University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning
Wallenberg Thesis Studio
Critic: Christian Stayner
Year: 2013

Awarded Wallenberg Studio Prize
Exhibited Promise Lands Symposium
Published in 'Dimensions 27' Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning Annual Journal

Between the West and the Western




The film genre of the Western presents a mythology of the West so powerful that it has largely overshadowed the actual place and experience of the landscapes it frames and cinematically represents. Instead it has become an inhabitable mythology -- a “promise land” in which American ideals of individuality are founded. Today, the (Old) West of the Western is confronted by the realities of complex political, social, and environmental issues that comprise the space of the new (Contemporary) West.



This project takes place in the Navajo Nation, possibly the most famous of these constructed landscapes – from the expansive Cinemascope views of Monument Valley to the tracking shots of Gregory Peck on horseback in Canyon de Chelly. Constructing vision through extreme foreground and background views, the Western removes the contemporary situation of the West, leaving a “middle ground” open for architectural intervention. The architecture of the middle ground seeks to make explicit paradoxes and occupy this spatial void by providing a new representation in which ideas of far, near, and middle are re-framed through the relationship to horizon, land, and program.  In a single architectural investigation spread over three sites, Between the West and the Western seeks to mediate between the building scale and the landscape it is situated within - ultimately creating spaces of an active body-politic in a new promise land of the Contemporary West.



The Old West

The extreme close-ups and panoramas of the “Old West” The Searchers, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Wild Bunch, and High Noon.




The Contemporary West
Intensely controversial, the Peabody Energy-owned Kayenta Mine provides electrical power for much of the American southwest (Arizona, Nevada, and California), constitutes the main source of air and water pollution in the region, and is the primary site of employment and revenue for the Reservation economies. Its reclaimed land, once held culturally sacred to the Navajo, serves as the architectural ground of Scenic Transportation.

The mine’s coal is hauled 75 miles by railroad to the Navajo Generating Station, a power plant located near the border of the reservation and Page, Arizona. This border land, framed by the three 775 foot-tall gas stacks of the Navajo Generating Station, is the site of Consumer Motel. Fast Infrastructure, as the third architectural intervention, is sited north of the Kayenta Mine in Monument Valley, a region specifically imaged in John Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers, and layered with representational significance.






Frontier and Apora
The blind spots within the construction and physical space of the west make up the middle zone through which architecture can occupy.








These blind spots include the vernacular program found within the contemporary physical place of the Navajo Nation.






site research compiled






Three Sites
The Contemporary Western consists of one project separated over three sites in which architecture becomes the mediator between building scale and the landscape of crisis it is situated within.





Site 1. The Horse - Consumer Motel
As an architectural analogue of the horse, Consumer Motel responds to its highway adjacent site between Arizona and the Navajo Nation by embedding within the ground, aggregating, and rotating, thus constituting a new landscape of form by which to frame issues of consumerism, territory, and boundary.












Site 2. The Pistol - Fast Infrastructure
Found architectural elements of water/wind infrastructure and fast food restaurant are typologically combined to create a space of accidental meeting between consumers and producers

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Site 3. The Landscape - Scenic Transportation
Landscape is taken as a referent to compose a passive space engaged through sight and movement on the reclaimed land of Peabody Energy’s Katenta open pit coal mine










Actively Constructed Vision
The Contemporary Western is constructed through active engagement of issues of site, culture, and ecology. Rather than the passive engagement of watching a Western film, each project is set up to engage the viewer through different means of abstract framing: the tripod, the mirror (French landscape), and the pinhole camera.


© Carly Gertler 2017