Andrew Blauvelt | Essays

City and Suburb: Worlds Away?

Poughkeepsie, NY, by John Lehr, 2005. Courtesy Kate Werble Gallery, NY

Back in 1974 when it opened, Washington Square Mall was too big and too near to ignore. With more than 100 stores it seemed like the largest mall at the time, containing a world of distractions for bored teenagers long before “mall rats” became part of the lexicon or even a Hollywood movie. With no sidewalks to connect it to the surrounding neighborhoods, it didn’t seem like an inconvenience but more of a journey. However, like many big shopping centers, it has since fallen from grace, living an existence that kept it afloat in a kind of retail purgatory — neither a dead mall nor the kind of vibrant town square once imagined by Victor Gruen. This reversal of fortunes was not surprising in retrospect. The area around the mall had been in a slow, steady decline: the shuttered manufacturing plants in the township, which also meant the loss of middle class families, telegraphed the mall’s demise. After working the last several years on Worlds Away, an exhibition and book about the contemporary American suburb, I found myself reflecting on my own life in the burbs, finding it so typical of the challenges and opportunities facing the most maligned and emulated of American lifestyles. As a long-time resident of the city, I had left that world behind more than twenty years ago, and to revisit it again, now, revealed just how much had changed in suburbia.

Although most people have assumed for a while that the United States was a suburban nation, it wasn’t technically true until the last major census confirmed that more Americans were living in suburbs than in central cities or rural areas. The growing divide between the city and suburb was 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. Obama’s victory in 2008 saw the pendulum swing back to democrats in the suburbs, a demographic he won by two percentage points. More importantly, as stat-guru Nate Silver has written, Obama may be the first urban-identified president in recent memory, not only for his Chicago residence, but also because of his massive winning margins in major cities, which offset the ever-declining number of rural voters and the Sam’s Club (suburbanite GOP) electorate. Of course, it’s easy to jump ahead and predict a return to the importance of cities (something already signaled by Obama’s creation of an Office of Urban Policy), but — evoking the president’s own post-partisan rhetoric — its not so much about cities versus suburbs as it is about the metropolitan conglomerate as a whole. 

The mutual dependency of city and suburb is both physical and psychological. 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 re-gifted, 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 is an Asian-fusion 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 country, but SoHo may be the nation’s largest retail neighborhood; and everywhere we have Starbucks.

While the definition of a suburb is vague and varied, 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: every subdivision has its Wisteria Lane or Revolutionary Road. 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. This rigid dichotomy reinforces persistent myths that offer partial, outdated, or stereotypical ideas about suburbia that present it in static, monolithic terms. Just as suburbs have evolved from streetcar serviced bedroom communities to postindustrial technoburbs and outsized boomburbs, 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.

While the current mortgage foreclosure crisis seems concentrated in the newly constructed housing developments on the fringes of suburban sprawl, the effects are being felt across entire metro areas. Suburban growth may have stalled due to frozen demand or credit, but the long-term human interest in such places to live will not diminish. Even the latest round of burb-bashing, which 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 on its own terms.

Aside from some early twentieth-century concepts, many architects have simply opted out of practical engagement with transforming suburbia, with the 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, or the pragmatics of Joel Kotkin’s New Suburbanism or Ellen Dunham-Jones’ Retrofitting Strategies for Suburbia. The designs of New Urbanism are easily dismissed because the resultant forms are too traditional and nostalgic (“inauthentic”), but, as Ellen Dunham-Jones has argued, this 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). 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. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of signature architecture, suburbia is the most popularly successful of imagined utopian communities, with a clear minority of residential structures the direct result of an architect’s design. 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 sustainable design or mixed-use development has moved architecture and planning issues to a higher level of general recognition in this country than ever before. Does suburbia represent vast, untapped possibilities for architecture and planning? Will suburban planning ever sound like anything other than an oxymoron?

Whether in art or architecture, the suburbs seem to lack cultural authorship and a “back story” — the suburban landscape simply unfolds ex nihilo — out of nowhere and out of nothing. This lack of identity also represents a lack of history. Suburban time is 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. From William Garnett’s photos of Lakewood Park in California to Robert Adams’ pictures of suburban Denver, there is a long tradition of using photography to record these processes of transformation, and because they are focused on an early moment in the life cycle of suburbia, they do not typically provide any evidence of human settlement, aspiration, or inhabitation. Most suburbs are now old enough to have a history, and enough inhabitants over time to establish an identity. A perceived lack of identity and history, however, accounts for the proliferation of rebranded suburbia: the creation of new pedestrian streetscapes, “downtowns,” and town centers.

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. Rem Koolhaas can theorize the Generic City and Junkspace, and Sarah Susanka, author of the Not-So-Big franchise, can write about the virtues of downsizing, but there is very little between these extremes. 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. Historian John Archer in his essay from the catalogue, “Suburban Aesthetics Is Not an Oxymoron,” undermines the conventional assumption that suburbia represents an empty, thin, and inauthentic form of consumption — a paucity of experience — a myth that is contradicted by the richness of suburbia’s symbolic universe, an experience lived by its occupants rather than viewed by its critics. The greater social and cultural context has shifted for both urbanites and suburbanites. 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 is on view at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, March 2–May 10, 2009

Posted in: Social Good

Comments [17]

So is the point here that architects have been avoiding suburban design work? Most nameplate architects take on very few residential commissions (low rate of return), so when they do, it's rare they land in suburban development. It certainly isn't that critics have been avoiding the discussion -- 20 years of post modern geography, from the likes of Edward Soja and David Harvey, have been actively involved the relationship between city, suburb and beyond. To say that people have been avoiding 'suburban aesthetics' is intellectual glib and patently false. The reason critical focus is disproportionately aimed on 'urban' areas is because there is a deeper history to mine and assess, and as a result of political engagement, more reward for trying to effect change.

You are looking at this problem inside out. Developers buy land, establish homeowners associations that they control absolutely until they cash out and hand them over to people desperate to protect property values. Willingness of designers has little to do with it. Even Seaside, which worked really hard to protect the idea of diversity, faced push-back from residents when it happened. The notion of suburbs like Garden City is myopic and right-coast centric. The 'suburbs' that represent the majority of homebuilding over the past 15 years is in places like Phoenix, Denver and Houston, where private control of land is practically insurmountable.

Why not ask Michael to chime in on Celebration? That was a largely suburban development that had lots of designer input. Anyone been there recently? Is it markedly better than other enclaves?
miss representation

To pick up on the mall thread a bit, Labelscar has inexplicably fascinated me for years, but provides fairly little opportunity for referencing, so now I can. Neither they nor deadmalls.com seem to have done a piece on Washington Square yet, though.

Joseph Eichler was one builder of tract homes who reinvented the suburban house. He hired architects who designed and built mid century modern homes from 1952-1970 in the suburban areas around the S.F. Bay Area. The homes which blur the distinction between inside and and outdoors were built around communities and are in walkable areas near parks. http://tinyurl.com/btv79b

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.

For me, they are not myths, they are realities. I was alienated in the suburbs where I grew up, and enjoy a much better sense of community in the big city where I live now.

Of course I don't pretend that everyone's experience is or should be the same as mine. And even tho I have no desire to live in suburbia again, I'm continually intrigued and sometimes perplexed by it... from afar.

Enjoyed reading. Thanks!

Bradie Fisher

In my mind at least, this essay has more implicit but unarticulated questions than answers.

Let's start with one of the most obvious examples: "The designs of New Urbanism are easily dismissed because the resultant forms are too traditional and nostalgic."

Too traditional and nostalgic for whom? For most architects, who always quickly bring the discussion to style and forbidden architecture. While the Charter for the New Urbanism says placemaking "transcends style."

Architects who are Modernist ideologues are incapable of working in most of America, particularly when outside the obvious pockets on the three coasts. And even then, on the whole they are more welcome in TriBeCa (the wealthiest zipcode in New York) than Scarsdale or Greenwich.

Is that because the residents of Greenwich and Scarsdale are too unsophisticated? Or because the stylistic limitations and placemaking abilities of most New York architects are inadequate?

When one is trying to reform America, as New Urbanists are, one can't dictate style. Starchitects like Gehry and Koolhaas are hired by patrons, who pay to build their vision. Out in the trenches, New Urbanists work for developers who have little interest in vision. The urban designer rarely meets the people who live in the developments, but he or she will fail if they don't make a place where the buyers want to be (more on Patrons, Clients and Developers here).

In other words, they need to make good places, and 150 years of Modernism has produced very few of those. Great buildings? Yes. Places where the individual buildings add up to more than the sum of the parts? Very, very, rarely. If you disagree, please submit your list of great Modernist streets, let alone great Modernist towns or neighborhoods. It's a very short list, despite many tries.

Second, "suburban" is a word with ambiguous meaning. Before World War II, suburbs were places like Scarsdale and Mt. Vernon, often served by railroads. Since 1945, the suburbs have grown as auto-based sprawl, which in the purer forms you see in places like California and Colorado has no traditional town structure. The former is based on walkable neighborhoods. The latter is often unwalkable.

One thing that New Urbanism has emphasized is that the traditional neighborhoods, towns and cities all share common principles. While many of those were brilliantly articulated by Jane Jacobs, New Urbanism has added other elements, like the Urban to Rural Transect, which describes a series of relationships from urban cores like midtown Manhattan to small towns to rural land to wilderness. Modernism ignored these relationships, bringing us "office parks" in the country and Big Box "Power Centers" in Queens.

Obama, by the way, does understand all these things. His next-door neighbor is on the Board of the Congress for the New Urbanism, and he served on the Board of her Center for Neighborhood Technology, a group that doesn't make the ideological mistake of thinking that New Urbanism is only about the suburbs. Nor does the President of the CNU, the former Mayor of Milwaukee, who moved the CNU headquarters from San Francisco to the Chicago Loop.
John Massengale

To say that people have been avoiding 'suburban aesthetics' is intellectual glib and patently false. The reason critical focus is disproportionately aimed on 'urban' areas is because there is a deeper history to mine and assess,

Oh, there's been plenty written about suburbia—enough to fill plenty of bookshelves in my library at least. My point is that it is almost always seen as other and viewed from the urban bias that you allude to. That material is mostly urban and suburban history and geography and not aesthetics. More precisely, there is very little on the notion of suburban aesthetics because, I think, it tends to intersect the "third rails" of class and taste.
Andrew Blauvelt

The point is well taken that suburbia is not and has never been a monolith, although it does tend to be reduced (or reified) to a simplistic image of alienation, sublimated desire, and homogeneity through the mechanism of popular representations in mass media. Strolling through the mall in Cherry Hill, NJ (suburb of Philadelphia), I am repeatedly amazed by the mix of ethnicities and languages observed there. Obviously this is anecdotal, but it does seem much different from my own suburban teen years (early 90s) spent at malls in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. The landscape of this part of Jersey is also less easy to generalize: it ranges between vast industrial tracks and strip mall residential to older bedroom communities like Collingswood -- but then that's more often than the case than not in eastern metro regions versus the newer settlements / cities in the western US.

What is provocative about the tag line "City and Suburb: Worlds Away?" is that asks us to reconsider the delineation between city and suburb --- conceptually, politically, economically, socially and culturally, and even aesthetically. Is the nature of their relationship to each other symbiotic, parasitic, interdependent, transgressive, ...? As the world population becomes increasingly more urban than rural, it becomes essential to revisit the effects of urbanization within the larger frame of city/suburbia.

I don't think people avoid the aesthetics of the suburban -- it's just that the band is exceedingly narrow. Since few people engage architects for homes, the notion that their taste can be measured by the resultant communities is fallacy.

Over the past decade people saw homes as investment vehicles primarily, therefore hewing to established modes was the primary goal.

If you put a stake in the ground about the beginnings of 'suburban aesthetics' you nominally start in the 40's or 50's. There are examples of going back well before then, but the issues of city growth was effected meant it was a differing set of issues, so they are typically included in general urban studies (I think you would be hard pressed to say that Garden City has more in common with exubran parts of Atlanta or Phoenix than it does with Brooklyn).

So there are a couple major strands of suburban aesthetics to study: growth due to economic migration to the SE/SW, the rise of retirement/golf communities (concentrated in those areas as well) and the speculative boom of the past decade. But since each one of those was massively influenced by large volume home builders, the proper course of study would be, say, the aesthetics of the Toll Brothers marketing department as it envisioned 'home', not the particulars of an individual home buyer. Customization was mostly interiors, or exterior color.

Suburban "aesthetics" is a very shallow pool. There are regional variances, but the issue isn't really visual. It's more significantly one about aspirational identity or nostalgia. Sometimes it isn't worth piling up a couple dozen thesis projects about visual analysis of strip malls. Why that happens is an entirely different critique on the self-aggrandizing nature of art/architecture criticism.
miss representation

sorry, trying to close that tag

I am in the big city this week. I have lived just about everywhere except in extreme poverty of a city: farm community of 1000, to university midsize city, to surburb of big city, to subdivisionville of very small city, to couty seat, to rural community that became suburb because of the sprawl. I am trying to think of the aesthetic of each one.

This week I am visiting in a very big city and now i realize that the aesthetic of the suburbs is in the mobility of the individual people in their backyards if they just get out there. The city is wonderful, but i just can't go out and enjoy a free spirit as easily as i did when i lived in a sprawling suburb. Sometimes the architecture is more the swaying and flow of bodies playing. I kinda missed that as I was using looking out the window on a treadmill today… instead of the using the people path around the clusters of homes.

Like Nancy, I've lived in rural, urban, exurban and suburban areas, currently suburban. While I love the convenience of walking to parks, retail and dining, I also wouldn't give up my sizeable backyard for anything. There's just something about not just open space but private space that I need. That's the criticism I would have of the green/sustainability movement. Most discussion I've heard seems to say that I ought to be content in more dense living conditions as long as I have a public park or balcony. Having done that for years, it's truly not the same. There's a reason communities around the US and around the world are so diverse. There's no one size fits all solution.

i don't know how anyone can talk about the aesthetic of the city without talking about all the security measures put in place to get it that way. Money in the city affords security.

you can secure my data, but not me

sad eyes looking out between two bars

Is there anything to be gained by looking outside of architectural/planning theory?

Perhaps its my extreme naiveté on the subject, but I've always imagined suburbs as large decentralized networks...i.e. something akin to the internet. Connected but loosely — People joined by social affiliations (their children's baseball teams, their church) rather than the more geo-locational aspects of cities. As we rethink suburbs, maybe we need to look at the social infrastructure before we try to create the physical model of it.
Derrick Schultz

I think the suburbs are terrible and bring nothing good to our society. Suburban sprawl is a problem that the whole nation faces though good design could change that. I just feel that visually the suburbs are boring and could use change. Shopping malls ruin open space throughout this country due to suburbs.
Professor Chaos

Derrick Schultz - There has been a lot of work on this subject. One of the best is the famous Bowling Alone.

What about those in the suburbs who don't have kids? They miss a lot of the social structure. Is it a good idea to have families with kids live in the suburbs and all others in cities? (Obviously not.)

Last but not least, it is the American middle class way of life (sprawl), and the way that we are exporting it around the world to a population so much larger than has been on earth before that is causing global warming.

There is not enough biofuel and carbon-reducing gizmos to reduce global warming unless we change the way we live. Add to that the high oil prices will come back, that we have passed peak oil reserves, and that we are teaching 1.2 billion Chinese, 1.1 billion Indians, etc. to compete with us for oil.
John Massengale

Andrew Blauvelt Andrew Blauvelt is Curator of Architecture and Design and Chief of Communications and Audience Engagement at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A practicing graphic designer his work has received numerous awards and has been published and exhibited in North America, Europe, and Asia. He has organized numerous exhibitions.

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