by Marcelo López-Dinardi
Ground, Language, Transactions: A Critical Overview
Texas is all sky. Texas is all land. Texas has all the weather. Texas has sea and ports. Texas is within the ten economies of the world. Texas’ population is growing. Texas is vast and expansive. Texas is all surface. Texas is seemingly flat but is not. These are all common ideas–and superlatives of Texas. They might be inevitable, yet in this vast territory, there is nothing flat. Texas land is porous and thick, not all because of hills or mountains.
Different from any other territory in the nation, Texas is an elaborated prototype of a ground. The Texas land surface is an extremely thick membrane, a heavy porous mass. There is, however, a thin layer that exists on top of it all that is not just concrete and highways or farmland. It is an interface for operations at all scales. These operations are transactions of different kinds; land transactions, oil-and-gas transactions, buildings transactions, complex spatial and body transactions.
A 1990 report by the United States Department of Interior Geological Survey documents that the deepest oil and gas well in Texas–the “1-9 Cerf Ranch” by Hunt Energy Corporation, started in April 1979 and was completed in September of 1982. It has a depth of 29,650 feet. “1-9 Cerf Ranch” is located in the far West location of Pecos, TX, where there is a significant concentration of fossil fuel extraction. Although deeper than the average well, this almost 30,000 feet deep well makes a significant contribution–and the case that Texas is not flat. By 2015 there were 291,996 active oil-and-gas wells in Texas. Texas total surface area is (including land and water) 268,581 sq. mi. There is roughly, in equivalence, almost one oil-and-gas well per square mile in the territory’s surface, with a potential of depth exploration of thousands of feet. Texas' ground is not a flat surface that we inhabit but an intelligible porous mass of geological material, soil, and water. In this sense, Texas is both living prehistory and history. Its thin top-surface layer is—where we place our buildings, the interface for these histories. The profound Paleozoic remains records prehistory from more than 300 million years ago. Our current urbanized lands (urban, suburban, and rural) reveal our cities' extremely short and present-oriented timing. These fast-timed exchanges are, I would argue, the product of transactional vision.
The tallest built structure in Texas is the JPMorgan Chase Tower (formerly Texas Commerce Tower), constructed between 1979 and 1981 in Downtown Houston with 1,002 feet. The tower’s height is only 3% compared to the deepest well in the State’s territory. Nevertheless, the building is monumental to our ground perception. Yet, the building height—old architectural tropes of success and achievement, is still insignificant compared to the impact that the hidden wells of the oil-and-gas industry have made on the substrate of the ground and the surface and air above and beyond. Although built structures in Texas are significant to the human scale, they are a minuscule mass concerning what has been taken from the ground yet create a substantial footprint in the territory. The thin ground surface layer is a powerful interface, register, environment, ecology, and symbol. There is also another ground in it, a battleground for environmental justice, human rights, wildlife, public services, mobility, and everyday life.
Industry is probably one of the most prominent words in the Texas dictionary. Everything is industry. Industry is supreme. Industry is self-governing and self-sufficient. Industry is the goal and method. Industry is product and cause. With industry comes language. With language comes purpose. Texas industry is omnipresent. There is no outside of the industry. But industry is plural. There is more than one industry: oil-and-gas industry, farm industry, real estate industry, health industry, education industry, banking industry, defense and war industry, the prison industry, border industry, religious industry, and the more common AEC industry–architecture, engineering, and construction industry. The language is the language of the industry, and the world produced is that of industry. Language exists, however, in multiple registers beyond. Language exists in spoken words, written texts, visual imagery, and built-form, in landscapes, in imagination. With language being the language of industry, there is no imagination outside of it. This language is eminently transactional and commercial. There is no common language for all that exists outside of the territory’s industries—it does live, though, in social and urban pockets. However, there is a persistent outside of the industry with language and purpose. This outside is the world of the others, of those whose language might not overlap with that of industry.
Bryan, College Station—BCS.
Cities are, by definition, spaces for transactions, for trade, for exchange. Cities are the manifestation of Capital accumulation in space. There are territories where these transactions are more evident than others. Their operations are more brutal, where all space cannot escape its invented exchange value. This place is not just New York City. Although New York City might be the capital of Capital–of transactions, many spaces escape it. Territories of leisure, love, desire, wonder, boredom. But also territories of struggle, community, and endurance.
Texas has three of the largest cities by population in the United States. Houston (4th), San Antonio (7th), and Dallas (9th), with Austin–the State’s capital and Fort Worth in 11th and 13th, respectively. If we consider Dallas–Arlington–Fort Worth an urban conglomerate, it will be the 5th largest city right after Houston. Texas is the largest land–territory in the contiguous U.S., second only to Alaska. Texas is the second-largest economy within the U.S. Transactions are a primary theme. This is not news. However, the transactional nature of every exchange makes it worth further observation.
There is much attention to big cities, particularly if they are among the largest in the country. There is much attention to the southern border. There is also some attention to the rural world. There is, however, not much attention to small–to–midsize cities. They operate under the radar and are subjected to the big cities, even more in the context of Texas. For example, there is much discussion of the Texas Triangle and its impact as a single conurbation. Likewise, there is a heavy discussion about the southern border, the rural lands, and their political implications. Yet, these are not the only territories of interest and impact in the region. Some less discussed and analyzed midsize territories with resonance at multiple scales can help render visible some of the issues common to all territories around. An Agenda for BCS locates one of these territories in context.
Bryan, TX is mainly known as the attachment and neighbor to the more known College Station, TX. The latter, home of Texas A&M University, has grown primarily as a college town. Still, a significant one since the university has one of the largest student populations in the country, with almost 70,000 students (~64k at College Station). However, the two cities are thoroughly intertwined as they entertain the university's people, culture, and research products. They are also fertile territory for companies, developments, and research facilities that are welcome in a place with soft regulations and heavy support of all forms of industries. An Agenda for BCS identifies, through intersectional territorial research, critical points of departure from where to produce alternatives. The agenda was primarily a personal interest in setting up the framework for my architectural studios at my arrival in Texas. Given the rich discovery of findings, perhaps not unique yet meaningful as much as they are ignored, I decided to articulate them in this digital book and make them public. The agenda is both analysis and proposition.
The projects presented here are a selection of two undergraduate and one graduate architecture studio taught in Fall 2018, Spring 2019, and Fall 2019. All courses were conducted in the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University. All studios included a readings seminar to frame the larger political, social, and cultural questions that define our contemporaneity beyond architecture. The topics included: biopolitics and neoliberalism, knowledge and research in the public university, digital technologies, commons and the right to the city, environmental justice, racial and social segregation, or democracy. The readings were followed and intertwined with an open mapping and city-scale research driven by the existing phenomena of each location. The findings varied considerably, allowing students to develop a personal interest in their project. The topics, questions, and projects that shape the agenda are in dialogue with:
- Landfill and Wastelands
- Park Waters Remediation
- Ecology, Housing and City Limits
- Public Parks Reprogramming
- Collective Mobility
- Rural Growth
- Extraction Remediation
- Self-Contained Life
- Community Land Ownership
- Retrofitting the Strip Mall
- Automation and the Cloud City
- Automation and Students’ Leisure
- City and Body Optics
- Bioterror and the City
Although the topics above may seem abstract and broad, they emerged partly through the documentation of simple things as evidence. Things such as sidewalks, street radius, real estate advertisements, color palettes, city ordinances, flooding maps, news clips, among many others. Concrete evidence framed within the more significant social, political, and economic analysis offered manifests in tangible form the elusive nature of complexity. By facilitating a framework to process complexity, students find agency and explore tools to imagine alternative futures.
The studio projects represent the construction of alterity for Texas, an otherness that recognizes the region's pressing issues. The projects offer alternatives to support the evidence of another possible ground, another possible language, and the possibility of a non-commercial, non-extractive transaction-driven scape. Students discovered and proposed ideas for the city as a political space—something not taken for granted in our context, a vast territory of deregulation. Ground, language, and transactions were envisioned as problematic scenarios, spaces of opportunities, and territory for collective imagination.
The agenda is presented throughout the mappings and projects to further a dialogue on their proposed assertion. More than immediate solutions, the projects consider design a form of engagement and a critical tool for the imagination of non-transactional lives. Students’ engagement with these studios evidenced the need, interest, and willingness to articulate the spaces of others.