[The Sprawl Net]
This review originally appeared in the October 1993 issue of Progressive Architecture. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Hollow Spaces

By Albert Pope


Joel Warren Barna. The See-Through Years: Creation and Destruction in Texas Architecture and Real Estate, 1981-1991. Houston: Rice University Press, 1992.



It is difficult to imagine how a book about Texas urbanism could appeal to anyone, save a handful of the most hardened social cynics. The Houstonization of the American City has long been decried as the ultimate urban decline: the loss of regional/historical identity, of stable communities, and of the ``man on the street.'' The post-war collapse of Elm Street and Main Street is followed by ``Houston,'' the production of an endless and anonymous sprawl of freeways, office parks, subdivisions, and malls. This is the city that unchecked consumer capital really wants to make. As a paradigm of development for late-20th-Century urbanism, Houston is bad news. It would seem that whatever there is to learn from it, we would rather not know.

Yet the truth of the matter, like it or not, is that by now ``Houston'' is everywhere. With the pace of contemporary urban construction proceeding unabated for over 40 years, the Contemporary City has outgrown the ability of the traditional prewar city to anchor it. Just as the historical city can no longer stand as an alibi for a ``fringe'' development of questionable standards, it can no longer stand as an alibi for architects and urbanists who prefer (who wouldn't?) the more humane and civilized virtues of traditional urbanism. What should be made of an urban discourse that posits an upper-upper-middle-class beach resort, a ``town'' on the Gulf Coast of Florida, as a relevant urban paradigm? Each January in the pages of Progressive Architecture, most if not all urban design awards go to ersatz squares or reconstructed streetscapes, seemingly desperate attempts at revival, and clearly inadequate in the face of demands made by contemporary capital.

It is painfully clear that the forces of development do not want, and cannot afford, traditional urbanism unless it is economically simulated, confined to commodity centers such as malls and amusement parks, or purchased as ``surplus'' in exclusive enclaves by the wealthiest members of the population. A ``festival marketplace'' in every American city will not obscure the massive economies of scale characteristic of contemporary development. These preempt the fundamental qualities -- an anthropomorphic scale and a craft that bears witness to the human hand -- so cherished in the traditional humanist city. If architects and theorists are unable or unwilling to abandon their pretensions in order to be reconciled with contemporary economic and political reality, then others will see a way to help. And recently they've been doing just that.

Which is why someone might actually be interested in a book on Texas cities. For all the time we have been preoccupied with various urban ``revivals,'' the Contemporary City has gone through some dramatic changes that present tremendous new problems and unprecedented potential as well. ``Houston'' is not what it used to be, or even what it continues to stand for; dramatic proof of this may be found in the pages of The See-Through Years by Joel Barna. In the book, Barna examines the folly of Texas urban development in the 1980s in great detail. His chapters are arranged according to building type; each reads like a stand-alone article. Office buildings, single-family houses, schools, hospitals, housing, museums, and corporate campuses are evaluated in light of the frighteningly irrelevant and frivolous criteria by which fundamental decisions concerning our environment are made. The attempt to paint a ``self-portrait of our society'' through our built production is perhaps a little naïve on Barna's part, but he is nevertheless successful in evaluating the decade's building from a wide range of social perspectives.

This wide social perspective perhaps makes up for the lack of a consistent critical focus in the organization of the chapters. The long introduction and conclusion, by far the best writing in the book, take on broader issues and draw out more general observations.

The story picks up in the boom years of the early 1980s where the coincidence of high oil prices and the deregulation of lending institutions led to an unprecedented pace in urban development. The breakdown of the Texas economy in the mid-1980s seemed to prefigure the national/global recession of the turn of the decade, but in fact it was a very different downturn, and much more severe. To cite some of Barna's statistics, the collapse of the Texas real estate market caused, by 1990, the closure of no fewer than 168 S&Ls and 340 banks. In 1987 there was more unrented office space in the city of Houston than there was total office space in Atlanta and Denver combined. One million men, women, and children lost homes throughout Texas between 1985 and 1990.

The collapse reached far beyond these stunning statistics. It destabilized the meaning of contemporary urban development, the meaning of ``Houstonization'' itself. Confidence that the machinery of commerce could construct a viable city was shattered; contemporary urban development suddenly came to stand for something else. Barna writes:

So much money had been gambled and lost in real estate that the decade left significant parts of the private realm, and most of the public realm in Texas, hollowed out . . . all those see-through office buildings helped create a society in their own image.
As it was soon to be when the rest of the country woke up from the Reagan years and discovered that everything had changed, things in Texas suddenly looked very different. The ``see-through building'' came to represent a dramatic collapse. An increase in substandard construction, dilapidated infrastructure, abandoned development falling into ruin, and a belt of valueless real estate surrounding the city all were the specters of an enormous breakdown and of soured investments from which developers or buyers simply walked away.

What exactly was the idea of ``Houston'' that had so suddenly caved in? In an influential essay of 1981, ``Towards a Critical Regionalism,'' Kenneth Frampton identified post-war urban development as the ultimate celebration of something called ``universal value.'' He wrote:

The typical downtown which, up to twenty years ago, still presented a mixture of residential stock with tertiary and secondary industry has now become little more than a Burolandschaft cityscape: the victory of universal civilization over locally inflected culture.
Frampton's reference to Burolandschaft suggests that the transformation of active mixed-use urban cores into an innocuous zoned ``officescape'' is the realization of the Modern City as it was conceived in the 1920s: a ``Universal Space'' empowered with technical rationality which (like the capital it served) knew no political, historical, religious, or class boundaries. Extending Frampton's argument, it would be safe to assume that corporate development in Houston seemed to infiltrate and homogenize the American City.

What we have witnessed since 1981, and what Barna describes so well in his book, is dramatic proof that this process could stall and even stop. But Barna's book begs the most compelling question: what is to be built in the hollow space produced by the collapse of Houstonization?

The answer may be elusive, both for Barna and for us. But we do know through his and others' efforts that this ``hollow space'' is no tabula rasa, no blank slate for highly aestheticized urban visions of either the city past or the city future. It remains to be seen what recovery will be made from the excesses of the 1980s, but the social and economic landscape will be dramatically changed. The requirements of capital which produced the Burolandschaft have certainly not disappeared. If anything they have been leveraged to the point where they cannot be dismissed by nostalgic designers. Which is to say that the architecture of the city is thoroughly preconditioned by the collapse of the universal value which preceded it. Through Barna's book, we might understand the ``hollow space'' we've created, and eventually figure out how to work with it.


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