The Institute’s Big Brown Barn
April 11, 2018
The impulse behind the institute began in Europe — Germany, in fact — with Anthroposophy, the ideas of Rudolf Stiener (1861 – 1925) and the practice of biodynamic agriculture. Christopher and Martina Mann, the founders of the institute, often admired the architecture of old Wisconsin barns while driving through the countryside. One day Christopher found that the white barn with a big old farm house and 17 acres along Honey Creek was for sale. In 1983 they purchased the property.
The first event in the big white barn hosted by the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute was a biodynamic conference in 1984. Using the hay mow for plenary sessions and the old cow barn below as the dining hall with food prepared in the old milk house, the sessions were held in space available – often under the sky. Tables were set up under a tree in a former cow yard and workshop space was found in the former garage and farm house. This successful initiation spawned others: A participant from the city wished for more contact with agriculture and this remark inspired the Urban Rural Conference, later the Harvest Festival.
In the beginning the old farm house served as living quarters for staff including Chris and Martina as well as meeting rooms and offices. The old stone chicken house later became a bakery. And the old white barn eventually became a comfortable dormitory space for students.
The big brown barn is a new addition to the farm, a striking facility that incorporates the design of Wisconsin barns with the arch of the cathedral, a tangible testament to the spiritual component of agriculture. In the late 80’s Chris began imagining this multipurpose building –“a space that would not only be useful but also beautiful and artistic” providing, in Martina’s words, “a sheath for spiritual values” that come with the educational work, collaboration and research of the institute.
Architect Otto Jaeger from Stuttgart had several projects in America in the 1980’s and was involved in a design project for an Anthroposophy center in Los Angeles that fell through. His disappointed students from Germany and San Luis Obispo in California were urged to consider the East Troy project. Horst Steinicke accepted the challenge and arrived with a backpack and sketches following Chris’ suggestion to blend the form of the old barns with the cathedral roof. Working with local engineers and builders, Chris and Horst made detailed plans and the foundation stone was laid with much celebration in summer of 1989.
Michael Fields headquarters is, like its history, an interesting blend of Old World and New, of the aesthetic and the practical. The heavily sculpted door handles designed by the young French sculptor, Patrice Taillebois, immediately signal that the space is unique.
The interior with its sweeping staircases descending from cathedral heights builds the theme of spiritual agriculture. Nature’s rainbow colors blend and converge in stained glass above the massive double entry doors. Each door features full length etched glass depicting the dandelion delicately sending its seed into the air while its strong roots dig the soil. Utilitarian laboratory and offices border an open gallery hall. These and a fully equipped kitchen demonstrate the founders’ vision of meaningful work and community celebration within the same walls. The second floor conference space is lit from the east and west by tall arched windows set below massive arching beams, again the cathedral. A circular stained glass window of a flower unfolding in deep colors shines over the space from the South. This flexible space with a raised platform as a stage when needed has been a conference center, dining hall, art gallery or concert hall, while executive offices are sheltered under the roof’s slope. Another staircase leads to offices on a third floor.
Meanwhile the big white barn that first attracted the Mann’s attention has been spiffed up and turned into dormitory space for students. These facilities and their surrounding gardens draw in the community. As more experience MFAI’s activities, they become part of a broadening support system.
Connecting people to the land and the people who grow their food has been a consistent theme throughout the institute’s history. This need is now echoed in the growing movement for regenerative agriculture, to “eat locally and seasonally” and, through the “slow food movement,” to value our food and the activities around its growth and preparation.