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