Frontiers and Borders

The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier- a fortified boundary line running through dense populations.  The most significant thing about the American frontier is that it lies at the hither edge of free land.

– Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893.

an approximation of the American frontier in 1775 as characterized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner; this schematic has fundamentally shaped the popular mythology of the United States- from creeds and federal policy (westward expansion and manifest destiny) to popular culture and landscape design (Toby Keith anthems and Olmsted's design for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair); and rightfully so- the frontier is different in the Americas, and it is fundamental to understanding the American people, American institutions, and American landscape

Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of the frontier was fundamental to understanding its importance in shaping American societies.  His frontier thesis stated that the continual presence and progression of the frontier westward across the continent was critical to shaping the American people and institutions, and that its disappearance in the late 19th century signaled a cultural crisis for the United States of America.

The thesis was brilliant- for the first time someone recognized that the rules of the European frontier did not apply here in the Americas.  Of course, being the one to take the first major pass, there were some areas that needed more work.  Historian Walter Prescott Webb more clearly described the frontier, noting that in the Americas a frontier was “not a line to stop at, but an area inviting entrance. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier has two dimensions, length and breadth.”  It gets particularly interesting when you combine this representation with the frontier concept of another historian of the American West- Herbert Eugene Bolton.  He argued that the American frontier can’t be understood in terms of an inexorable, Anglo-centric march west.  For Bolton, the American frontier was a hemispheric condition of contested terrains; while the Anglo-Americans marched west, the French moved south, the Spanish moved north, the Russians moved east, the British controlled Canada, and the Portuguese expanded in all directions.

Wider Horizons of the American Landscape

an approximation of the actual American frontier in 1775; French territory is green, Spanish is dark blue, Portuguese is yellow, Dutch is orange, British is red, Russian is pink, areas contested between the British and French is light blue, indigenous tribes and nations are mapped with white labels; the approximation is meant to communicate the ambiguity and heterogeneity of the American landscape; borders are fuzzy and overlapping and even within national territories there is variegation and conflict

A certain philosopher asserts that a space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary.  A boundary is not that at which something stops, but that from which something begins its presencing.” [paraphrased]

– William T. Vollman, Imperial

Combining the work of these frontier historians with the work of geographers and landscape architects such as Richard Campanella, Elizabeth Meyer, and Peter Jacobson, makes it possible to understand the American frontier as a landscape condition:  a constructed environment consisting of autonomous objects in relation to one another within a larger context.  The American landscape is a hemispheric condition with overlapping and contingent jurisdictions over expansive territories characterized by bigness and smashing.  The rivers were bigger, the mountains were higher, the deserts drier, the forests taller, and the horizons wider.

The frontier is non-directional.  It is not a thick band of open, receding land at the edge of society but rather a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and divergent interests are smashing into one another over and over.  The frontier in the American landscape is not Turner’s blank space or Webb’s thick zone at the settled edge having both depth and length.  It is defined by overlapping and ambiguous administrative jurisdictions- it is not always clear who is in charge, and that creates a unique set of problems and possibilities- control is ambiguous, there are real and perceived dangers, and there is latent potential.  This contingency and potentiality generates the frontier conditions which the Scottish recognized in the Darien Gap, the United States recognized in the Southwest, and the French saw in the Mississippi Valley.  As a landscape condition, the frontier is endemic to the American landscape; marked by difficult terrain, massive federal investments, a tantalizing mix of potential commercial success and imminent disaster, and overlapping and ambiguous jurisdictions.  And now the frontier is in our cities.

American Frontiers and Urban Landscapes

looking at downtown Los Angeles; the vague terrains created by the lacing of infrastructures, the collision of cultural groups, and the vast and rugged topography generate the conditions of a frontier landscape in a modern American city

Sao Paulo, Brazil; the scale, infrastructures, ethnic heterogeneity and cultural and environmental violence suggest this American landscape can be best understood as a frontier condition

coal silos along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn; these structures are often too expensive too tear down and are left dangerously standing once a company moves on; they embody a specific history, one that is often lost or only suggested; their forms and materials create opportunities for hiding, for climbing, for microclimates; perceived dangers keep certain populations away, while opening the door to those actors usually excluded from the public spaces of the city

Today, the frontier landscape condition is encountered at post-industrial sites, in city zones marred by interstate highways and 1960’s era urban renewal, in the forgotten edges near old shipping canals or the back lots of big box retail centers.  These landscapes are not empty space and they are not thick slices of real estate awaiting settlement and exploitation at the edges of the city.  They are contested zones, they have a history, they are inhabited, they are dangerous, and they are marked by potentiality.  The issue of jurisdiction is often murky in these zones with the responsible companies having moved on or gone out of business, faceless bureaucracies remaining unflappable, and the political hot potatoe being tossed back and forth between municipal, state, and federal agencies.  There is always a perception of danger or undesirability, and often there are real issues of contamination or physical violence. Often times there are vast, obsolete technological structures from the past which must be dealt with:  the factory that is too expensive to tear down and so is left standing, the massive terraform created by the landfill, the old gantries and piers dangerously decaying, or a seductive tangle of linear transportation infrastructures.

These places have other qualities:  the vastness and openness, the fecundity of a place left alone, the history embedded in the objects, the perception of danger that creates an operating space for the weeds, hobos, kids, and birds typically excluded from the productive circuits of the modern city.  In his essay Terrain Vague, Spanish architect Ignasi Sola Morales identified the significance of these places in our cities and then posed the question, “how can architecture act in the terrain vague without becoming an aggressive instrument of power and abstract reason?”  In the context of the American landscape, the answer is two-fold:  a landscape approach is essential, and that landscape must be understood as a frontier condition.

Some Implications

barbed wire was a technology invented for use in an American frontier; its development and deployment across the North American Midwest allowed for a radical reimagining of patterns of settlement and production, effecting a shift from open lands grazed by cattle under the watchful eye of vaqueros, charros, and cowboys to fenced agricultural plots worked by farmers

Pulling from historical as well as speculative observation, we can reach some conclusions about ways in which understanding these urban sites as a frontier might enable a synthesis of new programs and forms, creating urban landscapes that are instrumental and appropriate.  A frontier landscape condition demands the development of new technologies and the deployment of existing ones in novel ways.  The development of barbed wire, the Colt .45, and new methods of surveying using the old Gunters Chain are specific testaments to the potentiality of this landscape type.  The frontier landscape not only demands new technologies but it shapes institutions.  The creation of the Texas Ranger, the Argentine gaucho, and the adaptation of the English practice of primogeniture are examples of this.  The development of new institutions pairing local knowledge with new technologies and the power of a centralized bureaucracy is essential for acting in a frontier landscape.

1898 round up on the Cimarron in Colorado; before the development of dry farming, the arid areas of Western America were often used for cattle grazing, be it on the haciendas of Mexico or the ranches of Oklahoma; cattle were allowed to roam free most of the year and were then rounded up using cowboys and vaqueros, distinctive brands distinguished them and they would be driven to slaughterhouses on the Mississippi

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2 comments
  1. namhenderson said:

    The first image of Turner’s frontier leads me to wonder what would be the implications of extending the (grey) arc of the US frontier, further down into the southern hemisphere? Although you indicate the one way nature of his frontier doesn’t apply as readily, perhaps the metaphor of frontier as instrumental edge, as site of crisis could be applied in conjunction with the question of use value and why-ness. The frontier as why-ness. Liminal and defining.

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