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04.04.2014
Editorial> Southwest Specifics
Southwest editor Aaron Seward considers the importance of the particularities of place when defining urbanism.
Panaorama of Houston.
Dan Baxter / Flickr

The architecture community these days, for the most part, is “pro-urban” by indoctrination. Some even go so far as to label themselves “urbanists,” as though a preference for living in cities where one can walk to the grocery store or the bar somehow situates them on the opposite side of a yawning chasm from people who drive to accomplish the same things—much in the way the “Marxist” tag drew a hard line in intellectual circles of generations past. Along with the pompous branding is a turgid conviction that greater density, smaller residences, and more mass transit is not only the righteous thing, it is a foregone conclusion, the obvious trajectory of our growing population, diminishing resources, and shifting demographic predilections. But not everyone who thinks about this stuff is so convinced.

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the National Housing Institute, recently expressed a more cautious view of the recent trend of urban in-migration in a post on rooflines.org. “As I read much of what is being written about demographic change and urban revival,” he wrote, “I see a lot of urbanist wishful thinking, along the same lines as the scenarios some pundits paint of exurban McMansions turning into slums and squatter colonies, as their former residents flee the suburbs for the cities like the residents of Pompeii fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius. Is it possible? Yes, but the evidence is not there.”

He goes on, “There is no compelling evidence of anything resembling the fundamental shift in values and attitudes on the part of millennials that would lead to most of them behaving that differently from earlier generations, and—to the extent that their means permit—buying suburban houses in which to raise their children, and, as often as not, commuting to work in the city in their Priuses.”

In the Southwest, and in Texas in particular, this discussion between urbanists and suburban defenders (I’ve never seen anyone label themselves a “suburbanist,” which may be some indication of on which side of this shouting match the true doctrinaires reside) seems a bit puzzling—a preoccupation of the Rust Belt and northern coasts, utterly tin-eared to the peculiarities and exigencies of our regional cities and built environment in general.

In Houston, just to take the largest and most perplexing example, the line between urban and suburban is fuzzy, if it exists at all. As opposed to a center city surrounded by outlying, tranquil bedroom communities there are four major employment centers—downtown only happens to be the largest—and many more minor ones spread out across a vast coastal prairie and filled in with single-family garden residences, apartment complexes, and vacant spaces left by the uninhibited, leapfrogging development. Each “center” carries its own mass and holds in thrall its own contingent of commuters, who rely almost exclusively upon automobiles for transit. So where in this “vast, attenuated conurbation,” to borrow a term from Lars Lerup, do you decide that you’re either in the city or in a suburb?

Just describing Houston is enough to make a card-carrying urbanist scoff and turn their attention back to a more northerly city with a large existing Victorian district or a fabric of 19th-century row houses. Add that to the fact that the term “Houstonization” is used as a pejorative by most architecture critics and you have to come to the conclusion that, if we wish to have a serious critical discussion about the future of urbanization in the Southwest, we’re going to have to come up with a language to discuss it ourselves.

From the perspective of this editor’s armchair, the urbanist view and Mallach’s cautious hedging are valuable steppingstones for reaching an understanding of a Southwest urbanism that breaks the mold of what either of those parties might consider to be urban. This publication is dedicated to investigating that progress in all the unique particularities of the places where it arises—as any architect worth their salt would do when approaching a new project.

Aaron Seward