural roots. We also both seek to better understand the intersection of geographic, class and cultural identities.
Miranda Moen: I think it’s important that we as rural people stand up and say “hey we can add more to this. The conversation doesn’t stop here. It’s not that simple. Like just because we’re from rural working class backgrounds and small towns you’re never heard of, does not mean we’re not special too.”
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today, a conversation with Miranda Moen.
Miranda and I have had many long and meandering conversations, and this spring we got to meet in-person in my Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, where we visited the National Nordic Museum. Today’s conversation was recorded two days after Miranda arrived in Ottestad, Norway where she is a Fulbright fellow staying at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. This conversation provides a glimpse into her research on 19th century Norwegian vernacular architecture, and the social and class components of immigrant architecture in Minnesota. We’ll also discuss Miranda’s roots growing up in the Driftless Area and how, from an early age, she knew she wanted to be an advocate for rural architecture. We’ll discuss her research into the Vik House, a 126 year old home built by her Norwegian-American ancestors in Southeast Minnesota, and the Yes! House, a multi-use community gathering space in Granite Falls, that Miranda helped design and renovate.
Torgerson: This season, I'm beginning each conversation with a question that gets at the place-based nuances of guests’ childhood. And when you think about the geographic or place background of your childhood, and how things like family, community, class and culture inform that understanding, what comes up for you?
Moen: Yeah, so I grew up in the country outside of Freeburg, Minnesota, which is an unincorporated town. We always joke it's like 50 people because there's no population sign. But I grew up in the countryside outside of that town in far southeastern Minnesota, on my German grandparents farmstead. And it is right in the Driftless Area of the kind of intersection between Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
My mom and dad bought a piece of land and put our house there, kind of a pre-manufactured house, like a model home that you could kind of sandwich together and put on a foundation. So that is where they built, “built,” you know, put up the house in 1994 when I was two. And when I think of home, I think of the bluffs, which is a huge characteristic of the Driftless region. And it's very hilly, it kind of feels like mountains, even though compared to Norway, they’re not mountains.
But it was, you know, our house was oriented so that if you looked at the living room window, you would see the bluff and the valley. And that was my grandpa's farmland. And so every day I would wake up, and it was a southern facing window. So you'd have a whole bunch of warmth and sunlight coming through. And you would look out the window, and you would see cows in the pasture. And I didn't realize until later how much silence was a big part of my upbringing. I didn't realize that just the sounds of nature was the really the only thing that I heard growing up. And now I think a lot about that kind of solitude as a huge part of, I don't know, my place identity, like a huge characteristic of rural areas that I really love.
It's also a place that's very swampy. It floods all the time. So it's, it's, it's, you know, within the Mississippi River Watershed type of area. And when it rains really hard, it'll flood like every year, and the entire field turns into like a giant pond basically. And so that's like a huge part of my history, as well as just kind of having those extremes in nature. And actually, like, that was always my favorite time when we'd get a flood because then we didn't have to go to school. Because like, we like we literally could not leave, because there was water over the road. So you wouldn't go anywhere. So I don't know, that's a huge part of my upbringing, too, is just kind of having this interaction with nature and feeling that you're kind of at the whims of it, but also feeling like a great amount of respect for it, and almost feels like a sibling relationship where you have such a deep connection with them, but you can't control them, or I didn't realize how special of a relationship that was until I went to college. And there's so much of our landscape that is influenced by people, you know, we dredge the Mississippi River we straighten rivers, we, you know, even farmland is altering the landscape. But I didn't realize how much more the landscape has altered in cities in some ways, and that that relationship to land shifts when you're not in a rural area.
Torgerson: It really sounds like you have an orientation to use the landscape, and great spatial awareness, even how you're described looking out of the living room window in your childhood home. And so I'm wondering how did the rural surroundings of your youth Inspire your work as an architectural designer, researcher and rural cultural worker today?
Moen: Well, I would say growing up, so I'm a twin, and my twin sister, we're fraternal. So different eggs. But born at the same time, and we are I like to say, kind of two sides of the same coin. So growing up, I was always the person who would stay inside and play Sims, and draw or you know, I mean, honestly watch a ton of TV. But my sister was always the person who would be outside with my dad, like, going to different farms and exploring and she'd always try to get me out of the house to do it for whatever reason, I never wanted to. But what that kind of informed was kind of my love of like, interior spaces. Like a love of how like sunlight comes in through windows, and like how very normal you know, quote, unquote, normal houses, houses that are not designed by architects, houses that are just kind of your everyday house, how special those spaces can still be, and that you don't need to have an architect to feel a connection to a space.
And so it was really interesting because I think the amount of time I spent, you know, drawing just random things in my house or outside of my house, like I used to draw the river in front of my house. I just was really fascinated with kind of how these built environment elements and the natural landscape intersected.
I should step back and say that a huge influence for me growing up was not just my own house. It was also the farm buildings on my grandpa's farm, which was literally over the hill to grandma's house. We literally had a hill that we'd walk over and it was like, you know, half a mile or something. So when I did feel adventurous and I would go outside my house, we would go to my grandparents. And my grandpa's family they homesteaded that land and his family built the farm, outbuildings a lot of them standing or, you know, from like the 40s. So not super old, but you know, in 2021, considered very old.
And I remember just being fascinated with them, just remember looking at the wood, and how the roof and the walls would come together and wondering about its structure. And knowing that not every building is built like it, was super interesting to me. And also just having a real fondness for its simplicity, and just knowing that just because it's more of a simple structure, doesn't mean that it's not special. And it really did feel like something that meant a lot to my family and to my grandparents. And a couple of the buildings was actually built by my great grandfather. And he died when my grandfather was only 10 years old. So there's this incredible fondness to a lot of the buildings on the farm. And my grandpa took over the farm when he was I think around 12 years old. Which is a really big deal to our family. It's a huge part of our lineage. And we're proud to say that we became a century farm in 2005.
I don't know, I think that relationship to farming and that emotional culture of farming, that was a huge influence for me growing up, but just kind of seeing these old farm buildings and like, respecting them and what really wanting to learn how to build that. And so that kind of relationship with like, understanding kind of my pretty normal house in relationship to these historic farm buildings that really informed my love for architecture growing up.
And so when I went to architecture school, or when I got into college, and I decided to go for architecture, I kind of assumed that I would just work on these types of buildings. And I got into college, I'm a first generation college student. And when I, when I got there, I was like, “why aren't we working on these buildings?” We never focused on any of it. I mean, I mean, unless there was some type of special topics course, right? Like, you would never have exposure to the types of buildings I grew up. It was very much focused on, you know, like high-end European architecture from, like, Italy, ancient buildings and methods and master architects and stuff like that. And all of that super important to have a foundation in. But I don't know, I felt like I felt like I wasn't getting the information I went to school for. I had my own understanding of what architecture was. So I just assumed that because I lived in buildings that I would study them wen I went to school. And so that was kind of a rude awakening, but always in the back of my mind was, alright, when can I apply this to farm buildings? When can I apply this to the types of buildings, I grew up in - more of the working class buildings. And so that was always my drive.
And I actually always wanted to come back home to a smaller town, or to serve in that capacity. I just felt like I understood the culture more, and that there was a gap in service there. I just felt that like that could be my role. And I didn't realize, you know, when I was young, how difficult that would be to even be able to find a job in a smaller town as a designer, let alone the path to becoming an architect. I mean, it's super difficult. And I don't mean to say that to scare anyone away from it. But it is definitely like a long, challenging road. And I think one thing that helped me was that I have always kind of had like a long term direction. If I didn't really have that kind of direction in my mind's eye, it would be a lot harder to stay on course.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. I love your story and how much foresight that you had from a young age, you know, going into these old outbuildings and identifying that this is something that resonates with you and then keeping that feeling throughout college which could have derailed your your passion for working class buildings and rural stories, because academia is very urban- normative. It’s centering you know, the large centers of commerce like the city, Minneapolis where you went to school. So I think that's really beautiful that you kept at it. And you, you fought for it, you know, you're like this is important. Even if I'm not learning about it, even if it's not being reflected back to me, the importance of these buildings and the history.
Moen: There was so many times in my undergraduate, especially when I would look into other types of architecture get interested in a certain subject, feel very fascinated, but then ultimately feel kind of like it wasn't fully there for me. in my senior year I actually took a course called, like cultural architecture. It was a multidisciplinary course. And it helped me start diving into what Norwegian architecture was. And I think that that course really helped keep that spirit alive, that cultural architecture, rural places is worthy.
So I rebelled a lot from the traditional coursework in architecture, and I would kind of force elements into my studies, like in the cultural architecture workshop. It's an optional workshop. So I intentionally took the course. And then I intentionally forced these like rural topics into it. Yeah, there was a portion of my undergraduate where I was, like, really angry. I was really angry at the coursework. I was like, “they're trying to make me be a person that I'm not, that I don't want to be. And I don't have anyone out here supporting, advocating for the type of architecture I want to do.” So I kind of went from like, feeling fascinated with other types of architecture, and then being angry. And at the end of my coursework, feeling like, well, if no one else is gonna advocate for this architecture, then I'm going to.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah, it makes me think about just how big of a melting pot university campuses are. You know, there are people who are coming in from places that we deem as world class cities. And there are people who are coming in from places that we call the middle of nowhere, which is an insulting term that makes me feel like you're saying that I'm nobody, because I'm from a place like that. And then you have coursework that, again, is recentering, these world class cities, and that culture and that design.
And so one house that you studied in, I don't I can't remember if it's grad school or undergrad, but your great, great grandfather's home in Spring Grove, Minnesota, the Vik house, I know that that really planted a seed for your mission to elevate the cultural significance of abandoned homesteads that are ubiquitous with the rural heartland. So yeah, I'd love to hear it an example of what was it like for you to uncover the architectural and emotional landscape of Endre Vik's 126 year old home? Like what did it feel like and smell like and sound like when you first explored that house? And how did this experience help you think through your identity as a fifth generation Norwegian American?
Moen: Well, thanks for that question. Yeah, so the first time I went to the Vik house was in 2015. I think that I was looking into my Norwegian ancestry, and it would have been right after I took the cultural architecture course, where I focused on Norwegian architecture. And my dad and I love taking drives around the countryside and kind of exploring old cemeteries and really, going into the backroads like to see what's there. Because a lot of in rural areas, that's where all the history lies, it's off the main drag.
The fun part about living in small towns and rural areas is that you can really just take a drive, and especially taking a drive with a grandparent, an elder in your community, your parents. You get so many different stories about the same land that you would never ever know. And so I think that course in cultural architecture, started sparking that interest. And when I was in that course, I remember looking at some of the buildings of Norwegian architecture in Norway, and thinking, hmm, well, I am part Norwegian, and I wonder if there any element of these buildings that are represented where I grew up. Because in Spring Grove, there's “velkomen” signs everywhere, which is welcome in Norwegian, and like, it's known as the first Norwegian settlement in the state of Minnesota. Yeah. And so like, it's a huge identity piece there and so, started talking to my dad about it. And our last name is Norwegian: Moen.
And so, I don't know I just started asking questions. And he brought me to the back house. And the house is on the land that my uncle owns. And he actually has his mechanic shop there. So you pull up on the land, in the old driveway to the farm, and kind of tucked between the farmhouse and the barn, which are both original, like the house, the Vik house was built, I think around 1895. And in between is my uncle's mechanic shop. And, you know, he has like farmers stopping over all the time, because he works on both like cars and tractors. And that's actually what my dad does, too. Like, he is kind of known in the eastern part of my county, as like the person who will fix your tractor. And so it's kind of neat, because my uncle also does that, but he's on the western side of the county. And yeah, I'm super proud of that, too, is that they have such a, such a relationship with assisting like local people in the community and working with their hands. And, and it's also neat, because he didn't feel the need to like, clear the land or something. He actually used pieces of the building, because no one was going to live there. And it was already in disrepair, he decided to take off some of the siding. And he used it on a summer kitchen that he built on his land just a mile up the road where his house is. So it's, it's cool, because I feel like a lot of rural people do that, they kind of reuse elements of existing buildings. They don't feel like they need to, you know, have everything be new. They are really efficient with what they have.
Torgerson: It's so cool when people maintain those buildings, and then bring them back into their houses.
Moen: Yeah, I feel like that's an element of rural architecture that in academia, we don't think about. A lot of people talk about the way that a farm is laid out. And they talk about their utilitarian function and how it's strictly efficiency and how it's strictly kind of this layout based on function. And I, for whatever reason, that kind of pissed me off. Because, I mean, it's true that you have to have an efficient layout, especially like huge farms, right, which you are well aware of the farms where. There farms where I grew up, are nowhere near as big as the ones where you grew up on.
But, but the notion that farms are only functional, it really struck a chord with me, because I felt like it was so like it was undercutting the identity of the farm. Because I had a relationship with the farmstead that was really about respecting the architecture that was there. And I felt like the academic peer reviewed articles that were written, that I read in undergraduate in architecture school, completely negated all of it. And it actually, it didn't even mention it. I was like, wait a minute, why are we not talking about these old wooden buildings and the culture that was put into them, obviously, because in my mind when I was in school, you know, there's a cycle between people in the built environment. You know, the built environment, shapes, people, and the people shape the built environment. And that was something that I just kind of held as a truth, because I just feel like buildings are a reflection of who we are. And so the fact that this writing was just saying that this building was purely functional, that there was nothing culturally significant about it, there was nothing architecturally significant about it was just like, the biggest dig you could ever have. And I think from that point on, I started trying to prove that wrong. And I think that's kind of the driving factor on my work now.
Torgerson: Yeah, that that reminds me of the argument between what is fine art, like uppercase F upper case A, what is art and what is like craft, and the function of creating a wooden chair or carving a spoon. I think that's art as well as a fine art painting. And I think there's also an art to the way that farmers go about the seasons and do all of that work that they do throughout the year that we just kind of blanket into functional work that results in a product that we purchase at a grocery store.
Yeah, so I'm wondering using the Vik house as an example, what does it signal about your ancestor’s culture, about their immigration story and their socio economic class origins in Norway? If you were to write a chapter into some of the books that you read in architectural school? What would you say about the Vik house as a as a case study?
Moen: Yeah, well, I would say the Vic house is. So it was built by a first generation, Norwegian American immigrant. So as a person who grew up in Norway and immigrated to the United States and became American. So inherently in the house, just based on the person who built it, and who loved it, and who used it, the way that they use the house, the organization of it, where they put, you know, their cupboard, and how they laid out the house, where they slept, how they stored food, all of that creates a cultural element of architecture. And that was, I think, the first thing I started noticing about the house because when I visited in 2015, it was more of a question about like, is there Norwegian elements in this house, and it was more like the subtleties of Norwegian architecture, that I started seeing a through line to these buildings that I grew up with. So the Vik house like when I first visited, it was like the beadboard ceilings and the paneled wood walls, and the colors that were used.
And then when I got more into graduate school, and I took a couple independent courses, where I was able to focus specifically on Norwegian American houses, and existing research, what I found is that the floor plan is actually the exact floor plan that has been used in Norway since the Middle Ages. And that, yeah, and that was a huge deal, because it was kind of like, I was listening to this intuitive piece down in my soul, that the Vik house did have a cultural element to it. That wasn't just some house that was put up for purely functional reasons. Like there were elements within it that you could uncover, that relate to its history as a Norwegian American person or built from a Norwegian American person. I slowly came upon different types of articles that would describe what early immigrants would build and different theories.
You know, like there was a study, I think, in another part of Minnesota, that an anthropologist did on a dugout house, which they dug into the prairie. That’s what they did when they lived in a place where there was only flatland where there is very few trees, they would build like that. And so there was actually the dugout house.
And then the second generation house was a wooden frame house, which there's a whole connection between the different generations of houses, because when an immigrant first came to the U.S., they would build specifically to survive. And basically you came, you got the land, you came to the land, and then you had to build something before winter. So that was your first generation house. And a lot of the literature that I came upon, in my research really kind of focused on the first generation house. And there is a theory out there labeling the houses, there's the folk form and the Pioneer form. And the Pioneer form, like the first generation buildings, like the log houses that were built, or the dugout houses that were built, is called the Pioneer form. It’s called the pioneer form, because it is the form that people built basically to get through winter. And then some people live there for the rest of their lives. But some people only had it for a few years before they built a house that maybe was better protecting from the wind, had fewer cracks in it, like just was tighter and a better overall house because you know, it was obviously very hard to live in winter conditions. And so the second generation house is known as the folk form, because they were not building the house specifically to just bypass the winter, they actually had more time to put more of their cultural traditions inside of the house.
Torgerson: That research is just so fascinating. And I'm thinking it must be really important that we document these second generation folk forms. Because in my county, which I'm assuming in your county as well, they're starting to collapse and fall down. So it seems like the time is pressing that we document these buildings. And yeah, could you can you talk about what we stand to lose if we if we lose these buildings and don't document them? And if we lose our historic downtown buildings too?
Moen: Yeah, for sure. These are important buildings, and they are quickly disappearing. And if we don't, if we don't recognize them now, then future generations are not going to learn about their importance and a lot of his older buildings. You know, a lot of people like might have them in their family and might not really think about them very much, because it's just kind of like the old house, on the land that maybe you built a new house on, right. And so it's kind of like this old farmhouse that, that you might love. But the people don't think to try to upkeep right, because it is expensive. And they're uninsulated, and they don't have bathrooms, and like, you know, they just kind of sit there. And so I felt like I knew a lot of people who had similar scenarios in their life where their dad would talk about their grandparents house, and that the house was still there, but no one lived in it. And I felt like that was a characteristic of kind of rural life.
I guess, as an architectural designer, as a future architect, I really felt like my skill sets served well to be a documentarian of these buildings. Because if they aren't able to stay here, for decades longer, and at this point, you know, it's been like 115 years or 120 years, since this house was built, and they're made of wood. And the harsh winter climate does a number on them, it's amazing that they're still standing, but they don't have much longer. And so I might, I might be able to witness them right now. And there are so many memories that my parents and grandparents can share about them. But what happens when I have kids and the building's no longer there.
I think when the building is no longer there, you will lose this physical reminder of your history, that sparks a lot of feelings of connection to the past. I mean, you can look at photographs, but there's something about seeing a photograph of an old building, when you're standing in front of the building that is still there. I mean, that's, that's what actually got me interested in history was buildings.
I actually don't love buildings for the sake of them just being a building. I love buildings, because there's a relationship to them, like there's a story about them, or there's history, or there's meaning. So when you no longer have that kind of physical reminder, I think that you lose a spiritual connection to a place. And that's what architecture is, for me. It's not fancy buildings or details, even though I do love them. It's really kind of the soul of the building that speaks to you when it's physically there. And I mean, it's purely made from the people who love them. So you know, like when your grandparents pass on, and those stories go away, and the buildings start disappearing, it really feels like you're losing out on your cultural heritage. And that's why I think it's important just at least, to document them. Because if you can't have it physically, you know, how else are you going to remember them. So that's what I've started doing on the Vik house before my Fulbright.
I think originally it started out more of a genealogy slash kind of family relationship element to studying the Vik house. But when I got more into it, I realized its importance of representation of rural culture. And just having one example out there to show future architects or designers that come from rural places that these buildings are important, and that I guess I want to inspire other rural people to continue on that endeavor. If we can validate more people more people's existence, or if we can prop people up, it's just worth it, you know, just telling people that they're good enough. I think that when you're when you keep these buildings, you're telling them that that they're good enough.
Torgerson:You're just inspiring me to think of a new podcast project or documentary project to document some of the old buildings, either I don't know where I grew up or in other parts of Montana. Like, I just want to jump in the car with my parents and ask them more stories about some of these buildings, which I've always loved exploring. But there are so many more questions that come up to me right now that I could ask them. And it reminds me of the article that you wrote for Women's Press, where you wrote, “these houses contain valuable information about the cultural traditions of our heritage that we lost to assimilation during emigration in the mid-to-late 1800s.” And I'm thinking as we get further and further away from the point that our ancestors immigrated to the US, we stand to distance ourselves from those cultural identities. And so how important it is to document these houses now, and continue to learn about that, immigration journey and just those roots, because I feel like to know, our history is to know ourselves. And that cultural identity piece is just so important.
Moen: I love how you put to know our history, is to know ourselves, because in the period when my family came around the 1860s. You know, the Civil War happened in 1862. And that was a very big period in American history, where we had to band together a country of immigrants to fight for the country is as a whole. So that was a really big task for the United States government, because, you know, they had to get all these people from all these different countries that are new to the United States, maybe within five years of emigration, right, did not know English very well, like spoke all these different languages. And then they had to convince them to sign up for the army and fight for the Union. And so a lot of the things that the U.S. government tried to do was, you know, basically say, like, forget where you came from. You're now American. And that was the real like, first Americanization movement that happened in preparation for the Civil War.
And through my research, and I think just my personal life experience, it really feels like that message of Americanization and assimilation, you know, like forgetting where you had come from, because the only thing that is important is that you are American right now. I think that that now has had a really negative effect on especially the white population that immigrated, because, you know, there's this thing where I think a lot of white people refer to themselves as mutts. I don't know if this is something you've come across?
Torgerson: Yeah, I’ve definitely heard that. Yeah, like I'm a European mutt.
Moen: Yeah, like if you talk to people, if you say like, oh, what's your heritage? A lot of white people will just be like, “Oh, I don't know. I think they think there's some Irish in there. There's, like, I think I'm some Norwegian or I don't really know, or I'm a mutt.” Like a lot of people like where I grew up, are just like, “I'm a mutt, it doesn't matter.” Like, it's like that it's not important. And this is something that really struck me growing up is that I felt like a lot of people spoke about it in this way. And I guess I have to think that the, the projection of Americanization or being an American first in the late 1800s, I feel like it really contributed to this generational idea of not really holding the other pieces of yourself in high esteem.
And I think that it has really contributed to a lot of nationalist ideas, inadvertently. You know, like, I think it's wonderful to be proud to be American, and I tear up and patriotic songs all the time, like, you know, like the ‘90s country songs, like I love them. But then it wasn't until I started really diving into Norwegian-American history that I understood what happened in history, and how you know, these messages have really kind of engrained themselves in our identity today.
And I think the more that you learn about the different elements of your ancestry, the more you become compassionate to others, and the more that you are welcoming to others, and I think it's also important in our own self value. For me, I felt like I gained so much when I started learning about my ancestry and my place in this world, you know, because really, what happened is something really traumatic like you, you immigrated to a whole new country. And then you basically told yourself that you have to forget all of that. And that is something that I think is traumatizing. And something that I don't think we have given ourselves time to process. And I think that accidentally developed into this kind of nationalism because within that nationalism, there's a lot of fear of the other. And I think that part of that is that you're not quite processing the complex relationship you have to your past and the pieces that you decided to discard or even just didn't even have a choice to remember.
Because, for example, like my German side, at a certain point in our history, they weren't allowed to speak German anymore, because of the war. And, you know, there's a lot of fear of, if you're a German that, you know, you'd be outcasted because of Hitler, right. And so then they decided to speak English, and, you know, kind of sped up this process of Americanization where you weren't kind of allowed to keep this cultural element of your family. You were kind of forced to push it aside. And, and societally it was, it was expected, you know?
Torgerson: Yeah, and sadly, we did that to the Native American people who were already here as well. We got rid of our culture and our language, and then we forced them to do the same. And, yeah, so I don't know what the solution is here, but there's definitely a huge cultural shift happening. And we I think we signal our culture through bumper stickers, or the clubs that we belong to, or the clothing that we wear, but how could maybe cultural identity and recognizing these traumas either that, you know, we experienced or that we inflicted on other people? I wonder if that could help unite people to recognize this history? And then and then move from it?
Moen: Yeah, I mean, like you said, I don't know what the solution is. But I do think that for me, the more that I learned about the complex history of like, my own identity, as a Norwegian American, as a German American, as an English American, the more you come into contact with your own trauma, your generational trauma, and then the more that you realize what other people went through? Yeah. Because for me, it's put into perspective how, especially as like a white person, being from a European descent, having the right to own land, not discarding that it was not hard, you know. It was very hard for our ancestors to come here and to farm the land and get through winters and all of that kind of stuff. But when you put it in relationship to the reason you got the land, yeah, is because it was taken from other people. And they were forced to walk, in many cases by foot, to a whole different part of a state where they don't know the flora and fauna. They don't have any understanding of survival in that region. And they were just forced to move for no reason.
Torgerson: Or they might be paired up with a tribe that they had been warring with previously.
Moen: Yes, I think the first step that we all need to take is to dive into our own history, because I think it can help you get thinking about other people. It's really difficult, though, because there is a danger of becoming too proud of your own heritage. Yeah, you know, like people have definitely fallen into this, where they get so proud of their own heritage, they view themselves as better than others, right? So I'm not advocating for that whatsoever.
I think that there always has to be a compassionate lens, and you have to seek many different resources for your own history, you have to get many different angles, because I don't think it's good enough just to look at like the Norwegian sagas and mythology and like, get obsessed with it. And then just say, like, that is the extent of your ancestry, because it's not.
I know, there's a relationship with white supremacy and Scandinavian heritage, and I think that's the wrong way to do it. But I think if it's done in a lens of compassion, the more you learn about the complex history of your identity, the more you're able to have that compassionate muscle flexed. And the more that you're able to learn about others, and I guess that's my great hope is that, especially the more that we talk about our own generational trauma, you know, having to emigrate and kind of lose touch with your culture, and, you know, your kids not being able to speak the language you spoke, and all of these things that I don't think a lot of, especially white people have, have kind of reckoned with over the years.
At least, I've started to recognize that they're still very common issues that happen now with more recent immigrants. And that if we understood the trauma of what that was like, we would be better equipped to understand why it's so traumatizing to more recent immigrants from other countries.
Torgerson: And I think it's important in all this to ask the hard questions as well as the more celebrated questions, like – what is it about Norwegian heritage that I love? Krumkake, lefse –okay, yeah, and that's all well and good. But what about learning about the Sami? Or what about learning about different genocides that our ancestors might have, you know, been responsible for? I think you have to ask the hard questions along with the questions that make us feel warm and fuzzy.
Moen: Yeah. Yeah. And I think that's something that I'm really interested in, in my research is the socio-economic effects. So what are different class effects on our experience of our heritage? For example, in Norway, there was before the 1900s, the lower farming class known as the Hussmann, which is where a lot of my ancestors came from, did not have the right to vote.
So that was one reason why my ancestors left is that they actually had no pull on what was happening around them. They didn't have a choice really, to kind of affect their future. And they came to the U.S. because they could own land, and so within that there's a white privilege element of it, because the fact that they're white, and then the U.S., especially the U.S., meaning that you could then on land over other people. I mean, it was a step up, right. But, but obviously, it keeps others down. So there's so many different reasons for what happened. And you don't have to sit here and like criminalize yourself over every single thing. Because history is complex. And there's so many elements that people were not in control of, but it's still important to put them in perspective.
Torgerson: Yeah and that really ties into the research that you're doing now in Norway, and the whole reason that you're there, which is just beautiful that you can explore that history in person.
I know that you're you've only just arrived literally two days ago, but what kind of comparisons do you think that you'll anticipate drawing between the 19th century regional architecture and social hierarchies and class like we were just talking about with the Hussman in Norway, with some of the architectural traditions and cultural heritage, your Vik ancestors or other Scandinavian immigrants brought with them to your home state of Minnesota? How do you think you'll be kind of drawing these this history in this arch of your family's history and cultural and social history?
Moen: Yeah, I think the first step is to establish a baseline of regional architecture and socio-economic conditions in Norway in that time period. So what you want to do first is kind of examine like, I'm using my family as a case study, so that I can hopefully make it relevant for other people who might want to do that work.
So what I am doing is having the Vik family as the case study, the people who immigrated to Spring Grove, Minnesota. The first thing you want to do is kind of compartmentalize, what were the socio-economic conditions of my ancestors in Minnesota, in the mid-to-late 1800s. And what was it in Norway, before they immigrated in the mid-1800s. And to kind of see how they connect, or see like how they shifted when they immigrated. And then you also want to do that with the architecture because something I recognized early in my research was that there's a very specific understanding of what Norwegian architecture is. I went to Norway for the first time in 2017, as part of the Oslo International Summer School, and I took a course on Norwegian architecture and design. And that was like a huge influence for actually doing this work, because it introduced me to the variations in what Norwegian architecture could even be. So in Norway, there is a very big difference between West Coast Norwegian buildings and East Coast Norwegian buildings, and it has very much to do with the climates. The West Coast being you know, very damp, lots of wind and the fjords with a very different landscape. And the east, you know, it is it is a little bit flatter when you're not up in the mountains.
Torgerson: Wow, as someone whose family came from Gaupne, near Luster, Norway and in the fjord area, north of Bergen, how does how would those buildings compare to like where you're from in more southeast?
Moen: Yeah, I don't want any Norwegians to listen to this and say, I'm doing this wrong, to be careful, but from my like, very broad understanding, even like the way that siding is attached to your house. Like in the western area, siding on houses was horizontal. In the eastern area of the country, a lot of it was vertical.
Torgerson: Wow, so like rain could fall off of it better if it was horizontal or?
Moen: I think it depended on like wood rot, and it's definitely related to moisture, and rain, all that kind of stuff. But it also depends on like, how much wind is hitting a certain side of your house. So like in Western Norway, when there'd be like a lot of really high winds hitting one side of your house, you'd actually have a rock wall. So part of your house would be a rock wall, or it'd be built into the mountain, right? Because you, you can't expect a structure that is manmade, to withstand Mother Nature's forces. So they were really smart and intelligent about it. I mean, it's vernacular architecture, which really means architecture that's been like perfected over hundreds of years. So it's just kind of ingrained knowledge in building, which is also like, why I want to study vernacular architecture in Minnesota and in the US, because they obviously had to adapt it because the climates in Norway are not the same as the climates in Minnesota. And so like vernacular architecture just really shifts based on place. And yeah, siding orientation is just one example of how that might show up.
Torgerson: Wow, so what research will you be diving into your first weeks in Norway and what ground literally and physically do you hope to cover during the next eight months? Eight months, right?
Moen: Yeah, so first, I will be trying to visit some of the regional museums in eastern Norway. So my case studies, so it'll be the Vik house in Vestre Slidre in eastern Norway. And then the other family that I'm studying, which is also my ancestors is the Traen family. Their house in Minnesota was just a mile north of the Vik house, and they were connected. So the Traen family there from Rollag, which is just south, depending on which valley your town was in, you could be like, completely isolated from the one that's pretty close to you, and really have like no connection to them.
So again, the landscape therefor influencing maybe what architectural traditions were utilized in your buildings. And then not to mention, there's very little research on the socio-economic difference. So the difference between, like I mentioned before the Hussman and the farm owner. In the farmer category of class in Norway, there was a farm owner and there was a farm worker. And this is because there's very little amount of farmland in Norway. So not every farmer could have their own farm like they do here in the U.S., really. And farms in Norway were really small. Like, they could be like, a couple acres. In the 1800s, I should say.
So there was actually a huge population boom, which was a big driver for why people immigrate is because there were too many people and not enough farmland. So what ended up happening is that there would be farm owners, which would be the more wealthy people who kind of kept their last name as the farm name for generations. And then there was the farm worker, that was pretty much a tenant farmer, you know, like a temporary worker, and they would have a house on or nearby the farmland, but they wouldn't own any of it. And their last name actually changed every single time they move to a different farm.
So I could go on a huge tangent about that. But basically, the majority of the people who immigrated from Norway were from the lower socio economic class of Hussman. And still today, I mean, there is a lot of like social stigma of being from a lower socioeconomic class. And that was another reason why people move to the US is that there was a much bigger chance that you would be able to move up in life in the US than you were in Norway based on kind of the political and socio economic conditions like. Again, you couldn't vote as a as a Hussman in Norway in the 1800s. So it was really rare that you would actually be able to move up in life and in Norway, or in the U.S. All you had to do was like farm your land for five years, and you could own it and it would be an immediate improvement on your life.
Torgerson: Yeah. Wasn't there also an economic depression that was happening at that time caused by the globalization and mechanization of agriculture in Norway?
Moen: Yes, yeah. Yes, exactly. Yeah, so another reason why people were propelled to move to the United States is that their occupation was kind of threatened. Because things like, you know, mechanized tractors, that meant that farm owners didn't have to employ as many farm hands. So they could have, you know, a lot more work done on the farm with fewer people. So it pushed a lot more people into poverty. And that's like another reason why the majority of the people who emigrated were from that lower farmer class.
And something that I found very interesting is that not only like, are Norwegian Americans, like less likely to know if their ancestors were like Hussmam or not, because it was something that people didn't hand down in knowledge because people are more likely to be ashamed of that socioeconomic class, or they wanted to forget it because when they came to the U.S. they were able to rise up in that station in their life so they were not as likely to be like, proud of that fact, right? And so what I found it a lot of my research was that very few people when they talk about their ancestry, do they even mention like, what class really they came from in Norway. It just wasn't part of that story that they tell each other. And it makes it a lot harder to trace it in Norway, so I was very lucky to know for a fact that my big family came from the Hussman class, and actually the Traen family were the farm owner class. Oh, so there's like a clear delineation between like, kind of like wealthy farm owner architecture and buildings that they lived in, and the more working class structures that that the Vik family lived in. So that's also a really great element of that, of having that as a case study.
Torgerson: So people in different classes would intermarry? And did your Endre Vik and matriarch Traen get married in Norway or in Minnesota?
Moen: In Minnesota? So the Traen family immigrated in like the 1830s. It's actually really interesting, because different communities in Norway were more susceptible to leaving because there was this thing called like the America letters and letters from the US would go to different communities in Norway, and kind of promote emigrating. So that's why some farm owners would leave is that like, there were certain communities that just had more of this information coming in. So the Traen family, even though they were wealthier farm owners in Norway, I believe four brothers came to the US, which is a lot.
Torgerson: Yeah, no, that's really interesting. When I was doing work on my thesis, I discovered like propaganda, essentially, that was a lot of it was sent to Denmark, because Dagmar where I grew up was named after a Danish queen. And so there's a lot of Danish and Norwegian immigrants. And basically, they're kind of promoting Montana, Eastern Montana, which is, you know, high desert essentially, like semi-arid as this land of milk and honey, like, you can come here, and it's great farm conditions. And it's yeah, it's actually pretty hard to farm there. Yeah. But yeah, it's interesting.
Moen: It's so interesting. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And, and it all depended on like the time period in which they immigrated, because depending on like what land was open at the time. So that's why like, the early 1800s, it was more like Illinois, Wisconsin, and then like, because, you know, the westward expansion, so I think you mentioned like your family was, was it like 1880s, or 1890s.
Torgerson: I can't recall right now, but I do know that they came to Wisconsin, and then Minnesota, and then Montana from my dad's father's side is kind of the path they took. So then I'm wondering, maybe there wasn't as much farmland in that area. And it's actually 40 miles or something from where you grew up is where they first landed Freeman, Wisconsin.
Moen: Yeah, that's super interesting. The Traen family did the same. They went to Wisconsin first. So what a lot of people did was in the American letters, they would kind of advocate for certain settlements. So they would actually go to a Norwegian settlement in the U.S. first, and then they might hear about farmland that was opening up and that's when they would move and travel and, you know, it's kind of like, hit or miss, like it depended on if you're in the right place at the right time if you got the farmland. So that's why a lot of people ended up moving west.
Torgerson: Well, I'd like to transition to talking about your architectural design practice MO/EN designs. I was moved by an article you wrote for South Dakota American Institute of Architects, where you wrote, “I truly believe that the variety of experiences we have as Midwesterners (such as growing up working-class, living in small towns, farming, playing amongst the prairie grasses), nurtured through education and artistic exploration, can absolutely aid in the design of rural spaces. In my opinion,” you shared, “this is the real strength that architects in the Midwest have access to and it can lead to more place-based and supportive architecture designed to assist our communities. The idea is not to negate other childhood experiences and socio-economic contexts, but I believe as a rural person who went to two Midwestern universities that these experiences are especially unspoken about or ignored in school and deserve to be discussed in today’s expanding architectural profession at a time when our nation is becoming increasingly more aware of rural communities.” So I'm wondering if you could please speak to the philosophies behind your architect architectural design company, MO/EN design practice, which is Mo-slash-En, and your role advancing place-based architecture in your home state of Minnesota.
Moen: You know, the topic of rural architecture is out there in academia and in architecture schools, but it's very seldom kind of advocated for, and I think there's so much potential there. So I feel like it's just an area of architecture and education that that is like just waiting to be discovered. You know, for example, when I spoke about how past academic articles referred to rural architecture as purely functional, and it really pissed me off. Like, that's exactly what I'm talking about. You know that was written by a person who had never grown up in a rural area. Yeah, they had no personal experience with what that spiritual connection is to land or to farming or to animals. I just think it's important that we, as rural people stand up and say, “Hey, we can add more to this. The conversation doesn't stop here. It's not that simple. Like, just because we're from rural working class backgrounds in small towns you've never heard of, does not mean that we're not special too.” And then I think the balance is that, you know, you, you remain compassionate and open to other people's points of view, while also holding that kind of root of compassion for your own background. Because too many times in architecture school or in college in general, do I see a lot of small town people feel or just kind of like, drop their identity completely, because it's unpopular. And I just want to encourage others to, to try and keep that connection in some way.
Torgerson: Yeah. Well, I really appreciate all my conversations with you, because I feel validated in my experiences, and especially since you're also a rural cultural worker. And I think that all the small towns and community institutions that you've worked with, are just so lucky to have your attention, and I think it's just going to create a ripple effect. I hope that people who listen to this episode maybe get ideas for how they can implement cultural identity into their projects, or maybe they'll stem an interest in more historic preservation. But yeah, how does your work in rural architectural design and your work advocating for rural artists and designers help reimagine small towns?
Moen: Yeah, well, I think a lot of it is trying to reimagine what an architect's work can be in a small town and what our role is. Like, as a future architect, as a rural designer, now, it's become like keenly aware of how like we're, we're taught to practice in a specific way that kind of fits a more urban metro practice model that really has very little experience in rural ways of working.
And so it's really challenged me as a designer to understand like, how can I fit into the existing model of development, and a lot of that would be, like local and small contractors working on pieces of a project, the owner, having the majority of the relationship with the contractors directly, and a designer really not being in the picture. So it's kind of like looking at the existing system, and saying, like, where could we be the most effective in helping enhance development of our rural communities? Or like, where is my expertise and understanding, you know, like, how moisture might impact of building or, or even at a cultural or spiritual level? Like, how do you put in those elements of design that speak to us at a deep level, while also having a fairly, you know, functional and, you know, low-budget outcome. Which like, all of those things are so complex. And I think that's also part of rural architecture that is super unexplored. Is how do you work within the existing systems to not drive up the cost of everything, but how do you bring back that kind of connection to a building that I think we all love about old buildings. Even like old masonry buildings on Main Street, like we all have a love for them and affinity for them. And my goal would be to complement the practices that are taking place now. And maybe I have to challenge a few things here or there, right? But how can I do that in a loving and respectful way, and not tell people that they've been doing it wrong. And that's a really hard thing to do, because there are not a lot of rural architects. And so it's another element of my practice that I feel is a lifelong mission. And I'm going to get it wrong. And it's going to be frustrating, and you know, all of that. But when I was younger, I really felt like that was the point of becoming an architect was to then bring it back to my small town. And just like advocate for art and design in our communities, you know. We don't have to only be purely functional.
Torgerson: Yeah, later this season, I'll be speaking with Ashley Hanson, the founding executive director of the Minnesota-based national artists-led organization, Department of Public transformation, which is based in Grand Falls, Minnesota. And you worked with Ashley to design the Yes! House, which is developing into a multi-use community gathering space in what was previously a vacant brick building on Main Street. Yeah, so could you please share what it's like to collaborate with an interdisciplinary team of artists, designers, architects and local area contractors and tradespeople, even economic development institutions to address the lack of creative programming and facilities in southwest Minnesota?
Moen: Yeah, thank you for asking. So, so I'm definitely one piece of the puzzle. And when I was hired to assist the architect on the project in helping renovate an existing masonry building on Main Street that was gifted to DOPT and Ashley Hanson, for the purpose of becoming the Yes! House, which is kind of a creative artist hub for rural people in southwestern Minnesota. And her goal was really to have it be artist-led in concert with the community.
So community engagement being a really important element of community building, you know, having the project, not only being a building project, but about trying to foster community around that space, so that the community really felt like the space was for them. So for instance, in 2018, before I was on the project, Ashley Hanson hired Home Boat to do early engagement sessions with the community to help envision the space, and then through their work they also develop these research reports, which was documentation to, you know, remind us in the future of like, what was the community's wants in this space. Home Boat created this really amazing packet of information about everything from like, when people came to those original community engagement sessions about: what programs they want in the space, what did they say? What do they want? What do they don't want? What is the color palette that was originally thought of? What is the history of the building? What did it used to be? How did it function? What are some memories that people in the community had about the building? And how do they want it to function in the future? And so when I was brought in, as a designer, I wanted to respect the work that they had done, because it was a lot of really amazing, important work. And it's part of the pre-design process in architecture. So Home Boat did the majority of that work. And then when I was brought in, my role was really to distill the information they got, and put it actually into building plans. And so I mean, if it wasn't for Home Boat’s work, like it wouldn't be as successful as it is. Also, they're a collaboration of artists and architects on their team. And, and I just think their whole process was really amazing.
And right now, we are gearing up for phase two, which is the first floor and the basement. Phase one, which is what happened during 2020. And we're proud to say is finally complete, is the residential, second floor, so we got all of those apartments renovated and outfitted for the citizen artist in residence, which is housed on the second floor of the Yes! House, and as part of a residency program that Ashley and DOPT set up in Granite Falls,
Torgerson: And what a cool rule that you had to distill the specific needs and regional cultural identities that Home Boat facilitated. So I'm wondering like, how does your design practice using the Yes! House as an example, and your cultural research like you're doing in Norway, help to reclaim the narrative on rural America and illustrate the value of rural cultural identity?
Moen: Hmm, wow, that's an amazing question. Well, I hope I have some small role in that. I'm kind of like a detail person where I can kind of see how these really small details meet together and intersect. And my hope is that I can connect these kinds of seemingly dissimilar elements and, and have it come together as a narrative that that people can understand. I've always had a really clear understanding of how farm buildings and architecture are one in the same. And I guess my hope is to try and get that out to other people just for the sake of validating their existence.
Torgerson: Are there other perceptions, whether architectural perceptions or otherwise of rural America that you would like to help rewrite?
Moen: Yeah, I would say the perception that what we do is simple. I think it's part of that validation of someone's existence or someone’s work. And it's not even that simple is bad. It's that there's this misunderstanding of the complexity and the intelligence, you need to do a lot of the things that people in rural America do. And a lot of that's like things that we don't hold as intelligence. So like working with your hands, or learning on the job. Learning how to build by doing is something I've always been really fascinated with. And I have to admit, I feel like as an architect, I'm missing out on and every time I go home, or I see my grandparents and they're working on the farm, I'm like, reminded of how much of life I'm missing out on by just reading. It's interesting. Not to negate that reading is not important. It's that there are so many different types of intelligence and relationships we have with the world, that if we only hold one in high esteem, we're losing out on the magic of the others.
Torgerson: Yeah, I think there's definitely value in intellectual knowledge that comes from reading books and embodied knowledge that comes from working with your hands, but even you exploring your ancestor’s homes in Norway is a form of embodied knowledge and using your senses to, you know, have observations and ethnographic research, like I think that is also a form of embodiment.
Moen: Thank you, yeah. And, and I'm still learning too, it's like, I kind of want to tell people that just start talking about the ways in which you work because it's kind of a reminder to myself too. Like, I want to put these things out there before they're fully formed because I think it's important to just keep growing and, like the ethnographic element that you're just talking about, it's something that I never really get exposure to in school. Yeah, but like through my, you know, relationship with you and reading books, and, you know, having my affiliation here at the Norwegian Emigrant Museum. The director, my supervisor, does a lot of ethnographic research and it's so important to push the boundaries and what elements can intersect in your life that can create something new. And I think, you know, that that'll just make the future of our architecture and communities so much richer, like we can, we can bring so much more to them if we just push those boundaries rather than just listen to what other people say about us.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you to Miranda Moen for the offering of your dreams, wisdom and moral convictions during this interview. Thanks also for sharing academic articles, business savvy and words of encouragement during countless other conversations. To learn more about Miranda’s architectural design practice and Fulbright research, visit moendesignpractice.com.
In our next full episode, we’ll join in conversation with Ben Winchester, the rural sociologist who popularized the term rural “brain gain” and whose research at the University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality earned him the 2021 Rural Renewal Research Prize.
I produced and edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Duwamish lands and the county of Innlandet, Norway. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music is composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find links to resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!
Guest: Miranda Moen
Host, creator, producer, editor and mixer: Megan Torgerson
Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan and Megan Torgerson
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
[4:20]: Miranda’s roots in the Driftless Area of SE Minnesota
[6:20]: A sibling-like relationship to weather
[8:10]: Growing up as a twin interested in interior spaces
[9:00]: Love for “normal” houses and the built environment
[10:00]: The story of the family farm and old farm buildings [12:15]: Lack of rural architecture covered in architecture school [15:30]: Discovering rural Norwegian architecture
[18:00]: Uncovering the cultural significance of the Vik house
[21:45]: The tendency to cast farms and working class architecture in purely utilitarian terms
[25:00]: Miranda’s Norwegian family’s immigration story
[27:15]: Pioneer and folk forms of immigrant architecture [29:15]: What we stand to lose if we lose our historic buildings [36:00]: Americanization and the Civil War
[38:40]: The harmful effects and trauma of assimilation
[44:40]: Understanding the generational trauma of immigration [45:30]: 1900s class stratification in Norway and the Hussmann [46:45]: Miranda’s Fulbright research
[48:45]: Variations in West and East Coast Norwegian buildings [51:50]: Norwegian socioeconomic conditions and immigration
[56:13]: The America letters promoting emigration
[1:00:00]: Advocating for rural architecture
[1:02:30]: Architect’s role in reimagining small town America [1:05:10]: Miranda’s role in designing the Yes! House
[1:09:45]: Perceptions of rural America Miranda would like to rewrite