- October 7, 2020
The town of Jackson, Wyoming, and surrounding settlements exist today as a wealthy, isolated enclave on the edge of massive conservation lands. It is an outlier on many fronts. Economically it is in the richest county in the nation, hosts an elite economics forum, is under one the most generous tax policies in the nation, and during the current pandemic has an increased real estate market. 1 Architecturally, the award-winning cabins, condos, and chalets dotting its hillsides conform to an uncompromising “rustic” aesthetic reinforcement. These ideals of financial success and rugged outdoorsmanship intersect through its landscape: a sprawling estate or a manicured lawn, extreme skiing or hiking, all intersect in their aims of conquering the natural wildness of the region.2 The deployment of “western” architecture and “natural” landscapes as tools to subjugate both the landscape and other cultures has manifested the fictional ideals of white primacy in Jackson, Wyoming. The evolution of this idea, seeded by the U.S. government 200 years ago through Federal land subsidies and supplemented by a burgeoning tourism economy, must be weeded out of the American West – un-seeded in the colloquial cosmology.
To understand the present, one must first understand Jackson Hole Valley’s history and the fictions that surround it. While most residents tell a story that begins with Anglo-settlement in the 19th century, indigenous people occupied the valley for over ten thousand years. Some nomadic tribes such as the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Shoshone traveled through the valley, while the Mountain Shoshone established longer-term occupation with villages in the Wind River Range. These people drew on a breadth of knowledge about local flora and fauna, hunting bighorn sheep, elk, and deer as well as gathering sorels, strawberries, dandelion weeds, grasshoppers, and cicadas to create a diverse diet that was intricately linked with the land.3 Treading lightly in the valley and the surrounding mountains, the Mountain Shoshone hunted on and gathered from the land, taking what they needed and nothing more.
Despite the relative harmony between humans and environment that was sustained for millenia in the valley, the introduction of white expeditioners quickly upset the ecological balance within a few short years. As demand for beaver pelts took over the Eastern United States and Europe, fur traders reached Wyoming and nearly caused extinction of the animal, shifting the hydrology and biomes of river systems where beavers fished and built their dam-like domiciles.4 As demand for beaver pelts waned, fur traders became guides throughout the region, marking the initial conflation between tourism and the “man of the wilderness.” A second wave of occupation to the West followed the Homestead Act of 1862, which incentivised Western settlement with the promise of 160 acres per settler. However, occupants of Jackson Hole Valley quickly discovered the impossibility of sustaining themselves with this amount of land on the dry plains. Instead, many cattle ranchers either consolidated several farms into one, or transformed their operations into a dude ranch, attracting tourists to their land to escape the dirty city and find clarity and reprieve through the “authentic” essence of the cowpoke lifestyle.5 Again, the vision of the Western pioneers making a living purely from their conquering of the land failed, falling back on tourism for its survival. Finally, the U.S. government solidified their mythical story of an unoccupied wilderness, discovered and conquered by the pioneer, through their national parks and monuments agenda in the West. To make way for Yellowstone National Park in 1872, all indigenous people were forced out of park lands and onto reservations, thus prioritizing a romanticized version of unattended nature above the livelihood of local tribes.6 Today, the town of Jackson is buffered by five national conservation areas, in a county where the government holds 97% of all land. The illusion of the white pioneer or cowpoke conquering the uninhabited West pulls so strongly on the American imaginary that vacationers, through their luxury homes and landscapes, continue to subscribe to the pioneer narrative to this day. 7
The seed of the rustic settler conquering the wilderness has also been concretized in the region’s “vernacular” architecture. Modern mansions mimic the log cabin facade and riverstone foundation of early pioneer outposts. Local architects like CLB invoke the “power of place” in their philosophy for contemporary cabin chic. This guides a design that produces dark tones of wood and rusted metal, always a fireplace, and several carefully framed apertures to capture the sublime landscape. This design agenda, perhaps first imported from the craftsman legacy of Bernard Maybeck, reinforces a white primacy in the region.8 At the apex of this architectural agenda are large homes with specifically cultivated landscapes of isolation. Castle-lodges replete with moats and bridges attend their reclusive character and accentuate the fantasy of conquering the wilderness whilst maintaining enough bedrooms to host the next financial summit. Even the region’s airport has been “westernized” in service of local authenticity and material vernacular.
Thousands of miles away, there exists another town of Jackson Hole, but in the northern mountains of China’s Hebei province.9 The town, crafted as a middle-class vacation community, mimics many aspects of its American counterpart, attracting Beijing residents in search of cleaner air and cultural escape. 10 However, inauthentic and laughable this copy-city may appear, its translation of the original myth into a Chinese context can also be viewed as the next evolution of Western mythology – now globally disseminated. This simulacritic settlement is simply the next step in Jackson’s evolution and a warning sign for pushing a problematic germinating seed to full bloom without cross-pollination.
In 2009, the Town of Jackson was designated a Preserve America Community, which aims to reward and incentivize further local heritage as an economic and cultural driver. This recent accolade clearly misses the various hidden histories of the region, but it also poses an opportunity for a call to action of sorts– one that would seek restorative spatial justice and alternative design futures.
Un-seeding the idea of a Wild White West requires further dialogue between all people of Jackson Hole Valley in order to find a path forward. One obvious path is recognizing the long history of native Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Shoshone architectural legacies, beyond the cartoonish Teepee replicas that adjoin historical sites or children’s theatre. The tensile fabric and movable structures that allowed the indigenous to live with the land do not fit neatly in the legacy of the primitive hut, but their impermanence could be design fodder for region that might embrace more un-impactful wilderness retreats or truly off the grid designs. Another path could embrace the local Latinx population (which count for a third of the permanent residents), as a holistic culture to be celebrated, rather than a transient poor to be assimilated. For example, expanding beyond the existing monoculture of seasonal homes into multigenerational housing models, which could inspire different patterns of living both architecturally and urbanistically – rooting families more deeply and permanently in the valley. Within the design community in Teton County, the lack of indigenous or Latinx firms creates a chasm in the built environment; supporting their voices in design will only make for a stronger and more inclusive regional architecture. While construction costs soar in the valley, a result of limited skilled labor and remote material delivery, homes have somehow only gotten larger – competing for scale in a market that privileges resale. This creates paradoxically grander structures modeled and designed off of an ascetic predecessor. Material futures should strive to actually use the materials that are local, rather than relying on a transnational lumber market in order to signal local values. Finally, as a recent telework hotspot and longstanding luxury retreat, the region has unique resources to actually build these new futures. Unlike the rest of Wyoming, Jackson is a progressive political island with rising income inequality. Thus, the people, both permanent and transient, have the temperament and resources to untangle the Western mythology and construct its new formulation.