RE-CONFIGURING THE CENTER
an Urban Project for Bryan,TX
Author: Alejandro Borges
Texas A&M University
Contemporary cultural congestion defines the individual experience, at the beginning of the 21st century, as a result of coexisting with a series of dichotomies such as: global / individuality; subjectivity / inter-subjectivity; rationality / irrationality; end of history / genealogy of history, individual / particular ethics, etc.
Fundamental works of Architecture and Art, those which still have a place in historic memory despite the time elapsed since its construction, are those who managed to integrate the spirit of its time with tradition and cultural specificity, those who managed to merge established tectonic and spatial values with individual creativity, and created a dialogue of coincidence of local and foreign aspects, new and existing conditions, merging the present and the past at a particular moment.
Architecture is generated from a series of interlocking events from different social levels, and being an Architect involves a global awareness of the movement of these events. Making Architecture means, among other things, to articulate the different dimensions of society at a particular time.
Octavio Paz says …” To be truly modern, we must first encounter our tradition …”
It operates at different levels, it is a discipline that combines experience, image, concept and use, and by definition merges the outside projection of image with interior, psychological space and the notion of collective.
One of the conditions inherent in being an Architect is the search for innovation. It is there where much of its spirit exists within the condition of a globalized world. The Architect must be an enhancer of ideas at all levels and a visionary, that projects into the future meaningful concepts that become concrete realities, not only as visual constructs, but also as social fabrications.
This exploration represents an attempt to transform Down-Town Bryan, in Texas - USA. It proposes the development of different strategies on the re-construction of the city, in urban and sub-urban areas, either formal or in-formal spaces, incorporating identity, collective memory, history, industrial development and technology as resources for urban / architectural processes and as re-activators of territory for private and public spaces.
Under an optic of social innovation we are able to develop strategies and dynamics of participation that emphasize individual and collective identity from the different communities that are involved in the design process.It develops tools and tactics of action + cooperation that enable and empower people with their own surroundings and its transformation.
Similar to many Texas communities after 1840’s, Bryan began as a small-town stop along the state’s expanding railway system. The land had been granted by Spain to Moses Austin. In 1871 the city of Bryan is incorporated to the Houston and Texas Railroad system. The original urban plan for Bryan is a perfect grid intersected by the railway tracks that generate a disruption on the original plan, but with a particular aspect. The lack of centrality. As the kingdom of New Spain, the province of Texas shared with Mexico the basic law of the common sovereign of Castile. This law went essentially unchanged during the tumultuous fifteen years of Mexican Texas (1821–36), but after the Texas Revolution, the Republic of Texas adopted the law of England in preference to that of Spain. This change also affected how towns and cities were conceived and planned.
This research-project in-progress unveils some of the conflicts between the laws of Indies in southern United States and its later development under the optic of the automobile. It focuses on inner city areas left behind by a massive migration to the suburbs, which began in the late nineteenth century, accelerated in the 1920s with the revolution of the automobile. It analyzes how sub-urban land developed as a consequence of highways after world war II, and how it produced the decline of city centers in the U.S.
Keywords: urban design; public space, centrality, down-town, mobility.
The urban text of towns and cities have been built over centuries of history and every generation contributes with this process of superimposition of different aspects which influence and determine the spatial structure of the urban space as a dynamic entity modifying its apparent reality. Behind all this, lies an innumerable collection of not only physical aspects, but also social, economic and those which are part of individual experiences in time. If we want to understand this urban-architectural transformations and their contemporary meaning, we must first analyze the inherent process which defines the actual character in a particular time to the city. Michel Foucault suggests that the idea of space is a condition defined by ordering principles understanding it as …” relationships between points and elements which can be formally described as series …and communication networks…” systems of order.  Michel DeCertau on the other hand, refers to the transformation of the urban space as part of a process of stratification by introducing the notion of permanence. The city, behind its appearance in a specific moment contains within it “…revolutions of history, economic mutations, demographic superimpositions…”  All these aspects remain not only as layers which generate an articulated and fragmented physical and visual space, but also as a kind of space-time collage as experiences in the minds of the inhabitants, as collective memory.
2. Texas as a Décollage
A collage is a simile of reality. it is not fiction. Our space is created and organized through the juxtaposition or collision of particular events on specific moments which gives form to the spatial condition. Colin Rowe talks about it in a rather pragmatic way when he says that the idea of city as a consequence of intentional collisions. He argues that we don't have a nature, we have a history. In other words, the difference between man and other creatures exists within the fact that we have a memory. Furthermore, we could understand the process of construction of the city as a Dècollage to refer to Kurt Schwitters and his Merz and the french artist Francois Dufrènne who introduced a more dynamic and almost violent aspect to the collage in which a series of glued components [as opposed to the collage] are removed by cutting, erasing and scraping fragments of the original sometimes destroying it completely. A Dècollage can clearly be understood as a metaphor of the process of urban spatial operations as we can see for instance in the impact of the industrial revolution on the traditional city, in which the renovated modes of production and mobility radically transformed the urban condition of space.
Texas was a very dynamic province in mid eighteen century. An undetermined territory as a buffer zone in-between different forces that occupied the whole region. Spain, France, Mexico and Native Americans collided in this territory creating a very particular problem to analyze. The Hasinai was the original land between the Trinity River and the Río Rojo that also included part of what we know today as Louisiana. Texas was an important part of what constituted the reign of New Spain and it depended directly from the Viceroy of the Audiencia of Mexico in terms of administrative and military issues, and from the Archbishop of Guadalajara in relation to Ecclesiastic matters. Besides the missions, it was almost an exclusive military territory.
Figure 1. Décollage. Mimmo Rotella.
3. The Laws of Indies and the Missions
The Mission as well as the Presidio were places for the occupation of the territory of the frontier. The religious role was to spread the christian faith, to extend, maintain and christianize the different groups along the borders. They were also state agencies financed to develop specific government agendas. Christianity was the essential condition of european society and it was a very effective tool as well. The work of the missionaries was also to incorporate the natives to the civil life. Hence, the Missions were designed not only as seminaries, but also as industrial and agricultural schools. The central concept of each Mission was the Pueblo or Village. The natives had to be disciplined and controlled in a well defined place and kept there by force if necessary. Religious and industrial instruction were imparted through a communal organization with a very limited autonomy as a small european city. Through the Laws of Indies, the natives had to be instructed in their own native languages, but there were to many dialects and most of them did not have the necessary terms for communicating the christian message. As a consequence, the whole process was developed in Spanish.
Figure 2. The Mission of San Antonio de Valero.
The mission was designed as a temporary structure. The missionary would stay at one mission until his initial labor was concluded, and then he would continue to the next one and so on. According to the laws of indies, these structures were to be passed on to the secular clergy natives after a period of ten years. This Law was based in the southern experiences such in Mexico, Perú or Venezuela. The local conditions and particular characteristics of the natives from the North were very different. The Comanches and the Apaches for instance,
were very violent and the missions had to remain much lounger in order to develop their work. This generated a very different process of occupation and development of towns and cities in Texas, especially those in the southern part of the province.
4. The Grid
After the Land Ordinance of 1785, the towns and cities in the whole nation were divided into one-mile sections. The majority of those founded after this date, followed what was established by the grid, determining how the urban configurations would develop and defining specific conditions for streets and urban blocks. The grid idealizes the expansion of the city long before it becomes a reality. Towns and cities quickly developed in the US during the industrial revolution. Many were transformed through fragmentation and dispersion of different uses in which churches, factories and housing re-located outside down town areas and they turned into almost exclusively commercial spaces and where racial barriers emerged during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Urban space is a reflection on social and economical systems. The city in the US was generated from the grid in most cases. However, it was developed under very different circumstances from the european urban strategies in which the center or the old city was limited and protected by a wall. Centrality was determined by the cathedral and the plaza surrounded by other churches and monasteries. In addition, the Town Hall shared the importance of the central condition as a reflection of power and control and where other civic buildings and the market were organized as well. This scheme was then implemented in south and central America by Spain through the Laws of Indies. North American cities were never dominated by a single religion. In addition to the British colonizers, the protestants, the Catholic church and Jewish were also present and much later the Muslims, Hindues and Buddhists. Due to such diversity, it resulted impossible for none of them to take control of the center and occupy a higher position in relation to the public space. It was a radically different process than in South America. Towns and cities in LatinAmerica were determined by the grid which necessarily conducts to the Center and its streets converge at the plaza together with the Cathedral and the Governor’s Palace. The grid and the defined center in such case reflects the homogenous religion and the hierarchical society present.
Figure 3. Bryan, TX 1927. from University of Texas Library.
5. The Down-town
It seems that the notion of downtown first appeared in New York City around mid eighteen hundreds. Manhattan inspired the concept when it expanded north from its original boundaries. Down-towns in the US mutated in early 1900’s into specialized commercial districts in which housing disappeared almost completely with very few exceptions. The new modes of transportation were responsible for the implementation of new urban strategies in which the train, automobiles and later highways generated that down-towns were emptied, as a consequence of offices, industries and housing new spatial necessities. The automobile allowed an unprecedented separation and stratification of the urban condition. American down-town areas, especially in small towns, are characterized by the absence of activities beyond offices, cultural buildings and local retail .
6. Bryan, Texas. A case study
It is a contemporary condition that many small towns in the US have suffered a process of de-population. The countryside is associated to small towns as its complement. They are now inhabited in a more provisional way. Koolhaas refers to this process as a totally new condition which takes place in the countryside. “…an essential question is ignored - what are those moving to the city leaving behind…?” He sees the countryside as a new frontline for transformation. The small town and the countryside are connected to the city. They depend on each other, hence we cannot understand one without the other.
Similar to many communities in Texas during the 19th century, Bryan began as a stop in the state railroad system. Most of those stops ended up as ghosts-towns after the modes of transportation changed during the 1940’s and 50’s and also as a consequence of the rural-to-city migration. The economy of Bryan, is specialized in mining, quarrying, oil, gas extraction; educational services; agriculture, forestry, Fishing and Hunting. As many cities in the United States, Bryan is characterized by a social condition that pretends the absence of racial segregations and spatial separation reinforcing the barriers between blacks and whites, native and immigrants, rich and poor. The value of private property has depended on the absence of and distance from manufacture industry and minority communities. The suburbia has been more attractive than down-town areas due to developers commercial strategies outside the cities in which more easy benefits and many possibilities of land development generating the characteristic urban sprawl.
Figure 4. Bryan, TX 1920’s. from University of Texas Library.
There is a tendency of reverting this process in many US cities. There are two important precedents in Texas. One is a renovation plan for Fort-worth that started in 1979 as a consequence of the initiative developed by Bass Brothers enterprise. The project incorporated the restoration of historical buildings, the construction of new mixed-use buildings containing housing, commercial spaces and offices. Sundance Square represents an extraordinary innovative urban design. The entire proposal is based on regaining space from the vehicle in downtown and develop important pedestrian networks such as boulevards and plazas all interconnected with a system of parking spaces and public transport throughout the city center to increase mobility in its wider sense. Perhaps the most interesting operation due to its significance, is the interruption of Main Street, the axis that connects the Town Hall and the Convention Center in the middle of downtown, merging two existing blocks in order to create a plaza which constitutes now the most important civic center with commercial activities, services, office buildings and more relevant, housing. Other example also in Texas is based on a mayor urban strategy. Klyde Warren Park in Dallas has become an extraordinary public space in the middle of the Arts District. It is a Plaza/Park built on top of the highway in a high-density area of the city. It generates great social activity through the introduction of multiple programs such as housing, entertaining, food and green space to an existing cultural area.
7. The Proposal
The history of contemporary urban planning has been that one that has developed notions and strategies for the creation of public space in order for the city to promote, frame and develop social relations through either formal or casual encounters of their inhabitants. Contemporary urban theorists suggest that there is a strong connection between citizenship, civic virtues and community with the notion of a collective space developed within the city. Recent approaches to looking at the city, especially city-centers focus on high-density low-rise housing, pedestrian areas, plazas and parks as a consequence of participatory strategies with communities, in which empowered citizens contribute through different social dynamics to re-think the city from a closer perspective with a stronger local sense.
Figure 5. Down-Town Bryan. Existing condition, Central axis on Main Street.
The project consists in re-imagining down-town Bryan, with its collection of renovated historic buildings to accommodate the desires and necessities of 21st century residents. Important aspects such as new mobility concepts, to work and live [near or in] city centers and to reconnect with green spaces and natural landscapes.
The proposal consists in three main operations:
7.1 The Plaza: A major central public space as a civic and communal space activated by a series of programs from mixed-use housing buildings to hybrid offices, service and cultural spaces. In addition to the plaza, an underground parking space is proposed as a response to the existing demands and to increase the offer of parking space of the future development.
7.2 The Boulevard: It is based on the displacement of the linear parking space which constitutes a barrier for the perception of the street and its buildings on either side, as well as for pedestrian mobility along and across Main Street. The boulevard connects two important poles. The Ice House on the North and the Park on the South side.
Figure 6. Proposal for central boulevard on Main Street and plaza. in progress.
7.3 Hybrid Programming: The insertion of mixed programs in particular sites along the central axis and Plaza in order to densify and activate downtown through a constant urban dynamic.
The social dynamics have changed and expanded to incorporate social media and other elements of contemporary technology. Traditional spaces in the city such plazas, parks, even
streets or cultural spaces are more related to their role in terms of their impacts on the culture of consumption. One of the most important urban operations has been the re-insertion of housing to down-town areas. The demographic condition has changed since mid 20th century. The social and economical demands of products and services have suffered important alterations. This transformation has generated the appearance of new architectural and urban typologies. 21st century down-town is focused on local residents than shoppers, tourists or accidental visitors. It is beginning to transform into a very particular european version but dominated by a more elitist condition.
We can understand the city as a product of the succession of layers in which events are physically recorded living tangible footprints subject to interpretation. This visible information can represent a series of mechanisms of historical mediation between the past individual and collective experiences and the present necessities to be able to find possible links for urban and architectural interventions with a deep sense of place.
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