"The Eyes of Texas are Upon You"
On August 4th, Governor Greg Abbott ordered all Texas flags to be hung at half-staff to honor the twenty-two victims of the shooting at a Wal-Mart in El Paso the day before. “The eyes of Texas are upon you,” or so the University’s spirit song goes. Yet from the vantage of the University of Texas campus in Austin, it’s often easy to disassociate oneself—politically, geographically—from the happenings in and around this state. The tragedy that weekend, while certainly national, was, first and foremost, a Texan one, and Texas has played host to several prominent mass shootings in the United States’ history. Prior to El Paso, the most recent event to make national headlines occurred just two years ago in the hamlet of Sutherland Springs, when a shooter walked into a white timber-frame church and killed twenty-six congregants, injuring twenty more. Of course, the capital city, Austin, has not been immune to this violence: in 1966 Charles Whitman rode the elevator to the top of the Main Tower building at the University of Texas, Austin, with several firearms along with some canned food, and set about killing fourteen people, injuring scores more—the deadliest recorded mass shooting in American history up until that point. Austin, so aloof, so “othered” within the Lone Star state’s cultural landscape, in fact sits at the heart of its relationship to gun violence.
As an architectural historian, and as a student at the University of Texas, I have a fraught relationship with that tower. The Main Tower building was designed by famed architect Paul Cret in 1933. French-born, Beaux Arts-trained, mentor to greats such as Louis Kahn, Cret supplied the University of Texas with its Depression-era campus master plan: and, true to form, the layout offered an ordered, axial arrangement of off-white, vaguely classical buildings. The Main Tower, rising twenty-seven stories, was to be, in the architect’s own words, “the image carried in our memory when we think of the place” (figure 1). And it is. Everything on the campus leads to the tower, which, significantly, sits on axis with the state capitol building, a domed, Renaissance-revival red granite behemoth. Somewhere between a skyscraper and a campanile, the Main Tower features prominently in the university’s branding. It is also the site of the community’s enacted environment: protests, annual events, Frisbee-throwing. Like our very own Empire State Building deep in the heart of Texas, the tower is lit at night to honor the successes of the Longhorns.
And yet, it is the very prominence of the tower—its siting, its purposeful loftiness—that facilitated Whitman’s rampage back in 1966. I cannot help but think of this every time I walk in its shadow: how the building itself was co-opted by an act of violence. Not only this, but the dovetailing of the physical structure with the building’s aesthetics, its monumentality, encodes the 1966 event with a certain symbolic weight, whether Whitman intended it or not. This was a tragedy in Texas’s capital, at Texas’s main university campus, enshrined within the visual and emblematic trappings of the Lone Star State—perhaps most painfully, the phrase carved into the Main Tower’s front entablature: Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free (figure 2). All this is to say, that like monumental, big “A” architecture, there is something about the ceremoniousness of the Main Tower building that makes it easier to post-rationalize its victimization as a site of a tragedy. And yet, very few students today associate—or even know—about the tower’s role in that shooting. The University waited forty years before memorializing the event with a plaque and “tower garden;” it was not until the fiftieth anniversary of the shooting that a stone monument was erected to bear the victims’ names. Not even an important building and the clout of a major institution could properly remember and remind us of an event that should have never happened. Here a shooting at the geographic and metaphorical center of the Texan psyche, affixed to a monumental tower, should have been swiftly and permanently memorialized, and should have never happened again.
Which is, among other things, one of the scariest aspects of El Paso. It happened at a Wal-Mart. It happened in a quotidian place, a site of everyday shopping, a physical structure designed and meant to thrive precisely because of its replicability and its familiarity. A Wal-Mart is a Wal-Mart is a Wal-Mart: the signage, the layout, the footprints, the entries, the exits. We all know a local Wal-Mart, frequent a local Wal-Mart, or some variation of it. In the parlance of architectural historians, it is a kind of “vernacular” in its commonplace, popular aspect. In other words, it is a visual, architectural, and spatial “trope” of our shared commercial landscape, and in that way, it implicates all of us. It now appears that the Wal-Mart in El Paso, the site of busy immigrant and first-generation shopping families, was by no means a random target. But there is something about the ordinariness, the everydayness, of the place that is terrifying. In built environment history, we still struggle to bridge the disconnect between big “A” and little “a” architecture, between high-design and the vernacular. All this is meaningless, especially when the history of gun violence in America nullifies those distinctions. It nullifies the gradations between typologies: a shopping center, a church, a campus. It is ubiquitous, marring both grand edifices and, even more often than not, the spaces and places of little “a” architecture—malls, nightclubs, movie theaters. The interrelationship between architecture, tragedy, and memorialization is well-trodden ground. And our built environments will continue to bare witness to these events, whether we wish them to, or not.
Beyond advocating for gun reform, how can we shape the material world to respond to, and to remember, such violence? If the singular, monumentality of the Main Tower is an apt metaphor for the senseless, seemingly standalone nature of America’s first major campus shooting, then the ubiquity of El Paso’s Wal-Mart is a fitting analogy for the growing pervasiveness of gun violence today.
Header photograph of The University of Texas at Austin Main Tower Building, 2019, by Willa Granger.
 Larry Speck, “Paul Cret at Texas,” UT News, August 26, 1999.
 Pamela Colloff, “Memorial Day,” Texas Monthly, July 31, 2016.