It has been a long time since I read a book about contemporary architecture from cover to cover. The last one was Aaron Betsky's Violated Perfection (1991), a book so revolting in form and content and so absent substance that only my misguided consent to write a review kept my reluctant hands turning the pages. By way of contrast, I carried Joel Barna's See-Through Years with me on two transcontinental trips, read every word, and often reread chapters. If you read or purchase only one book about architecture this year, make it Barna's.
Thirteen years ago, most of the striking new skyscrapers that dominated the skylines of the major cities in Texas were treated as the aesthetic visions of prescient developers and sometimes talented architects. As Barna explains, they are more accurately understood as the most visible results of the plundering of a vast network of savings-and-loan associations. For the most part, the ties that bind economics and politics to architecture are ignored in architecture schools and in the popular and professional press, in favor of the familiar treatment of buildings as autonomous objects, individual products of architectural genius. Comforting as this vision is for the profession, not only does it vastly overstate the role of the architect, it seriously hampers our ability to deal with the real forces that operate in our society. Barna's great accomplishment is to untangle the complicated web of shysterism, greed, economic sleight-of-hand, and political chicanery involved in the building enterprise so as to demonstrate the sordid matrix of much building in Texas during the 1980s.
In 1980, Texas and other Sun Belt states were touted as the inevitable sites of future growth in the United States. Developers and hopeful Rust Belt exiles flocked south to what seemed to be the last frontier. Braced to meet this onslaught, developers built subdivisions, shopping malls, and skyscrapers, especially for banks, and contributed lavishly to the construction of new arts facilities in major Texas cities such as Dallas and Houston. While Barna describes the formal characteristics of a number of these buildings, especially the skyscrapers, his real interest is in explaining what forces were at work in having them built in the first place.
The picture that emerges is not a pretty one, and it ought to be required reading for every voter and potential voter in Texas. The heroes of the 1980s -- bankers, developers, and real estate moguls all, from J. R. McConnell to Don Dixon and Stanley Adams -- in fact led Reagan-era Texas on a speculative binge in real estate that resulted, by the end of the 1980s, in a calamitous decline in real estate values, the multibillion-dollar savings-and-loan disaster, and untold destruction in the lives of hapless victims, either small investors or homeowners forced into foreclosure on their properties. In their wake, these shady characters and their cohorts left millions of square feet of unleased commercial space in Dallas and Houston, the celebrated buildings of early in the decade becoming empty eyesores by 1990, bitter reminders of the destructive power of greed. As Barna notes, ``The skyline monuments for Momentum Bank, Allied Bank, RepublicBank, InterFirst Bank, and others, intended by their builders and architects to represent economic vitality, . . . ended up as monuments to a colossal social tragedy.'' They are likely to last about as long as our grandchildren will be funding the savings-and-loan debt.
Others have discussed the link between the banks, the recent economic downturn, and empty highrises, but Barna carries the discussion beyond angry polemic to explore the psychological and social forces that lay behind the activities of the diverse players in the building community of the 1980s: buyers, bankers, builders, architects, old money, politicians. And in the process, Barna recounts stories that give the lie, once and for all, to the idea that buildings are autonomous artifacts independent of politics and other real-world forces. Apart from the banks, there are also suburban developments such as Las Colinas outside of Dallas, developed because old-money scion Ben Carpenter manipulated business leaders, state highway department officials, and others to support his project and to put the Dallas-Fort Worth airport in close proximity to his land.
Barna discusses the shifting fortunes of middle-class housing, from suburbs to condominiums, with equal assurance, putting the differences between builder-designed housing and architect-designed housing into perspective. Subjects that are routinely ignored in most histories, such as schools and medical buildings, receive thorough and thoughtful treatment from Barna, along with the more standard fare of skyscrapers and cultural buildings such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and the Wortham Theater Center in Houston. Barna also evaluates developments along Texas interstates, such as the IBM/McGuire Thomas joint development, Solana, outside of Fort Worth, a project so full of architectural stars that it is remarkable it has received so little press elsewhere: Ricardo Legorreta, Peter Walker Martha Schwartz, Mitchell/Giurgola, Barton Meyers, and, inevitably, SOM, among others.
In only two areas can Barna be faulted. The first concerns low-income housing. This story in Texas is much bigger than Barna indicates, and it involves not only subsidized projects in Houston and Dallas, but the acres of substandard housing lining the Rio Grande along the Mexican border. The poor live in places other than Allen Parkway Village (obviously, since the Housing Authority of the City of Houston spent years depopulating it), and their poverty is not unrelated to the speculative boom in Texas over the last 15 years. Their vicissitudes should have received more substantive coverage in this book.
The second, paradoxically, concerns some of the truly high quality architecture produced in Texas over the last decade; not the flashy Po-Mo garbage conjured out of thin air by remote East Coast Tinkerbells or local wannabes, but work by serious and talented architects and designers who have tackled everything from large-scale office buildings to mini-budget middle-class homes with the same thoughtful care. Carlos Jiménez is one such architectural designer; his forthcoming office building for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, sets a high standard for public projects, and his recent house for Susan Chadwick achieves, if anything, yet a higher standard on a truly bare-bones budget. What this last project demonstrates, once and for all, is that excellent design is possible for even the smallest of pocketbooks.
In his introduction, Joel Barna sets a ``tradition of minority reports in architecture,'' in which architecture is considered in social, political, economic, and psychological terms, against the more common treatment of architecture in terms of stylistic lineage and aesthetic merit. The See-Through Years not only falls into that minority category, it occupies it with such assurance and such power that it is a model against which any architectural history should be measured today. While I dispute some of the conclusions and some of the exclusions, I can only applaud a book written with such grace and wit from a perspective so consistently critical.