Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes
Sometime during the past fifty years, the United States became a suburban nation. Although the 2000 census confirmed that more Americans live in suburbs than in central cities or rural areas combined, the increasing isolation of the city became glaringly obvious in both the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns when maps charting the voting results county by county revealed a cascade of red flowing from the urban periphery into the surrounding countryside. The assumption that urban cores voted Democratic (blue) and suburban areas Republican (red) was evident in the last presidential election where ninety-seven of the one hundred fastest-growing counties voted for the GOP candidate. However, it’s not only the quantitative but also the qualitative measures that prove the suburb no longer lives in the shadow of the city. Long dominated by the city as its normative measure, today’s suburbia marches on, trying to leave the polis in its wake.
Suburbia has always existed as a quasi-autonomous space, away from but always near the city. The suburbium of ancient Rome was the hillside area below the city, a place for exiled odious activities and disenfranchised people. The idea of the suburbs as a desirable place to live began more than two hundred years ago as living apart from the turmoil and challenges of the city fused with the growing appreciation of living with nature in general and the romanticism of the pastoral in particular. The twentieth-century suburb presented a viable “third way” for living, an alternative to both the great cities of America’s industrial age and the ancestral farms and small towns of its agrarian past. The postwar suburb offered a new lifestyle with a path to home ownership in the kind of place that anticipated America’s postindustrial destiny and decentralized millennial lifestyles. These suburbs nevertheless remained dependent on the city for their very definition and economic vitality. In more recent times, however, the suburb has attained a new level of autonomy from the city, and in most cases eclipsed it to become a more vibrant place for economic development and growth. In fact, the relationship between city and suburb seems secondary to the competition between older, first-tier and newer, outer-ring suburbs—suburbia’s suburbs. This process of constant expansion outward from the city core when seen in the long view of history discloses the simple truth that today’s suburb is tomorrow’s urban fabric. Each successive layer adds another facet to suburban history and American mythology, as David Brooks argues in his essay, “Our Sprawling, Supersize Utopia.”
The American suburb represents something of a paradox, since its very definition hinges on both its physical proximity to as well as its cultural distance from the city. The mutually dependent relationship between city and suburb is the product of both historical origins and contemporary necessity. City dwellers and suburbanites need each other to reinforce their own sense of place and identity despite ample evidence that what we once thought were different places and lifestyles are increasingly intertwined and much less distinct. The revenge of the suburb on the city wasn’t simply the depletion of its urban population or the exodus of its retailers and office workers, but rather the importation of suburbia into the heart of the city: chain stores and restaurants, downtown malls, and even detached housing. If the gift of urban planners to suburbia was the tenets of the New Urbanism, it has been regifted, returned to cities not as tips for close-knit communities but as recipes for ever more intensive consumer experiences.
Suburbia has returned to the city just as most suburbs are experiencing many of the things about city life it sought to escape, both positive and negative: congestion, crime, poverty, racial and ethnic diversity, cultural amenities, and retail diversity. At the same time, cities have taken on qualities of the suburbs that are perceived as both good and bad, such as the introduction of big box retailing, urban shopping malls, and reverse suburban migration by empty nesters, who return to the city to enjoy the kind of life they lived before they had kids to raise. For every downtown Olive Garden there seems to be an Asian-fusion, chef-driven restaurant opening in a strip mall; for every derelict downtown warehouse there is an empty suburban office building waiting to be converted into lofts; the Mall of America is the largest shopping center in the nation, but SoHo may be the largest open-air retail neighborhood in the country; and everywhere in between we have Starbucks. What was once the generic and banal architecture of the commercial strip has been transformed into the branded retail environment of today. More merchandise is available to more people in more places, a point Virginia Postrel makes in her essay, “In Praise of Chain Stores,” in which she also challenges the idea that local flavor is dependent only on mom-and-pop stores.
While the definition of a suburb is vague, varied, possibly even moot, the concept of suburbia remains potent—less a matter of propinquity and more a state of mind. The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. On the one hand, the suburbs are portrayed as a middle-class domestic utopia, and on the other as a world of unrelenting homogeneity and stifling conformity. Most of what we think we know about suburbia has been shaped by its portrayal in various media—film, music, literature, and television in particular—where it has been depicted alternately as an idyllic setting for family life in TV sitcoms, for instance, and a dysfunctional landscape of discontent in Hollywood movies. In a more recent twist, these separate qualities are combined in a dualistic whole: the pleasant veneer of suburbia masks its unsavory core. Robert Beuka explores one of the more potent tropes of suburban life as it is depicted in cinema: the surveillance and entrapment of suburbia’s subjects in his essay, “The View through the Picture Window.” Just as the quintessential picture window can function to frame the view outside as well as the lives inside the home, similar depictions of suburbia can be read both ways. If suburbia conjures a safe haven of neighborliness for some, that same image of familiarity is viewed as an alienating place for others.
Despite voluminous critical condemnation, the contemporary suburb remains surprisingly unconsidered, at least on its own terms. The reasons for this oversight are tied to perceptions of suburbia’s supposed cultural inferiority and persistent mythologies that reinforce partial, outdated, or stereotypical ideas that often present it in static, monolithic terms. The subject itself, however, has been in a state of perpetual change: from early streetcar suburbs and postwar, sitcom-style bedroom communities to the more self-contained citylike suburbs of the late twentieth century, such as the postindustrial technoburb, with its new office parks and high-tech research campuses, or today’s boomburbs, whose explosive growth rivals the size of adjacent cities and suburbs. As the suburban landscape evolved over the last century, its demographic composition has also changed. The mid-twentieth-century image of largely white, prosperous, middle-class, two-parent families as the predominant household of suburbia has been transformed. Contemporary statistics reveal a different picture: more ethnic minorities (27 percent), including many new immigrants, make their homes in suburbia; households without children now comprise a plurality of suburban occupants (29 percent); and, for the first time, there are about one million more people living in poverty in the suburbs than in the city.
Despite the real or perceived challenges of living in suburban environments, demand for such places will not diminish. Even the latest round of burb-bashing, a variation of the “love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin” approach that casts sprawl as the dangerous by-product of suburbanite lifestyles, is unlikely to stem the tide. This is not to say that the impact of climate change or $5-a-gallon gasoline won’t affect suburban development any less than it will urban lifestyles. The problem with so many end-of-suburbia theses is that they forget the most powerful thing about suburbia—its symbolism and the idealism associated with it. What might be surprising to critics of suburbia is not that most people choose to live there, but that they do so contentedly. Despite decades of trying to apply urban theory and assumptions onto suburban scenarios, it seems far more likely that suburbia itself will adapt and evolve accordingly. The ecological angle is but the latest variation on arguments against suburbia, as Robert Bruegmann makes clear in his essay, “Learning from Sprawl,” which chronicles the successive waves of criticism about sprawl over the last century.
The suburb is, if not in vogue again, at least in the news more often. There is no shortage of topical subject matter confronting the contemporary American suburb—from the geo-marketing strategies that merged demographic profiles such as the soccer mom and Nascar dad with electoral politics to suburban neighborhood campaigns to ban the construction of out-of-scale monster homes. In terms of economic resources, there is the resource disparity between prosperous boomburbs and declining, older suburbs or the allocation of state funding among cities, suburbs, and rural areas. In the case of housing, there is the lack of convenient, affordable homes for the service industries that suburbs demand, which spurs the creation of suburban plantations, or recent debates about moratoria on cul-de-sacs. There are also issues about movement within and between suburbs: the “roads versus rails” debates about the efficacy of highway construction and mass-transit alternatives; the lack of roadway or sidewalk connections between residential and retail areas; or the creation of the gated communities that purposely restrict access to certain neighborhoods.
Newspapers and magazines now extol the virtues of suburban life, shocked to find among the tract homes and strip malls signs of civilization: gourmet restaurants, fashionable boutiques, rehabbed mid-century ramblers, and glimpses of urban life such as people of color walking around “lifestyle centers,” places that look much like the city’s new downtown. In what may appear to some as either a sign of the Apocalypse or the ultimate marker of neighborhood gentrification, depending on one’s perspective, gays and lesbians can be found living openly in suburban locales, often raising children. Although denied to television viewers, the filmed but unaired reality series Welcome to the Neighborhood pitted various types of families against each other to win a new house. The fact that a white, gay couple with a child of color was victorious by winning the votes of their future white, Christian neighbors would have exploded some stereotypes held about suburbia even as it confirmed others.
As America’s cities shrink and its suburbs swell, the distance between them widens, creating not so much an unbridgeable gulf but rather a vast traversable landscape that pushes the limits of the daily automobile commute. Today’s suburban expansion is not only the horizontal expansion we associate with tract-housing developments and the outward spread of leapfrogging suburban settlements, but also the upsizing of the individual elements of suburbia itself: its houses, schools, churches, and malls, not mention its cars, meals, and, well, bodies too. This suburban expansion represents the kind of bigness you can’t ignore anymore, because it is no longer just happening over there, on the fringe moving away from you. Its scale is now competing for your limited tax dollars, impinging on your own sense of propriety, and intruding on your own backyard. While the stylistic form of the suburban house has remained fairly constant over the twentieth century, its physical size has not. The average American home has grown from more than 900 square feet in the 1950s to 1,500 square feet in 1970 to more than 2,400 square feet in 2005. At the same time, the average lot size has shrunk and the average family size has fallen. This seeming paradox can be explained, in part, as a factor of bigger kitchens, family rooms, master bedroom suites, walk-in closets, and spa baths; separate bathrooms and bedrooms for each child; new spaces such as media rooms and home offices; bigger garages for additional, larger cars—not to mention the increasing price of land and less time to maintain lawns for children who are more likely to play inside.
Given these long-term trends, one might have expected that more philosophical and aesthetic attention would be paid to grappling with upsizing. Although there have been numerous articles and debates about the particular objects of bigness and their social implications—McMansions destroying neighborhood character; McDonald’s caloric counts and childhood obesity; Hummers and the nexus of oil consumption, the Iraq War, and patriotism—these almost always posit bigness as the result of excessive consumption, lack of self-control, and moral fallibility. If these articles and debates do stray into aesthetics, bigness is often portrayed as alienating, inauthentic, uncontrollable, and placeless. Suburbia and sprawl, in particular, are characterized as uncontainable, a classic description of giganticism—out of scale with nature and out of context with, and thus overwhelming, its surroundings. Two prominent thinkers representing both ends of the scale spectrum are Rem Koolhaas, globe-trotting architect and theorist of such topics as Junkspace and the Generic City, and residential architect and lifestyle author Sarah Susanka, the force behind the ethos of “not-so-big” houses, books, and lives. Even with these extreme ideologies, bigness has yet to find its own poetic dimension.
Despite its cultural impact and ubiquity, the American suburb has remained, until fairly recently, an elided subject in the cultural work of artists and architects. The close historical connection between the city and art and artists undoubtedly accounts for some of this omission. One expects to find both art and artists in the city—in downtown museums, galleries, and studios: culture and cosmopolitanism go hand in hand. For those artists who have addressed the suburbs, it has ranged from a kind of incidental backdrop for other subject matter to a central element of their work. As more and more people, including artists, are born, raised, and live in suburbia, their distance and relationship to it will be different—perhaps closer, perhaps more conflicted—than an earlier generation who were viewing it as essentially outsiders, albeit with a strong eye and curiosity. The signs, symbols, and imagery of suburbia have been particularly resonant in artists’ work of late, suggesting, as the work in this exhibition does, that a landscape once seen as bereft of possibilities instead holds opportunities for creative engagement.
The built environment of suburbia has been the subject of numerous architectural critiques over the past fifty to sixty years. Mostly written with derision and scorn, these criticisms have been framed within the prevailing image of suburbia as a space of relentless visual monotony. An early exception was the research by architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown on the American suburb. Beatriz Colomina interviews these pioneering architects about “Learning from Levittown,” their 1970 Yale studio, a “remedial project for architects.” Aside from some early twentieth-century concepts, many architects have simply opted out of practical engagement with transforming suburbia, with the possible exception of those involved in New Urbanism, an attempt to ameliorate aspects of sprawl with more pedestrian-friendly, higher-density, mixed-use, and community-oriented designs. As Ellen Dunham-Jones notes in her essay, “New Urbanism’s Subversive Marketing,” the designs of New Urbanism are often dismissed by progressive architects because the resultant forms are too traditional and nostalgic and therefore inauthentic. However, as she notes, the recourse to traditional styles is often strategic, a way of masking the more difficult aspects of such proposals (such as living on smaller lots, with poorer people, and alongside businesses). Dunham-Jones provocatively asks: “Is it too much of a stretch to present the New Urbanists as subversive radicals? Are their interests in the suburbs, marketing, and development practices just too middle class, too bourgeois to drive real change?”
Unfortunately for architecture, suburbia has become a place to avoid rather than one to engage. In turn, the general absence of design professionals—whether by choice or circumstance—from the development equation has resulted in the continued proliferation of unimaginative buildings and landscapes that typically have no relation to each other or their contexts. Less than 10 percent of built residential structures are the direct result of an architect’s design. While public and commercial structures have more architectural involvement, the majority of such buildings conform to a narrow range of standard predetermined forms. An important exception to this rule was the invention of the postwar corporate campus; if not situated in the suburbs, it at least drew upon a similar pastoral symbolism. Louise A. Mozingo follows the evolution of this emergent typology in her essay, “Campus, Estate, and Park: Lawn Culture Comes to the Corporation.” Public acknowledgment of and debate about suburban growth and its broad consequences have expanded greatly in the past decade, and advocacy of such ameliorative strategies as sustainability or green design, and nonexclusionary zoning practices or mixed-use development has moved architecture and planning issues to a higher level of general recognition in this country than ever before. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of signature architecture, suburbia is perhaps the most popularly successful of imagined utopian communities.
Whether in art or architecture, the suburbs seem to lack authorship in a general cultural sense—the suburban landscape simply unfolds ex nihilo—out of nowhere and out of nothing. This lack of identity is born out of a lack of history. Suburban time is thus strangely suspended, literally an arrested development frozen in its initial phases of construction: no wonder most people conjure an image of suburbia as a series of new housing starts and barren landscapes. Holley Wlodarczyk surveys the various uses of photography to record these processes of transformation and demonstrates that because they are focused on an early moment in the life cycle of suburbia, they do not typically provide any evidence of either human settlement, aspiration, or inhabitation (see “Intermediate Landscapes: Constructing Suburbia in Postwar American Photography“).
The inability to situate a suburban aesthetics or to develop a language and theory to assess suburban forms as anything but an aberrant urbanism is clearly one of the crucial hurdles in constructing a more objective and less judgmental approach. The continued reliance on urban theories, assumptions, biases, and practices as a lens for viewing suburbia only compounds the problem. Another difficulty in developing a suburban aesthetics is the issue of popular taste. Most forms of criticism and artistic practice cannot perceive suburbia without the posture of ironic distance or cynical dismissal. As John Archer argues in his essay, “Suburban Aesthetics Is Not an Oxymoron,” the conventional assumption that suburbia represents an empty, thin, and inauthentic form of consumption—a paucity of experience—is contradicted by the richness of suburbia’s symbolic universe, an experience lived by its occupants rather than viewed by its critics.
Suburbia inaugurated new forms of shopping, including such early typologies as the strip mall and the regional shopping center. The strip mall is a by-product of zoning codes that encourage businesses to cluster along busy thoroughfares and an evolution of small-town main streets and business districts. Fostered by favorable changes to tax codes and other financial incentives, regional shopping centers grew at an accelerating rate in the 1960s and 1970s after the introduction of climate-controlled malls and carefully planned circulation routes. The first such modern indoor shopping mall was Southdale Center, which opened in 1956 in Edina, Minnesota, and was designed by Victor Gruen. As Malcolm Gladwell reminds us in his essay, “The Terrazzo Jungle,” Gruen didn’t simply design a building: he invented a new archetype. Originally envisioned as town squares, malls did at least become public gathering places and some do hold civic events. In 1992, the country’s first megamall opened—the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota—with 4.2 million gross square feet and more than five hundred retail stores. A plan was recently floated for Mall of America II, next door to the original, which would have not only more stores, but also a series of proposed amenities such as hotels, restaurants, recreational spaces, and a performing arts center. This suggests that a mix of entertainment destinations and tourism (a large percentage of shoppers are from out of town) are necessary components for retail growth. Beginning in the 1960s, the advent of discount retailing and its expansive warehouse space doubling as a sales floor created the big box store as a rival to both specialty shops and department stores. Because of competition from big box and chain stores, the regional shopping mall has fallen into disfavor, replaced by power centers, or collections of big box stores, each existing autonomously in one large development.
Contemporary suburban retail has experienced both tremendous growth and new challenges. A major issue is the proliferation of abandoned and dying malls. “Greyfield Regional Mall Study” (PDF), a 2001 report, concluded that 7 percent of the regional malls in the United States were abandoned sites and another 12 percent were in decline, approaching closure. The same situation now faces communities with defunct big box stores, a condition elucidated by artist Julia Christensen, who is interviewed about her experiences documenting the myriad reuses of such spaces. The adaptive reuse of such derelict sites has become an important ameliorative strategy. The recent interest in situating big box stores in urban locations has created an opportunity to rethink the large footprint, horizontal orientation, and parking schemes of such venues for both urban and suburban locations. Another important development within the world of suburban retail is the increasing interest in mixed-use development, with residential living spaces above street-level shops and second-floor office and business spaces.
The advent of suburbia was dependent on the expansion of transportation networks. In the nineteenth century, the extension of railway and streetcar lines fueled growth outside the urban core. The modern American suburb’s development has been intimately connected to the expansion of the federal interstate system and its introduction in and around major metro areas. It is impossible to conceive of suburbia without this transportation network and the automobile culture it both serves and encourages. Not surprisingly, the suburban landscape is constructed to be viewed from an automobile—positioned perpendicular to the flow of traffic are the long, low-slung strip malls, with power centers, shopping malls, and housing developments located just off and alongside major highway interchanges. Not only has transportation defined the patterns of growth, but it has also contributed to some of the most vexing problems confronting suburbia, including traffic congestion and increased commuting times, not to mention the ecological impact of roadway construction and the consumption of fossil fuels. But just as the single-family detached home offers a symbolic ideal, the roadways serving suburbia and connecting large parts of our vast country also serve as compelling tropes—symbols of independence as well as catalysts for new forms of carchitecture: the drive-in movie and church, the drive-thru restaurant and bank, or even the defunct drive-by Fotomat booth. So powerful is the influence of the automobile that it has even upstaged the suburban house, moving the garage from the rear or side of the home to the front, producing snout houses and Garage Mahals. No longer merely the repository for a car, the garage has become a fabled place of homeowner ingenuity—from the invention of the personal computer and the cardiac pacemaker to the formation of numerous garage bands.
This exhibition is not intended as a primer on the latest statistics about suburbia or a history of it. Rather, it features the work of artists and architects who, without that burden, have imaginatively considered the subject: drawing inspiration from, provoking discussion about, and casting either an appreciative or critical eye on an environment that, for better or worse, constitutes an ever-larger portion of our world. The accompanying catalogue, with its essays, interviews, architectural projects, and artworks, sketches the possibilities for a future suburban aesthetics. In doing so, it offers a way of seeing and connecting these culturally distant realms. The oft-claimed alienation of the suburbs and the supposed close-knit communities of the city are both myths—convenient stories we tell about the other in the hope that the world next door will be kept worlds away.
Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, which opened in October of 2008, was organized by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in association with the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
- Topics: Architecture