“Welcome to the frontier,” is what I say at the Austin airport when picking up friends visiting from out of state. It’s part humor, part deadly serious — like the urbanites here who wear cowboy hats and boots and drive big trucks. It’s been 174 years since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended hostilities with Mexico, 144 years since the Comanche surrendered to the United States Army, and 50 years since ground controllers in Houston saluted the first people to land on the moon — a moment at which President Richard Nixon said all people on earth were for the first time one — and yet all this peace and progress has not resulted in a landscape predominated by civility.
This is especially evident in Texas’ built environment and in the customs and laws that shape it. O’Neil Ford took a look around the state and saw in the profusion of cheap, thoughtless construction a corollary of the frontier mentality that motivated men to plunder the land for immediate gain without consideration of future generations. Lars Lerup, bewildered upon his arrival in Houston, saw a much older antecedent: Sparta.
Compared to Athens — the wellspring of Western art, philosophy, and politics, where the accomplishments of civilization were writ in stone edifices whose grandeur continues to impress us today — Sparta built little of lasting value, and its cities (small towns, really) sprawled across the plains of the Peloponnese. Sparta’s power was based not upon its urbane sophistication, but upon its skill at waging war, specifically the speed at which its phalanxes moved. “The similarities with the modern suburb are uncanny, and the evolution is undeniable,” Lerup writes; “the Spartan phalanx of soldiers in formation has been exchanged for the high school band, or (for a more functional simile) a loose formation of real estate agents demonstrating von Hayek’s concept of ‘spontaneous order’ by comparative price setting.”
This speed is our virtue and the terror we rain upon the world. What’s everyone in such a rush to do? Make money, obviously. But in that mad dash a lot is left out — civility, civilians, civic space. The pathway for the meteoric economic growth of the Texas Miracle has been made by a phalanx of deregulation and “right-to-work” laws. The societies of Athens and Sparta rested on cushions of slave labor. Though chattel slavery has been illegal here for 154 years, our society is being lifted up by an underclass of people, mostly Latino, who live in conditions that share some aspects of those the slaves faced. As recorded in the new Chelsea Hernandez film, “Building the American Dream,” 50 percent of construction workers in Texas are undocumented; one in five of them is being denied payment for work they completed; every two-and-a-half days, a construction worker in the state dies as a result of injuries sustained on the job.
In my childhood conception, which was informed by Hollywood and other tall tales of the Wild West, the dangers of life on the frontier were tolerated because it was also a place of great freedom. Freedom continues to be a powerful concept in the American mind. It underpins the warped reasoning of right-to-work laws: People are free to work without having to join a union, and corporations are free to exploit labor without union protections.
Perhaps what we need is a different way of thinking about frontier freedoms, one more conducive to the civilized treatment of our fellow human beings and the creation of a civilizing built environment. For this, I suggest looking to a discipline outside of architecture, but one that is often considered in the same thought: music, namely, free music. Free music is improvised music. There are no songs, no standards, no set structures. It grew out of jazz music in the 1950s, pushed forward by musicians (including the Texan Ornette Coleman) who wanted to express themselves without the weight of the rules and regulations of the establishment that preceded them. In spite of the lack of rules, free musicians still have to play well as an ensemble, and connect to their audience. The spirit is one of intense togetherness and support, made all the more poignant by the fact that no one knows exactly where they’re going, only that they’re all along for the ride. To paraphrase the saxophone player Evan Parker, “You decide what the rules are; you have total responsibility; it’s the most difficult, most challenging, most rewarding, the most fun, the most sad, because you are the one that determines all the rules.”