Landscape Architecture

Posted April 14, 2017

Paul Preissner: Munich

Excerpted from "LA+ Identity"

LA+ is the interdisciplinary journal published by the Department of Landscape Architecture. Teams of students work alongside Chair of Landscape Architecture Richard Weller and Editor-in-Chief Tatum Hands to produce each issue. In the most recent issue, LA+ Identity, Paul Preissner, Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture, writes about Munich, North Dakota.

Munich is a very small town in North Dakota, USA, about 25 miles on the American side of the border with Canada. Munich is a very old town in Bavaria, Germany, about 50 miles on the German side of the border with Austria. Prior to 1904 there was no Munich. Munich was first written into history in 1158. 

This is the story of (a) Munich.

The result of banking speculation and business opportunism, Munich has the most synthetic and American of origins. William Budge of Grand Forks purchased the 160 acres that constitute Munich’s city limits to be home to the next destination of the Great Northern Railroad. The railroad into the town was completed on December 27, 1904; the first train arrived the same afternoon and the first house was built later that month.

Munich is a city with no limits while simultaneously identifying its 160 acres. The town might have been physically bound but was narratively free. This choice of name and lack of concern for any urban pre-requisites prior to founding somehow allows the city to be simultaneously strange and dynamic. Munich is simply open for business. There is only land and the choices to be made with the land. The town is uniquely unburdened by any organic origin or inherited purpose. It is a town that has no past, and therefore has only a future. 

Munich builds what it needs, when it needs it: a bank, a hotel, another hotel, another bank, a house, a store. The city is simple in this sense. It has a relaxed attitude about its form that differentiates itself from other cities and suburbs. It has a main street, and on that street is where everything goes that isn’t a house. This plain rule of order—combined with its remoteness and a very small population—produces an easy downtown populated by architecture constantly off balance. The buildings are somehow pure forms that reflect their context in weird ways: light, efficient in construction, and holding a deference of aesthetic to availability. 

No building is higher than a single story, with the exception of the single elevator building. This is a small city, and populated by the strangest collection of buildings. Each vaguely reminiscent of some obvious form of architecture, but much more hurriedly put together. The buildings are both close together and very spaced apart. They never touch, but they rarely space themselves so far away as to secede from the downtown, creating a skip-stop tempo to the streetscape that allows every architecture to be a solitary object defining its space.

Munich is a city of doors. There are a lot of doors. Some of the buildings have only doors. There are a few windows, but those seem the result of accident rather than any kind of commitment to transparency. The door is the only feature of architecture with a clear purpose: invitation. These doors serve to evacuate the street, with their exterior expression of indifference a result of the apathy to the urban street professed through the invitation of architecture. This city is indifferent to composition. It’s scattered. It’s off balance. It’s a bit strange. It’s curiously familiar, but unlike anything. It’s vaguely attractive. It’s unconcerned with the market or Twitter. It’s not selling anything. It’s nothing special.