No photos of tiny sheds in the colossal landscape under cotton ball clouds afloat in Big Texas blue skies.
This is a rule I have relied on when selecting photography for the cover of Texas Architect. In my five years as editor, I’ve mostly stuck to it. I don’t have anything against pictures of Big Texas skies and sheds in the landscape. They can be quite nice. But they’re also cliché — like a picture of a cowboy riding a horse — and, as such, an easy edit. It’s what people from elsewhere expect to see in Texas, and we do deliver. TxA Design Award submissions are stocked with this sort of photography/project. Many of them wind up winners. There’s no need to also put them on the cover.
There’s another reason for the rule. By population, Texas is now, and has for some time been, predominately urban — or suburban, anyway. Architecturally speaking, the action is to be found in the cities and their banlieues. To fill the cover of Texas Architect with gorgeous photographs of rustic-but-refined outbuildings on ranches seems irresponsible, out of touch — lost and agog in the mythology of Texas as opposed to engaged, however morosely, with the state’s contemporary realities.
The daily topological space of most Texans comprises home, car, parking lot, gas station, commercial destination (work, shop, eat, play), and maybe worship center/school. To a large extent, these spaces, when judged on architectural merit alone, are disappointing. They may meet the basic requirements of what we have deemed “health, safety, and welfare,” but on an aesthetic, an environmental, and not to mention a spiritual scale, they do not rank very high. They are not design award winners. They’re often quite depressing.
What I have looked for, instead, are spaces within the average topology that represent a wrinkle in this quotidian state of affairs, a wrinkle that brings common people into closer encounters with design award-level architecture. Also, work that promotes an edit to the above topological space list so that it reads like this: home, walk/bike/ride, commercial destination (work, shop, eat, play), public space (museum, library, park, plaza, do your thing), and maybe worship center/school.
You will notice, in that edit, I hope, a progressive, urban bias. There are a few assumptions to unpack. The first is the presumption of distinctions between city, suburb, and rural settings. Lars Lerup has argued that these distinctions are now blurred and that the city is everywhere. As he points out, even on a deserted mountaintop, you might find yourself dressed in high-tech fabrics with pollution falling on your head. The city follows you, even there.
This was on my mind when I visited Marfa in July, one of only two excursions I’ve taken since the global pandemic massively curtailed the movements of pretty much everybody on the planet. As I strolled around that strange little town in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos, I was struck by just how urban it felt, even while under a public health lockdown that had most of the restaurants and art institutions closed until further notice. Small as it is, Marfa is eminently walkable. Its commercial district is pre-strip-mall, and most of the storefronts, which are in old masonry buildings, are occupied by something. It has a newspaper, a radio station, a public housing authority, world-class art organizations, internationally renowned residents and other weirdos, a tourist trade, fashion boutiques, health food, good coffee — and it votes Democrat.
It has all that, and it is peopled by bona fide ranchers and cowboys, many of whom are not even disdainful of Marfa’s big-city ways, but, rather, willing participants in them. During a previous visit, back when the world was still wanderable, while I was drinking beer late into the night at Planet Marfa, a cowboy told me of his one-and-only visit to Austin — that he had “hated it” — and then he went on to recite poetry from memory and gabbed with a European filmmaker about appearing in her movie.
Texas life is blurry, as clear as heat haze on the highway in summer. Civilization comes into and out of focus, whether in the light of the gas flares and wind turbines of the Permian Basin or the glinting office towers on the suburban horizons of Dallas and Houston.
Strolling around Marfa on that weekend in July, I paused with my latte, which was made with locally roasted coffee, and looked up. The sky — a deep, inimitable Texas blue — was majestically alive with an armada of the softest white clouds, sailing in stately formation (properly socially distanced, one might say) toward the morning. “Gorgeous!” I thought, and, pointing my camera upwards, I took a picture.