[The Sprawl Net]
Joel Warren Barna. The See-Through Years: Creation and Destruction in Texas Architecture and Real Estate, 1981-1991. Houston: Rice University Press, 1992.



Chapter One:

``J.R. McConnell Died for Our Sins''

A Summary by Larry Albert

Dallas's prismatic Allied Bank Tower and Houston's thoroughly postmodern RepublicBank Center present typically '80s images of the Texas financial world: liquid, self-regulating, possessed of its own internal logic (Allied) and republican, wise, a more legitimate American capital than New York (RepublicBank, a symbolic appropriation of a sixteenth-century Dutch guild hall). But the failures and hasty buyouts of the institutions (Allied by First Interstate Bank, RepublicBank eventually by NationsBank) shortly after the buildings opened and the tremendous amount of public tax money used to bail them out reveal that the imagery was appropriate only in unintended ways: money was only free-flowing and democratic enough to allow money plundered from savings and loans to create a short-lived Texas economic miracle in the early 1980s, then let it flop. The story of these two buildings illustrates a deeper layer of signs and rituals that delineate social relationships in society, all embodied in the engine of real estate.

Princes, Long-Term Debt, and the Power of Myth

The rags-to-riches-to-bankruptcy tale of J.R. McConnell, a developer who killed himself in jail in Houston in 1988, and whose alleged fraud helped cause the collapse of several financial institutions, forms a myth that became part of the Texas real-estate ritual and that helps to explain it. Even massive failures in real estate perpetuate the power of its ritual; losing or winning in the game is usually seen as a reflection of a participant's character. In Texas, the ritual's central myth is that ``the prince brings prosperity.'' But it's a zero-sum game.

The increasing dependence of the American public and federal government since the Great Depression on the principles of Keynesian economics, which encourage a society to create wealth by spending, touched off a spiral of inflation that pushed the price of a typical middle-class house beyond the reach of the typical single middle-class income by the early 1970s. Much of the huge increases in public and private debt in the 1980s went for real estate. As prices increased, people kept faith in the value of real estate; the princes of the real-estate market provided public examples that this ritual could work for all. This was especially true in Texas, where real estate was a good place to put oil money, which helped the state as it hurt the rest of the country. The princes' big deals did wonders for land values, and for the many homeowners lucky enough to have bought properties earlier.

Deregulation of the savings-and-loan industry allowed princes like McConnell to create a new temporary aristocracy. It provided a way to convert long-term debt into risk-free short-term wealth, using other people's money. Building continued even after the oil bust, because of financial commitments and the flow of money allowed by the unleashed savings and loans. When the bubble burst, the middle class, who had tried to convert debt to capital as the rich had done before, were punished the hardest.

Real estate consumes value, and thereby helps regulate the social classes. For all but the few princes at the top, the typical real-estate transaction only simulates the actions of a free market. Texas's big sin was that too many people tried to get too much of the increase in value caused by those at the top. And once unemployment rose, many middle-class families were pinned in place by debt. The bust reinforced the social order.

The bust caused foreclosures and bank failures, and left Texas with huge amounts of empty office space. Many families lost their homes and their savings. A large portion of the $500 billion cost to U.S. taxpayers of the savings-and-loan bailout can be traced to Texas. So the big bank towers are monuments to a huge social tragicomedy; rather than monuments to underlying power and aspirations, these see-through buildings created a society ``in their own image'': ``pockets of affluence'' surrounded by hollowed-out neighborhoods; empty lots in deserted streets. More ironic is that these buildings were built as symbols of new power by banks eventually themselves brought under by the real-estate collapse.

* * *

Barna calls the real estate process an ``intricate social ritual'' that ``mediates between money and meaning.'' ``Money'' and ``meaning,'' to Barna, are key words. The struggle over their significance can be read by looking closely at buildings and the social relationships that create them. A building ``reflects the social relationships'' that created it; the type of knowledge a person has about a building and how it was acquired determines that person's role in society. There is competition between the different kinds of knowledge held by developers and architects.

Cultural Capital

Developers, an elite class, are responsible for creating commodities, which they sell to the public; Barna says that their ``skill lies in managing access to money and reading the demands of the market.'' Architects, on the other hand, create and control ``access to cultural objects,'' which also gives them an elite status, but one that is based only on education and performance. Uneasy members of the professional middle class, architects have responded to economic threats by protecting even more fiercely what Barna calls their ``cultural prerogatives.''

When architects and developers look at the buildings they work together to produce and the social context in which they work, they see different things. Both claim to speak for the interests of the public, and both try ``to establish hegemony over the field in which the struggle takes place.'' ``The two types of knowledge possessed by developers and architects,'' Barna writes, ``are always in competition. Architects work to restrain the tendency, naturally shown by developers who are trying to maximize profits, to cut back on the aesthetic qualities that stimulate the public's desire to choose one building over another in a competitive marketplace, to build structures with no meaning beyond their roles as commodities. Conversely, they sometimes work to restrain developers from throwing money at projects -- misusing materials or historically validated visual codes in a way that will make the project an expensive exercise in bad taste. Developers try to restrain architects from creating works that are so expensive or so idiosyncratic that the public, or those parts of it identifiable as potential consumers, won't want them -- works, that is, that can't be made into commodities. (Arguments over just such issues fill the biographies of developers that have appeared in the last decade, and indeed, they are familiar to most people who have worked with an architect).''

Some developers have attempted to establish roles as tastemakers, apparently to show that their specialized knowledge of the world of money rivals the cultural prestige and power of architecture. Barna refers to Donald Trump of New York, but also to Houston's own Harold Farb, who sang in his own restaurant-nightclub, and whose tenants were required to affix to their car windshields parking stickers that included an image of the developer holding a roll of blueprints. In their battles for public recognition, these developers are waging a battle over the meaning of architecture, just as architects do in their own publications, which treat architecture as a primary conveyor of meaning and treat economics as a background issue far less important to the production of cultural objects. Barna also speaks of architects who dove into the popular ``tastemaking loop'' themselves in the mid-1980s, producing dinnerware and other objects for the mass market. Ultimately, the logic behind this process ``tended to reduce design itself . . . to a commodity, thus undercutting architects' claims to validity outside the realm of economics.'' The successive waves of recent architectural styles illustrate how difficult it is to promote a cultural value for architecture over an economic one, because these movements ``almost inevitably themselves mature into mainstream visual codes expressing the power of political and economic elites.''

However, partly because ``developers had succeeded too well'' in turning buildings into commodities, the idea of architecture as a form of cultural capital persisted in Texas in the 1980s, mostly as a way for developers to differentiate their buildings; to succeed, developers had to accept the ``cultural authority'' of architects.

The New Rich, the Old Rich, and Sprawling Texas Cities

Architects, Barna says, help maintain the distinction between the new rich and the old rich. New money is concerned with ``replicating itself'' and ``getting.'' It is used to build office buildings and malls. Old money is concerned with ``replicating culture,'' and ``keeping.'' It is used to build cultural institutions. ``The line between the two, at least in Texas,'' says Barna, ``seems to be easily permeable; any fortune can enter a higher cultural realm as soon as its possessor is willing to give it for use on projects that generate no direct profits, and almost anything built with the proceeds of such donations becomes above-the-line architecture.''

This distinction, in which owners of old money seek a place for themselves ``above the line of commerce,'' greatly benefits society, in part because developers' envy for the cultural power of old money is one of the few remaining links between developers and Texas cities. Because money is most easily made in Texas real estate in the periphery, development typically sprawls over underutilized land, accruing benefits to developers at the front end of a project and externalizing later infrastructure-related costs. The survival of cities in Texas, then, relies on the allure of the cultural power of the old rich.


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Copyright 1995 The Sprawl Net. All rights reserved.

lda@owlnet.rice.edu 5/21/95