Where nothing is what it seems and everything makes perfect sense. Fast, Cheap, and Out-of-Control is research through observation: structures, installations, natural landforms, urban growth, and manipulated landforms constructed in the great blank slate of the Southwest desert. A place where time stretches from Planck’s constant—used to record the chain reactions that produce an Atomic detonation—to Robert Smithson brushing up against the infinite on the Great Salt Flats, all of which is tested and implemented under the powerful spell of the Western landscape—a strange entity mixed in with notions of nation and empire, bravery and myth, history and fiction. The result of a six-week exploration in the form of a road trip lies before you in an ambling, somewhat desultory first-hand narration of a nomadic journey across the desert’s offensively vast spaces. Situated between the region’s fragmented vignettes of activity, I attempt to resolve the disparate nature of the desert’s strange, isolated events into a coherent narrative. Hopefully.
Colonias El Paso, Texas/Ciudad Juรกrez, Chihuahua
He was short, born in Mexico (as I later found out), and hid a friendly smile underneath a well-manicured Pancho Villa mustache. His name was Carlos, and I took his waving as a sign I could resist the urge to hop into my car and quickly drive the 30 miles back to El Paso. I walked over and, after brief introductions, we started talking about life in the Colonias—the unincorporated improvised settlements clutching to the eastern edge of the El Paso city limits—specifically this one, named Dairyland after the nearby dairy farm. I asked the obvious: “Don’t you find it difficult to live without running water?” “No,” he responded. “You can get used to anything. But it’d be nice for my kids.”
Aging trailers, crumbling masonry structures, abandoned plaster and tin. This is what affordable housing looks like in El Paso County. Priced out of the middle class housing developments that are impossible to tell apart and forever encroaching further out into the desert and up into the Franklin Mountains, the Colonias—individually-erected and jury-rigged—perch atop artificial plateaus. The homes themselves are fast, quickly assembled out of a mix of cheap and readily-available materials. But to their owners, Colonias homes are the only attainable slice of the American Dream that the region’s largely migrant population can hope to afford. The 2000 census put El Paso’s population at 563,000. A U.S. Department of Defense study from July 2009 projects the county’s 2012 population to balloon to 994,000. Some seem to welcome the implied reputability that a seven figure population affords. “I can’t wait for us to hit 1 million. I think it will give us the respect we deserve,” native El Pasoan Claudia Solis said. “I just hope we are ready for all the new people. I don’t want us to be in trouble.” But the “trouble” that is bound to overwhelm El Paso’s infrastructure can already be found in the Colonias.
Which brings us back to water. Water to the El Paso/Juárez region is supplied by two sources: the Hueco Bolson and the Rio Grande River. Both sources are shared by both parties in a theoretically equal partnership that overlooks issues of hyper-security and segregation between the sister cities in order to coexist in a symbiotic, interdependent relationship. With unprecedented border growth though, the Hueco Bolson is predicted to dry up by 2020, leading El Paso’s recent efforts to bring water in from the Antelope Valley 80 miles to the east. People in Dairyland get their water from only one place: a man with a truck comes by every month and fills up their various containers with gray water. Adjacent to nearly every home are industrial black cylinders with thousand-gallon capacity that store water. They frequently fill with algae, require constant cleaning, and are inefficient in a cost-per-dollar equation. Drinking water is another issue, and has to be brought in almost daily from Horizon City. It’s a tedious and often frustrating situation. But like Carlos said, you can get used to anything. And it’s part of the inherent contradiction of the Colonias. He weighed his options. Home ownership outweighed the drawbacks.
The Western Edge El Paso, Texas
Very Large Array The Plains of San Augustin, New Mexico
Or: Weird Shit That In Theory Should Seem Incongruous with the Desert Landscape but is Actually Perfect. The VLA has to exist here. Sure, the satellites—which are constantly in motion, swinging and traveling this way and that to ensure the clearest solar signals—necessitate the flat, high landscape of the Plains of San Augustin. And, of course, the numerous mountain ranges encircling the plains block terrestrial radio signals from interfering with such delicate equipment. The unlikely combination of radio astronomy and an otherwise untouched landscape calls to mind Buzz Aldrin’s visual correlation between the high desert and the “magnificent desolation” of the lunar landscape. But, not surprisingly, Cormac McCarthy provides the strongest portrait of the landscape: “Below them in the paling light smoldered the plains of San Augustin stretching away to the northeast, the earth floating off in a long curve silent under looms of smoke from the underground coal deposits burning there a thousands years. The horses picked their way along the rim with care and the riders cast varied glances out upon that ancient and naked land.”
The Lightning Field Long-term installation in Western New Mexico
“Isolation is the essence of land art.” This is how Walter De Maria intended The Lightning Field to be experienced. When you go to The Lightning Field, you have plenty of time to think about The Lightning Field, not only because the field certainly provokes and warrants rumination, but because 24 uninterrupted hours at the site are one of many conditions of admittance. Equally important to the facts of the work (that is, 400 polished stainless poles measuring 2 inches in diameter, plotted on a rectangular grid array measuring one mile east-west, and one kilometer and six meters north-south, and arranged by height so as to mimic the subtly rippling elevation and thus create a perfectly flat imaginary plane at the tip of said poles) is the manner in which The Lightning Field must be viewed. The Dia Foundation, per De Maria’s wishes, accepts up to six people at the site in any 24-hour period just six months out of the year. That makes a maximum of 1,104 people per season. Following that logic, over its thirty year history, up to 33,000 people have seen The Lightning Field. By way of comparison, every day 10,000 people walk under the Sistine Chapel daily; which can’t even touch the 25,000 people who each day make the trek to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.
Such precise control over the experience by which one must abide in order to view The Lightning Field has been accused of crossing the threshold into authoritarianism. Perhaps De Maria is too overconfident in his work to demand such a pilgrimage from its admirers. This immense exertion for a single piece of artwork leads one to expect a certain level of payoff and, some would argue, thereby in itself, influences and unduly affects any objective response to the work. It’s like a giant arrow pointing at “Art” with a capital “A” saying “you will have a glorious response here!” This is worlds away from a subway ride to the Museum of Modern Art and 30-90 seconds in front of a Monet, which quickly devolves into a broader discussion about the optimal setting for experiencing art, and the somewhat narrower concept of what role the museum as a repository or archive of artistic achievements plays. Land art was certainly a reaction against the confines of the museum, and De Maria saw, well, land, as the proper enclosure for art. Be aware though, what the museum also provides is access. So the question becomes, is this central conceit of curatorial control something of a cheat? For example, would your experience at the Sistine Chapel have been different if you weren’t jockeying for prime positioning among literally 8,000 Germans in short pants? Probably. So then shouldn’t all works of art demand isolation to be appreciated? To paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace, by their very presence, tourists spoil the previously unspoiled place they came to see. And make no mistake—whether high brow Dia art-traveler or flip-flop-clad Midwesterner—you are a tourist. People aren’t always discerning and can and will consume what they can’t control. And that’s why the harsh arithmetic of 1,100 people per year makes sense. Any more and we’d be spending a mere 30-90 seconds taking the same picture of 400 poles as the guy next to us. We need De Maria to force us to slow down.
They came alive again at 6:02 a.m., as the sky in the East began to glow. The poles were rather building to a crescendo. A chorus of subtle hues, constantly morphing pinks, oranges, blood reds. My back was to the sun, but the field was exploding in front of me. At this point, the poles and landscape were working in perfect harmony, playing off of each other. Inextricably linked, everything belonging, I became the interloper, the solitary, ascetic figure in a Friedrich painting, engaged in seemingly profound thought. At 6:14 the sun crested the ridge line and, as if on cue, the silence was shattered by screaming and chortling from coyotes inside the valley. By 6:47 the sun was high enough that the poles were again fading as they were the day before, silently waiting for the next group of tourists. Oh yeah, and no, there wasnâ€™t any lightning.
Monument Valley Utah
Spiral Jetty The Great Salt Lake, Utah
Hyperbole crystallizes on Spiral Jetty like salt deposits. Canonized as the epitome of land art, it is “the quintessential heroic gesture in the landscape.” Time and art history texts have relegated it to the status of masterpiece, unquestioningly titling it the iconic post-war artwork, classified as the ultimate embrace of the Western landscape, with a direct link to the primal, prehistoric apologue of life and death. As an art object, Spiral Jetty traffics in myth in spades. Case in point: About two years after it was completed, Spiral Jetty was swallowed up by the waters of the Great Salt Lake, unwittingly creating a small cabal of people—those who had actually seen it—to fan the art world and spread its gospel. At the height of its popularity, it no longer existed as a physical entity, but rather as an idea and media object that was disseminated through film, photography, drawings, diagrams, and writing. Having all but faded from memory by the late 1990s, Spiral Jetty and its creator Robert Smithson experienced a resurgence in 2002 when the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Whitney debuted a major Smithson retrospective that was fortuitously staged simultaneously with the reemergence of the jetty itself. After 30 years, it rose again out of the lake like an Authurian legend, almost as if the waterline of the Great Salt Lake itself was under the museums’ command.
A hot topic in the architectural world right now is ‘emergence,’ a topic which, although vague, I would argue is inherent to Spiral Jetty as the concept that process is more important that the final piece, and time produces interesting and unexpected results that are outside the reach of the creator. The crystallization of the salt particles, the ever-shifting water levels, the dissolution of the pure form to something a little fuzzier, the way the water gets all foamy as it laps up against the rocks—these are all things that Smithson could have neither planned nor predicted. Object and site move forward together as something new. Construction is also destruction, and the built-in obsolescence of Spiral Jetty is paralleled and alluded to in the fate of the dinosaurs. Even at its conception, the clock was ticking. You can walk the spiral in less than five minutes. It’s smaller than you think (vaguely disappointing). And with the recession of the water level, you can cut back across the coils, leaving footprints in the white salt. It crackles and hums as the microscopic salt crystals break (delightful). And absorbing the bizarre atmosphere of the place, dangling my feet in the surprisingly warm water, the salt already crystallizing between my toes, while pondering the peculiar evening redness of the place (exhilarating), I thought back to Smithson’s quote that “a great artist can make art by simply casting a glance.”
You know you are getting close to Pahrump when the roadside billboards start advertising the “legal delights” that lie ahead. The signs have a back-of-the-newspaper-strip-club-ad aesthetic (think black background, lots of fonts, prominent use of the letter “x”) complete with stock photo image of a sultry (lazy-eyed), pouty-lipped (sleepy) blonde with a generic nom-de-sex like Mandy. But the town itself, located 50 miles east of Las Vegas, carries an air of self-referential irony. Pahrump bills itself as “The New Old West,” and seems to be shooting for something along the lines of a kitschy Wild West saloon re-enactment, complete with swinging doors populated by straight-from-central-casting whisky-swiggin’ cowboys and sweetnatured high-kicking gals. It’s all rendered in an innocuous, Disneyfied version of the actual West, never mind the fact that, you know, actual sex is happening out back and the less said about mandatory HIV testing, condom distribution, bombed-out trailer homes, and wage disputes, the better. The myth of the West is played out in the realities of this best little desert town where casinos outnumber schools, the number of brothels and street lights are equal (two), muscle cars have replaced horses, and everyone goes about life with a half-concealed smile because they are in on the joke. Reminding you that southern hospitality is alive and well is a sign dripping with innuendos thanking you one last time as you ride out into the sunset. That Michael Jackson lived and home-schooled his kids in Pahrump is one of the least interesting things about it.
Death Valley 282 feet below sea level, California
“That old cut out on the mesa” was the description given by the waitress at Overton’s Sugars Home Plate Restaurant and Sports Memorabilia fine dining establishment in response to my query as to whether she knew the way to Double Negative. I received the distinct impression that the folks of Overton had either never been out to Double Negative, and/or didn’t hold it in very high regard. Instead, the two other patrons enjoying an afternoon meal at SHPRandSM suggested I look at the “tank that is parked in front of the old post office” or the “house Double Negative
that looks like a castle” as being more interesting (both of which I did indeed end up
Mormon Mesa, Nevada
seeing but I must admit I still found Double Negative to be far superior). The dirt road out of the nearby town of Overton, Nevada, is monotonously flat, until you reach the edge of an embankment where the road shoots up, a sight that when viewed through the front windshield of a four-cylinder Grand Am seems impossibly steep with dirt that is treacherously loose. Atop the Mormon Mesa one finds Double Negative, where Michael Heizer removed 244,800 tons of sandstone and rhyolite from the mesa’s edge to create two trenches facing each other on opposite sides of the cliff. The channels are around 50 feet deep and 30 feet wide, as well as approximately 750 feet and 325 feet in length, respectively. The Museum of Contemporary Art describes the work as a 1500 x 50 x 30 foot “sculpture”. (Aside: how can something this remote and this huge, be considered part of a Los Angeles museum’s collection? Is that antithetical to the staunchly anti-gallery ethos espoused by some land art practitioners?) Geologists measure the processes that formed the Mormon Mesa in epochal time scales, formed by the twin processes of weathering and erosion. The same geological history can be observed in a smaller, vastly accelerated scale as the once-crisp, manmade edges of Michael Heizer’s Double Negative deteriorate. The 1969 artwork is like a tiny artificial blip in the geological history as the incontrovertible mass of the desert moves back in to reclaim the void which was removed.
At least from an architectural standpoint, what is most interesting about Double Negative is the power of the void—a place where a slit in the desert can hold and command your eye in the panoramic expanse of the desert. This is also singular in being the first place on my trip where something wasn’t sticking out of the desert scrub, but rather bringing the sky down into the earth. Think about the Twin Towers (or even the Petronas Towers): what really made them powerful was the slot of void between them and the way the blue sky captured between them felt different from the blue sky around it. It held the void the same way the two trenches hold space. It’s so powerful you can almost hear the light moving between the embrace. That Heizer is letting Double Negative deteriorate and erode to the point where original intent is hidden allows it to become a further enigmatic, more primitive part of the landscape. The disintegration of the boundaries allows the softer indentation to achieve a greater continuity of experience from inside the event to outside—for example, from landscape to art. It becomes a compound object, something language doesn’t necessarily give us the luxury to “know” well enough to describe, and opens the possibility of allowing the object to “just be.” Unable to stand still, I had no choice but to run through them—even while panting in the brutal 110-degree August heat.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
The popular perception of the American Indian has to be one of the most malleable concepts in our history. Wrapped up in fear and guilt, modern-day renditions have been everything from exterminable threat, to endangered noble savage, to hippie-like ecological warrior. Never mind that none of these precepts are at all accurate, but at least the active placement of Indian culture somewhere in the annals of American thought is preferable to their current status as an invisible afterthought. Walking around on a ranger-led tour of the abandoned cliffdwellings at Mesa Verde, I latched on to two big takeaways. First: architecturally and tectonically Mesa Verde is beautiful, Cliff Palace especially. And second: A palpable sense of unreality distances the visitor from having any meaningful connection to the people who lived there. The Park Service museum isn’t much help. The ’70s-era dioramas of Indian life in the museum were rendered pretty ridiculous by their blatant attempts to Westernize 13th-century Pueblo life. (Barbecues around the kiva and playing fetch with the dog? For shame.) But in the end, it’s all speculation. The last Pueblo cliff-dwellers who left around 1400 weren’t big on keeping any type of written historical record. Their only references to Mesa Verde are proclamations that it was simply time to leave, which, to an archeologist, must be frustratingly inadequate. To the Pueblo, however, time is the answer. Time is like the seasons. Not Western linear time – where this event happened at this time which in turn caused this proceeding thing to happen—but a circular, continual infinity. So, conceivably, Mesa Verde could be inhabited again. I wish I could imagine that. But as the steady stream of buses unloaded another batch of brightly-colored tourists, nothing could have seemed farther from reality.
A pretty good indicator of the economic health of El Paso is found in the number of stores tucked into the Sunland Park Mall that deal in only one type of good (clothing) that, storewide, all ring up for the same price (a price less than a student-discounted movie ticket in New York City); as it stands that number is at least three. Think dollar stores. There’s the store where every clothing item is $8.80 (but not $8.88!), the store that only sells Mexican-flavored cowboy hats for $7 (where the arcade used to be), and the store that is basically Puff ’s $12 Zoo Mount Christo Rey
but now has a different, less-cool name. Most of the national chains left the uniquely
El Paso, Texas
predetermined claustrophobia that defines the enclosed-mall for the cheap, ample and available land around the desert that was waiting for strip malls. A better indicator of the economic health of this border town is found in census data which shows that the city’s poverty rate tops 27 percent, and the median income hovers significantly below the national average of $48,000 at around $35,600. El Paso’s population is also over three-quarters Hispanic, while a quarter of the population is foreign-born. If you’re a fan of talk radio, or are familiar with the rancorous fulminations over the very existence of legal and illegal immigration—part of that broader, more general right wing fear of the “other”—it must come as a surprise that El Paso is one of the safest cities in the country, not to mention the happiest. El Paso is the third safest urban center (after Honolulu and New York) with only 18 murders in 2007 in a city over 700,000, and was recently ranked by Men’s Health magazine as the second “happiest” place in America. The title of number one happiest place in the country went to Laredo, Texas, another border town north of the river. That El Paso is safely ensconced in an embrace of jocularity across a shallow river from blood-soaked Juárez is another indicator that, in spite of seemingly contradictory evidence, the border provides a delicate alternate model for economic growth, one that is beset by constant danger by overblown concerns of national security and ever-higher barriers.
The Wall El Paso, Texas / Ciudad Juรกrez, Chihuahua
The wall is winning. When former Juárez mayor Gustavo Elizando stated that the only way “the cities in this region can make it, is to forget that a line and a river exist here,” he was referring to an economic co-dependence. El Paso and Juárez have generated a series of overlapping economic and functional circulation realities between the cities that circumvent the traditional gatekeeper role of boundaries. Culture, family, and a never ending supply of labor pass back and forth in an asymmetrical relationship of twin cities—one twin richer, the other bigger—that leads to a mutual beneficence. However, there is a constant danger that the pass will be choked off, the doors will close, and the cities will drift. By 2050, racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. will outnumber non-Hispanic whites; one out of every four will be Hispanic. With population growth comes greater political influence. El Paso provides a handicapped preview of what the future will look like in political and cultural reality. One that is, and was, avoidable in the post-2001 rush to close the borders. A premonition of the mutual benefit to be had in monetary wellbeing that comes from accepting that culture, economics, and politics are entwined, and nurturing the open, cross-pollination of people and ideas—that the lowering of the wall—can allow everyone along the border to thrive. That belief is losing. The wall is winning.
“No creo en el libre.” Two neighbors are meeting at the terminus of their properties and inspecting a damaged rock wall that divides their lots in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” The narrator is playful, almost goading, and pushing the neighbor into articulating the necessity of rebuilding the wall. These are the last five lines of the poem: He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees. He will not go behind his father’s saying, And he likes having thought of it so well. He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Immigration had become a national security priority. Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez grow at an annual rate of 6.3 percent and 5.3 percent, respectively. Most of this growth is attributed to immigration from within Latin America. It is estimated that over 33 percent of the cities’ populations originated from outside the state of Chihuahua. Of those that emigrate from Tijuana and Juárez, 95 percent go north to the United States. This has created a nomadic class of people, with aspirations for a better life elsewhere. The Mexican side of the fence is less a home, and more of a strategy for escape, which in turn creates an American side “under siege.” So the U.S. builds increasingly higher walls. The difficulty of justifying the walls’ existence does not preclude actual construction. And a sign emphasizing the can in Mexican only becomes all the more inane when its citizens add their own message: “No creo en el libre.” I don’t believe in freedom.
Maquiladoras Tijuana, Baja California Mexico
There is Tijuana and there is New Tijuana. Tijuana is easy. You don’t have to look very hard to find it. As soon as you walk over the border you’re in the thick of it, a dust-encrusted Candyland where you can buy a churro, pharmaceuticals, a miniature guitar, sit on a droopy-faced donkey painted to look like a zebra, all while being serenaded by a group of hungry-looking mariachisfor-hire in loud pants. (Literally—there are bells clipped to their outer seams.) Lest you be lulled into complacency, New Tijuana, on the other hand, is a different story. It’s everywhere to the east, in the pale masses of washed-out shantytowns and factory housing. It is where there are estimated to be over one million people living, comprising almost half the total population of Tijuana in a parallel zone primarily occupied by factory workers, migrants, and laborers. In Tijuana 95 percent of the city’s homes have a solid floor; in New Tijuana that number is closer to 25 percent. New Tijuana is where nearly 80 percent of people lack running water and an operational sewage system, but where simultaneously the unemployment rate is less than 1 percent. It has been supposed that there are more jobs than available workers. The lack of an adequate workforce provides opportunities for immigrants from all over South America. Those people need housing. New Tijuana expands by five acres each day. New Tijuana is the future. They build 20,000 houses a year in New Tijuana, constructed from whatever mix of available building materials and cast-off detritus that can be recycled and reconfigured into something that vaguely resembles inhabitable space. Here, the only demand is that it have a roof (and even that seems somewhat negotiable), and without regard for anything so outmoded as building codes or permits, they build wherever and everywhere they want, armed with only the most provisional of land ownership titles. The surplus piles of tires become walls and fences; discarded vinyl advertisements become weatherproof roofing; palettes, cinder block and plywood are mixed at will. In Tijuana, squatting is considered an inalienable right. Architecture can’t compete with that. It’s too slow, too dependent on ego and sponsorship. Tijuana is fast, self-determinate, and horizontal.
That kid walking down the street next to an open sewage canal is wearing a Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey and blasting the Black Eyed Peas on a Panasonic boom box that was probably manufactured less than a mile away. You can’t help thinking about all the other boom boxes that were exported north, and all the people who then bought those same boom boxes, and the relief and comfort all those people felt at seeing the same everyday low prices they’ve grown accustomed to, and would probably angrily demand be provided back to them if somehow the torrential flood of cheap goods were suddenly cut off. Anybody can see that manufacturing a crate of boom boxes for $15 makes more sense than shelling out $90 for a unionized, benefits-hogging American worker to do the same. The twin cities of the border have always engaged in an exploitative economic embrace. But when confronted with the overwhelming realization that this situation is so inevitable, so completely entrenched and self-perpetuating, just bemoaning the North’s entitled status seems too passive. Anger typically arises from the sight of the slums, the Lakers jerseys, the Ford trucks, and the maquiladora housing all impossibly coexisting, and the urgent thought that can’t be resisted: somehow, this is all our fault. That the future is fast and cheap is unavoidable; that speed and ingenuity will supplant history and the starchitect; that the amorphous and accidental will trump the defined and planned has to all be taken as a given. In the end, we have to stop worrying and learn to love the best of Tijuana-ization while overcoming the worst. In a world where the existing urban environment is a prisoner of sorts to its own aging infrastructure, Tijuana’s notions of quickly composing and re-composing urban space in response to future events seems increasingly relevant. And the radical reimagining of the role of the architect, something rooted in modesty and a sincere desire for change in keeping with the possibilities afforded by technological advancements and popular participation, has to continue to provide new possibilities for a profession that suffers from a dearth of bold ideas.
AMARG Boneyard Tucson, Arizona
Arcosanti Mayer, Arizona
The view driving north out of Phoenix along I-17 is less than promising. With the rise in elevation, you leave the saguaros behind for a harder, rockier soil in a landscape of low desert scrub brush that has none of the varied beauty found in the hybrid desert-forest area further north around Sedona and Red Rock. The turn off to Corder Junction is another picture of desolation: a washboard dirt road that passes a gas station, a sagging, clapboard house flying the Confederate flag, an abandoned Airstream, and then, finally, a six-foot-diameter circular metal sign leaning against a cattle guard: “Welcome to Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory.” Conceived in 1970 by Italian émigré and brief Frank-Lloyd-Wright-trainee Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti was a future vision of a heroic, hyper-dense, monumental city that would shelter 5,000 people in a harmonious coexistence of architecture and ecology; also serving as a reactionary alternative to the ubiquity of the sprawling suburbs that were beginning to crop up at the time—and, it should also be said, an alternative to Wright’s own Broadacre City plans. Each year, 50,000 people make the drive to Arcosanti to visit the future. What you’ll find at the end of the dirt road is a seemingly random assortment of concrete structures sited along the edge of a gentle canyon that, taken together, have an almost mirage-like quality as seen in the waning evening light. The structures themselves are amazing, with balconies overlooking the canyon edge, a fascinating painted apse, soaring vaults above semi-circular amphitheaters, and multiple levels of stacked living cubes throughout. Each building is well-designed according to passive solar principles, which, coupled with ample shaded public spaces, makes for an incredible place to spend the day. Concrete pathways and stairwells weave through the disconnected structures, and along with the simple landscape, start to connect the fragmented structures in a hierarchical sequence. The tour guides at Arcosanti will tell you that “50,000 people a year come here, look at it, say, ‘Wow, isn’t that interesting?’ and then drive away, because it requires a total abandonment of what everyone has taken to be a given.” But how successful is the vision produced by Arcosanti?
Sprawl is an easy target, but this begs the question (especially in lieu of situations like Tijuana) that when one billion people live in slum-like conditions that are parasitically conjoined with existing urban centers, does going off the grid to live in a state of self-exile in the previously unoccupied desert seem like a viable option to combat the global housing crisis? While Arcosanti seeks to engage the entire world, the vision comes off as less of a solution to sprawl and more of a segregated defensive fortification. Reyner Banham called this desert fantasy “pure creative will exercised against a defenseless landscape.” But the Arcosanti alternative is, after all, still just a hypothetical. Funding problems, lack of government support, and labor shortages have left the utopia approximately 4 percent complete after nearly 40 years. A city designed to accommodate 6,000 people, has completed facilities for about 70. Wonky steps, cracked concrete, and a wheelbarrow lazily and inexplicably swinging from a construction crane reveal a community built by semi-skilled labor that seems to be in a losing battle with the desert. And while Arcosanti positions itself as a social utopia, it is also an architecture of technoutopia, a place where advances in science and technology allow a hypothetical citizenry to exist in an ideal state where scarcity and suffering become anachronisms. That may partially explain why the construction at Arcosanti happens in fits and starts—they’re advancing toward a future vision that is already anachronistic. There’s been some debate within the community, but the cult of Paolo (it’s always “Paolo”—never Soleri) holds sway, and instead of evolving organically, as you’d envision a city would grow, they’re still building toward his singular 1970 vision. The whole place becomes more of a living museum with a tenuous connection to the flower children of the ’70s, the liberal arts drop-outs, the turned-on desert commune dwellers, and the middle class revolutionaries. It’s still here, and you can detect the faint traces of hard-core believers in the air, still fighting the good fight.
Twenty miles south of Tucson, buried beneath the desert hardpan, lies the most impressive of museums. The Titan II Missile Museum, the only ICBM missile silo open to the public, takes tour groups, led by former U.S. Air Force crew members, into the underground structures and explore the facility comprising of the launch control center, the missile silo, and the blast lock portal. Here, you pass through the 3-ton, 12-inch-thick blast doors that lead to 110 feet of riveted steel and technological precision—a nuclear-tipped missile created with the means to end not just war, but all existence, the world itself, at the push of a button. But it is there that that missile remains peacefully cradled in the silo. The launch orders were never received. The missile never needed to fly. Peace through deterrence. That oft-spoken mantra—peace through deterrence—occurs with such frequency throughTitan II Missile Museum
out the retro introductory video and the subsequent guided-tour, that one gets the
distinct impression that the intonation references not just the geopolitical stalemate condition that was mistakenly labeled as “peace,” but also some kind of internal meditative state that allowed crew to function. No doubt a certain imperturbable composure is required for the type of person that volunteers for a job that requires a noquestions-asked-yessir approach to a command to destroy not just a far-off city but, most likely, civilization itself. I asked our tour guide, Chuck, whose wry sense of humor and friendly composure gave the impression of an utterly reasonable human-being, if he had undergone any especially rigorous psychological exams, or maybe if he even had to undergo any false-positive drills in order to test his mettle and ensure unflinching compliance if the launch codes ever arrived. He responded that they were soldiers, drilled to take orders. No extenuating psychological tests were necessary because the overall “peace through deterrence”-ness of the mission guaranteed a clear conscious. Granted, I didn’t grow up with the duck and cover films, the under-the-desk school drills, or the stockpiling of supplies in my backyard bomb shelter, so I feel so far removed from the general insanity of mutual assured destruction that the chasm of time renders the whole situation even more unreal and makes me feel even more skeptical than some of the older patrons on our Titan Missile Tour. But as futile as it probably is to try to find logic in strategic defense planning when nuclear weapons come into play, the whole “peace through deterrence” thing he’s clinging to screams of inconsistencies.
Simply put, if the Soviets (or Chinese) launched a first strike, our deterrent capabilities were unsuccessful, and any second strike would simply be retaliatory, launched out of spite. The whole strategic defense mechanism was built around game theory—that a rational opponent wouldn’t call an ever-escalating series of bluffs. It gets interesting because deterrence doesn’t really require that anything actually functionally work—the missiles could just be a feint. But it’s the perception, the illusion that becomes the truly frightening reality that the other side believes we’re crazy enough to throw down with World War III if the shit came down to it. That’s what makes “peace through deterrence” so reassuring. Not because of its paradoxical ridiculousness as a viable Cold War nuclear strategy (well, I guess it worked), but because it acknowledges that there is an inherent consciousness in our nation’s psyche. We needed it and this guy who worked the three-day shifts down in the silo needed it because, otherwise, we’d have to confront the reality that the whole thing is a deranged facade. Or, as the nuclear engineer states at the beginning of the Titan introductory film, “This is what it took to wage a nuclear war. And this is what it took to wage nuclear peace.” But none of that matters as we reach the climax to the Titan II Missile Museum tour, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The Mock Launch. Chuck asks for a volunteer. A young kid, born after 1989, jumps up and hops into the commander’s chair. An alarm sounds as Chuck, standing to the side, reads and validates the launch code orders. Target 2 is selected. Chuck holds his key and the kid does the same. On his mark, turn. Now the kid, sitting at the launch console, his hand on the key, waits for Chuck to give him the signal to synchronously turn his key. Suddenly he seems to feel it. There’s a hesitation in his movements, no longer the eager volunteer, uncertain if this is really what he wants to do. Chuck gives the signal, the kid limply turns his key. The button is pushed. The lights in the kiva-like command center change to red. A piercing air-raid siren starts up. “Ready to launch” becomes “launch enabled.” The missile batteries engage, liquid oxygen floods the missile chamber and activates the launching mechanisms, “lift-off ” goes green, and 58 seconds after order received, the missile is in the air. Thirty-five minutes after that, target strike. We’ll meet again someday. No one breathes, a certain calmness washes over the group. Peace through deterrence, peace through deterrence….
White Sands Missile Range and National Parrk White Sands, New Mexico
New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment, is where the nuclear era really began. Specifically here at the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), the country’s largest military installation. This is the ultimate war games playground. Again, like the Titan II Missile Museum or the National Atomic Museum, what was once classified as top-secret becomes a proudly public presentation, that is not so much a museum, but rather stands as a monument to the ingenuity and abilities of American scientists and engineers to construct the best missiles and send the greatest payloads over the longest ranges. The security checkpoint to get onto the base only serves to heighten the otherworldly feel of the place. Almost welcoming, the base’s guards certainly don’t seem to deter the steady stream of laughing families from arriving at the “park” to gleefully pose for pictures in front of some of the more dramatic missiles. The sight of this crowd walking along these pathways, stopping in front of Fat Man and Lance (by far, the most popular photos ops) as if they were the Space Needle or the Mona Lisa would be heartbreaking if it weren’t also hilarious. The eeriness and utter insanity that lurks in the background of all these real-life sites is like an ironic ode to the facade of normality that we all go through, living our lives in the shadow of not only these missiles but a world that unquestioningly accepts their existence. The missile park is a museum in the sense that the military is showing their past work, but hinting at the greatness still to come. If you’ve seen a video of an invisible, airborne Advanced Tactical Laser burning through the hood of a car and disabling the engine block, this is where it was filmed. Few can dispute that tactical laser weapons are, well, pretty cool, but I only mourn that new killing instruments appear outside the perception of the human eye, leaving future generations to walk through the WSMR and miss the tangible quality of standing in the shadow of an Athena missile, touching the metal and steel rivets, admiring the proportions of the radially arrayed fins. Then again, maybe future progeny will be just as happy without the instruments of war so proudly glistening in the desert sun.
Fire flashed in the pre-dawn New Mexico desert with the explosive force of 20 kilotons of TNT. Ground zero was 40 miles west of Socorro but the 7.5-mile high mushroom cloud was still seen and felt over 150 miles away in El Paso. It was the first successful nuclear detonation. Robert Oppenheimer witnessed this at the South 10000-Shelter (10,000 yards south of Zero, that is). And, after viewing the fireball he was led to famously state: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” For good reason the quote became iconic. Taken from the Hindu Scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita, Oppenheimer imbued the words with something mysterious, with some pretty damn ominous overtones that also obliquely hinted at his own uncertainty at his role as “the father of the atomic bomb.” Doubts which would of course lead to charges of communism, public humiliation, and his security clearance being stripped at the hands of McCarthyism in 1954. But on that morning in 1945, Trinity was a success, and Oppenheimer had reason to feel self-congratulatory. The atmosphere didn’t ignite, the oceans didn’t boil, and the fabric of space-time remained untorn. Sure, one could argue that something nearly equally catastrophic was loosed upon the world that morning, and it’s certainly clear that Oppenheimer understood that. But it’s a good quote, and always makes for a strong point. What’s less known, but no less interesting, is what he said the night before, as he stood on one of the wooden observation towers, in the fading light of the New Mexico evening, preparing for the climax of three years of relentless work. He surveyed the Oscuras Mountains along the horizon and spoke the following to himself: “Funny how the mountains always inspire our work.” He said this to no one in particular, almost offhandedly, slightly above a whisper, but it was overheard and recorded by a nearby metallurgist. Scientific discovery is an artistic act of creation where what is imagined in the minds of men is made real. Coming from the creator of one of the most sublime spectacles that few have ever seen, one that leveled cities and changed the course of history, this is both incredible and terrifying.
You know you’re getting close to Marfa, when you see amongst the desert scrub, derelict oil derricks, and lonesome cows, a squat, free-standing Prada store along the highway. An entirely unwelcome, un-Texan site along one of the greatest, most hauntingly empty drives in the country, the window display of this Italian couture outpost is stocked with bejeweled leather handbags and four-inch peep toes. But this isn’t Prada. Rather it is a 2005 art installation, a wink-wink one-line joke that is trying to say something about the current state of Marfa as a nexus of art and commerce. You see, art came to Marfa, and the Pradas weren’t far behind. The best story ever told about Marfa was written by Molly Ivins. Like all tall tales, it hints at a deeper truth. As the oil-soaked West Texas towns were drying up in the recession of the early 1980s, poverty and unemployment were threatening the existence of a region built on the outdated, newly-modernized, and moved-away twin pillars of ranching and oiling. That is, except for Marfa. Thanks to a transplanted New Yorker, the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, Marfa had a back-up revenue stream—minimalist art, and lots of it—that had begun luring a steady flow of nascent tourist dollars into the town. Word spread through the region that people from miles around, all over the country even, were showing up in Marfa with open wallets. And some of these new visitors were sticking around, fixing up old buildings, maybe even adding a coffee shop here and there. Before you knew it, Marfa wasn’t an old dying town, but a thriving one. As Ivins tells it, West Texans all over were intrigued by these foreign visitors and wanted more of them, and a familiar sight began to occur at town meetings: “some old rancher is apt to stand up—big old rough hands curlin’ up the brim of his cowboy hat with embarrassment over having to speak in public, of course—and inquire earnestly, ‘How do we get them gay people to come?’” Now, some 25 years later, the proverbial other shoe has dropped with a resounding thud. For practical purposes, everyone knows what gentrification is. But in Marfa, it is far more complicated than what’s happening on the Lower East Side and in the downtowns of Your City, USA.
Take the case of adobe homes. An original adobe structure is typically seen as difficult to maintain due to the poor state of wiring, lighting, and eroded material efficiency. Most Marfa residents are much happier in a balloon framed, wood-siding house, if not a simple prefab trailer, and see the decaying adobe as a blighted nuisance. But, of course, to an outsider, adobe is authenticity personified, a rarity and something to be prized. No one wants to tell their friends in San Francisco that they own a clapboard house in Marfa. In the West of the imagination, adobe is king, and homes that were appraised at $40,000 are selling for upwards of $300,000. Priced out are the 36 percent of county residents who live below the poverty line, which has led to low-wage workers commuting long distances to Marfa, a town whose population hovers around 2,000. It was inevitable that this juxtaposition of Marfa over time would lead to unavoidable and overly sentimental questions of the proper means by which to achieve civic renewal. The neighborhood cafés, feed stores, and groceries that have been supplanted by coffee shops, art galleries, wine bars, and organic co-ops are a manifestation of the notion that locality begins with social life. And social life is run by the artist class. This class, made up of vacationing residents, lifestyle tourists, and MFA interns, is a group whose closest attempt at civic engagement came when they banded together to stop a planned big box development that would be within eyesight of the Chinati Artist Foundation. Never mind that this big box was an attractive, affordable residential and commercial development that may have provided housing for some of that same 36 percent. In the case of Marfa, gentrification leads to an anti-development stance that keeps the town in a perpetual state of acceptable rusticity, producing new neighborhoods equally as shallow and homogenous as blighted one. It’s a tough equilibrium that has to be maintained to prevent the town from slipping into the anywhereness from which Marfa’s many monied residents are so desperately running. So many monied elites, in fact, that one local cattle rancher succinctly described the current state of Marfa as “filling up with triple A’s—artists, assholes and attorneys.” This finally leads to the ostensible focus of Marfa, the one man who altered Marfa to such a widespread extent, and was neither urban planner, architect, nor developer, but rather artist: Donald Judd.
By all accounts Judd was an asshole, but he made an honest effort to assimilate into the secluded ranching community he found in Marfa when he moved from Manhattan in 1971. He always hired local workers and paid a good wage. But the gulf between outsider and local was too vast, and even Judd himself, the harbinger of the aesthetes, was unsatisfied with what he had wrought. In a continuing, and ultimately futile quest for the frontier, he left Marfa for a ranch further south near Terlingua, Texas, where he spent the majority of his last years. He could never own enough land or buy enough property to attain whatever plateau of assimilation he strived for, and the Chinati Foundation was left to manage his vast holdings and artwork in Marfa. Here’s the thing: it’s all about how you experience the art, especially land art. Amidst reports of 20th century museum-goers who had wept in front of paintings, art historian James Etkins set out to objectively classify a number of factors that would induce an optimal setting to produce “strong encounters with works of art.” Among them are seemingly obvious admonitions: go alone, don’t try to see everything, take your time, minimize distractions; as well as more vague concepts: be faithful, do your own thinking. The Chinati Foundation disregards all of these guidelines. Firstly, being part of a large group is a prerequisite for touring the grounds. Perhaps there are instances in which moving through a museum as part of a group of strangers is a good thing, but here, as our 10 o’clock rendezvous for the day’s tours began, a woman and her two young children’s inquiry as to “how long this is going to take” set the tone. Those optimal “strong encounters” instead make way for harried herding and disapproving looks when you slow the group down for that second look in the Dan Flavin rooms.
Chinati is smart enough to start the tour with their best—Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum (1982-1986). The boxes have a certain refinement and elegance about them that is impossible to deny. But it is the boxes’ mere beauty that, to me, denied them true power. Notions of the sublime and picturesque were first codified in Edmund Burke’s 1756 essay in which he set out to differentiate that which is simply beautiful as opposed to that which is truly great or sublime. Beautiful objects are those that are “comparatively small,” “smooth and polished,” while the sublime object should be “vast in their dimensions…rugged and negligent,” “dark and gloomy…solid and even massive.” To put it another way, de Maria’s Lightning Field is sublime, Judd’s boxes are merely precious. It is standard to discuss the critic Michael Fried and his critique of minimalism’s perceived theatricality when talking about Judd—specifically his aluminum boxes. In Fried’s view, Judd’s use of such coldly industrial materials in a banal array denies the viewer the safety of a recognizable ‘art’ object and therefore requires the physical participation of the viewer to activate the work. Chinati would seem to be denying this interpretation by regulating that groups tour the boxes at approximately 10:45 every morning. The summer sun in West Texas is still relatively low at that hour, and, in rejecting the opportunity to experience the metal as it changes with the day’s light, Chinati ignores the theatricality of the objects, instead reinforcing the notion that the Judd boxes need neither viewer nor gallery. They need only the space—the golden light of dawn and the harsh high noon sun are inconsequential to the reading of the work. Again, a comparison to The Lighting Field is in order. Where de Maria required the visitor to spend 24 hours with the work, Chinati asserts that 15 minutes in harsh, unchanging light is sufficient, and one is left to only wonder at the brilliance that could be seen in the golden glow of a Texas sunrise. Walking amongst the mute stainless boxes, I was reminded of the sunrise in New Mexico, and Marfa can only pale in comparison to that powerful experience.
Judd’s latent power comes to the fore in the 15 large-scale concrete works scattered across a field of tall prairie grass at the edge of the Chinati grounds. Here the viewer is free to leisurely move about (the cubes are, inexplicably, not part of the official Chinati tour), alone in the landscape. The cubes are varied, massive, and fighting a battle with the environment. The struggling chutes of weeds peeking from between the joints of the slabs produce the feeling of vulnerability and a more symbiotic relationship with the landscape. Alone on the isolated West Texas plains, with only the architectural scale cubes for companionship, you briefly forget that you’re in the middle of a small town full of people struggling to live their lives. You suddenly have faith that art can be great. Judd said “art has a purpose of its own,” and you can’t imagine it existing anywhere but here. And if a Wal-Mart threatened to appear across the highway in this last untouched paradise, it would be an abomination worth fighting against. But Judd also said that “society is basically not interested in art,” and he was wrong. The last 25 years in Marfa prove him wrong. Regardless of society’s interest, art is there, driving the market. In the end, one is again reminded of another box, the box of the Marfa Prada along the highway. Because the Judd boxes aren’t really empty, they are selling another product for consumption. The product that is for sale within the concrete structures or the cool, steel boxes aligned in a row like a showroom is no less real than that which is imprisoned within the ersatz Prada store up the road. Only what Judd is selling is less tangible, more elusive, but still real: a lifestyle imbued with authenticity, good taste, and affluence. I could feel the pull, the easy choice, but ultimately it was something I couldn’t afford.
Fast, Cheap, and Out-of-Control photos: ©John Locke text: ©John Locke editing: Jackie Caradonio design: ©Jackie Caradonio
writing and photography from research fellowship