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Life and lawlessness in The Western Town

After reading this book, you may spend more time ogling the townscape than the hero or heroine the next time you watch a western

What is it about dramas that play out against a sun-drenched, uncaring landscape that drives revivals of generic plots again and again? The western has been declared dead many times, but its stock of stories and characters continues to allure filmmakers and audiences alike. What if we continue to revisit this setting not for the stories but instead its pointed observations about urban life? What if it were the towns we were really watching, not the gunfights?

In most westerns the family is held up as primary, but solidarity with one’s neighbours often comes a close second. The brutal violence that permeates these films is often justified by such allegiances. In their fictional kernels of society, outsiders are scorned when weak and feared when strong. As anyone who has experienced life in a small enough town will agree, such an atmosphere of vengeance and suspicion seems more than plausible.

Architecture culture has been far from immune to the charms of the western mythos; since the genre’s peak in the postwar years, we might identify any number of examples. While teaching at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1950s, for instance, Colin Rowe wrote an essay on a small courthouse town called Lockhart, hypothesising that the guileless buildings he saw there must have been created by a mythical ‘Master of Lockhart’ (I’ve always imagined a Stetson-wearing Charles Bronson in this role) who enriched the town’s spaces with his rugged pragmatism and keen eye. Some years later, Reyner Banham imagined a gizmo-toting frontiersman (not unlike Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson) able to temporarily and reversibly transform a place into utopia with his homespun ingenuity.

El Paso

El Paso

RE Somol and Sarah Whiting have more recently imagined the powerful role that a different cadre of characters – gamblers, hustlers and heist-men (think of Paul Newman at his most jovial) – can play in bringing about change to a town or a discipline. Extending this eccentric project, a recent book titled The Western Town offers ‘the Stranger’ (who is, unavoidably, represented by Clint Eastwood) as a similar social catalyst. The book’s authors Alex Lehnerer, Jared Macken, Jayne Kelley and Lorenzo Stieger have thoroughly documented several fictional towns and hideouts built for famous films, using them as a starting point to theorise about how architectural pieces and parts come together to form wholes.

Somol has provided a foreword that sets out the stakes. He writes that the authors have rejected two lineages of post-Koolhaas architecture – one being the data-driven obsession with infrastructure or logistics, the other a school that leapfrogs OMA back to the mute monuments of Italian radicals like Superstudio and Aldo Rossi – and instead offer a humorous and promiscuous alternative take on theory. Triangulating the ongoing enthusiasm for experimental pavilions and installations with the equally strong tendency toward informal urban appropriation, the book typifies a growing interest within American architecture circles in the opportunistic, the ad-hoc, the casual and the expedient.

The authors seem preoccupied with drawing a connection between architecture and ideology, but just what ideology these western towns embody, aside from an individualistic interpretation of democracy, remains somewhat murky. Frederick Jackson Turner famously asserted that the West was not a region but a type of society, in which individualism trumped the public good and perverted its members’ understanding of right and wrong. But Turner’s words were written in the 1890s, and it seems we should be able to find a bit more nuance today. One revision to Turner’s theorem developed in the book is that the small western town be thought of as essentially one household, with each building along its high street fulfilling a single domestic function. The communal thoroughway is therefore more what the authors call a superstreet than anywhere truly open or public. A town’s residents, this suggests, band together for the sake of safety, even if their autonomy and privacy are somewhat compromised as a result.

High Plains Drifter

High Plains Drifter

This parallels the argument made about the western town’s architecture. One of the most common formal strategies is the disaggregation of functions into a collection of subsidiary structures like the outhouse and the stable. Using this to deconstruct Rowe and Fred Koetter’s distinction between texture and object in Collage City, the authors suggest that the western town comprises a kind of ‘textured figure’ whose visual effect is somewhere between cohesive and fragmented. If the authors’ architectural reference points – Collage City, John Hejduk’s masques, Rossi’s primordial types, Fumihiko Maki’s Collective Form – seem a bit dated, it is because they are trying to revive a stagnant genre of formal analysis with roots in the relation between plans and politics.

While lead author Alex Lehnerer’s previous book explored the hapless, contradictory mass of zoning restrictions (what he called in that book’s title Grand Urban Rules) imposed on urban architecture today, The Western Town explores what kind of architecture might happen on the lawless frontier. The text displays a thinly veiled hostility to any form of planning or infrastructure, and it seems its authors would prefer individually motivated acts of architecture be permitted to give shape to cities. As a result, their book narrowly avoids coming off as an apologia for the kind of unregulated suburbanisation that has transformed the American West in recent decades.

Yet such an interpretation would seem to miss the heart of this book’s project. Parodying the arcane profundities of most architectural theory, the authors draw together a new kind of hybrid research that is equal parts documentation and speculation. The book’s obvious highlights are its intricately detailed plan drawings of fictional towns like Lago from Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and San Miguel from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Accompanied by guidebook descriptions (as if one might travel by train or stagecoach to visit them) these drawings are suffused with gratuitous detail, in stark contrast to the 8-bit icons and underexposed model shots that otherwise supplement the text. It is this representational aspect of The Western Town that is most rewarding. Juxtaposing several distinct interpretative drawing types with their artful text, Lehnerer and his co-conspirators have made more of these shoddy, clapboard towns than studio setbuilders ever intended.

To paraphrase Turner, the authors chose to read Lago and San Miguel as other names for opportunity. Approaching them as Eastwood’s nameless Stranger might, they hope to transpose some of the towns’ distilled potential into the less fictional realm of architecture. After reading this book, you may spend more time ogling the townscape than the hero or heroine the next time you watch a western.

The Western Town: A Theory of Aggregation

Authors: Alex Lehnerer, Jared Macken, Jayne Kelley and Lorenzo Stieger

Publisher: Hatje Cantz

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