"Modernization and Architecture Under the Rural Electrification Administration, 1935-1945" by Sarah K. Rovang, Ph.D., Brown University, May 2016.
abstract V.1 (as it appeared in the official manuscript)
In the campaign to bring electricity to the American farm, the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration (REA) enlisted architecture to ideological and propagandistic ends. Though REA’s main goal was the extension of power lines, during the late interwar years it also oversaw the design of dozens of power plants and cooperative buildings in a standardized, modernist style. For REA, it was not enough to modernize farm buildings, farmers needed to be modernized as well—transformed into modern consumers able to take advantage of an all-electric lifestyle. Considering the agency’s architecture alongside other contemporary attempts to grapple with the future of the American farm, I frame REA’s modernism as distinctly rural, simultaneously promoting electrical modernization and recalling an idealized agrarian past. While fascination with America’s historical vernacular forms has been well documented in the visual arts, I observe a similar phenomenon in REA’s architecture. In doing so, my project presents an alternative conceptualization of interwar American architectural modernism, which previous scholarship has predominantly associated with industry, urbanism, and elite domesticity. Understanding electricity and architecture as mutually constitutive modernizing forces, I argue that REA promoted a distinctive style of modern architecture that both reflected and instantiated its modernizing program of rural electrification.
Abstract V.2 (How I tell the Story to non-academics)
The year is 1939 and the place is a cornfield in north-central Iowa. It’s August and the corn, as they say, is “high as an elephant’s eye.” Look to the distance—way out there—and see that from those endless rows of corn emerges a monolithic and starkly modern concrete building. It emits a dull hum; the muffled vibrations of four diesel-burning generators housed within, sparking up the electricity to power the lights, appliances, and farm machinery of thousands of rural Iowans. This building, and many others like it, materialized the radical changes in domestic life and farm work that accompanied the advent of rural electricity. This dissertation tells the story of how the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) used architecture and design to transmit electricity and modern values to rural populations.
By the mid-1930s, electricity from centralized generating facilities powered the majority of American cities and towns. In contrast, almost ninety percent of farm families lacked this utility; many relying on the same kerosene lamps and wood stoves of their forebears. Founded in 1935 under the New Deal, REA set out to change all that by forming rural electrical cooperatives and funding the creation of new distribution systems and power plants across the U.S. But REA’s mission was not merely technological—it was cultural as well. The agency’s motto, “If you put a light on every farm, you put a light in every heart,” conveyed the idea that electricity could actually change farmers themselves. It was not enough to merely electrify farms; REA believed rural people also needed to be modernized—transformed into modern consumers ready to go “all-electric.” These professionalized, tech-savvy farmers would propel America out of the Great Depression while shoring up national defense with bountiful crops and a robust rural grid. In this campaign to “put a light in every heart,” design and architecture became key weapons in REA’s arsenal.
The designers and advertising experts of REA’s “Information Division” churned out print ads and posters targeting new cooperative members. They commissioned avant-garde work from high-profile artists such as graphic designer Lester Beall and filmmaker Joris Ivens. The monthly Rural Electrification News was peppered with dynamic infographics and photomontages that looked more El Lissitzky than Uncle Sam. In 1938, the Information Division brought on architect Roland Wank, a leftist Hungarian emigre then designing massive hydroelectric dams for the Tennessee Valley Authority, to supervise REA’s fledgling architectural program. Wank firmly believed that modern architecture embodied progressive values, and that his work for REA could instill those values in rural users. Wank’s designs for cooperative headquarters and power plants forcefully conveyed the modernity of electricity at every level, from their flat-roofed, asymmetrical massing down to their chrome light fixtures and sans serif signage. Across 26 states in the Midwest and Southeast, these concrete or brick buildings anticipated the American corporate modernism associated with the 1950s and ‘60s by more than a decade. As with REA’s films, posters, and print media, Wank’s structures convincingly conflated technological modernization with modernist style.
Today, almost 13% of Americans still receive power from cooperatives created under REA. Despite this continued reliance on cooperative power, the power plant described above is one of the very few original REA buildings that survives. From that same cornfield in north-central Iowa sprouts a new crop of windmills, whirring away above the now silent diesel plant. Across the country, rural cooperatives are caught in the crossfire of the polarizing debate over energy technologies, torn between the expediency of fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy. How we talk about these issues, and the way in which they are represented to the public through architecture (and other media) shapes the nature of the debate. As REA realized in the 1930s, architecture and design are tools not just of representation but of persuasion.