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Research Project

The Western Town

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

In dusty San Miguel,* a balcony juts out over the street from the second level of a spare, one-room saloon. On either side, at the far ends of the town’s single road, are two houses: a two-storey structure with clapboard shutters and a low wooden fence and an all-white hacienda with a stylized, curving roofscape. There is dynamic tension in the composition of these town parts, something compelling but fragile (the barrenness of the street, the shallowness of the balcony). The stakes are high—the town could prosper, but most likely it will fail. Death—or just moving on—is always a possibility, but either way, this moment won’t last. The Western town, like San Miguel, is not the future city; it is the city with no future.

The Western town of roughly 1860–1890 exists in an ephemeral moment in American history, one that is most familiar today in an abstracted or distilled form—a plot-generating setup. What’s less obvious is exactly how the Western town is able to support these sorts of stories so inherently, completely, and inexhaustibly. The town’s formal and social arrangements, typologies, events and interactions, users (strangers and inhabitants)—in other words, its characteristics and characters—suggest that behind this apparently pathetic simplicity is a rich source for architectural and urban investigation.

This book re-distills between fifteen and twenty Western towns architecturally, from the scale of the lace curtain or sun-bleached wood coffin to the vast, empty desert, not in order to catalog its discrete architectural and urban elements but rather to appreciate the slight connections, overlaps, and reciprocities between these elements. From this perspective, the Western town is anything but systematic; never fully realized, resistant to any mapping function that would explain it or underwrite its expansion, the town holds together through a shaky confluence of private arrangements. Unlike the grid (which can resolve itself into an infinite number of possibilities), the Western town’s just-barely-cohering streetscape generates a single, eccentric, and tenuous collective, a grouping that is always subject to threats from outside. It is fundamentally optimistic in that it manages to exist at all.


* A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

Accompanying book publication:
The Western Town—A Theory of Aggregation

 

Presbyterian Church, 1883. (McCabe and Mrs Miller)
El Paso, 1865. (A Few Dollars More)
Elevational figures.
Sweetwater Train Station, ca.1860s. (Once Upon a Time in the West)
Half-finished wooden construction, Presbyterian Church.
Details of the town.
Inclusionary eccentricity and transgression.
Techniques of Aggregation in the Western Town.