February 29, 2012
Now that more avant-garde architects are paying attention to the suburbs, I don’t know whether to be pleased or intensely irritated. Part of me thinks: Finally! They’ve come to realize that suburbanites aren’t all cultureless, environment-hating yahoos, guzzling resources with abandon.
The rest of me thinks: Here we go again. And I’m afraid the cynical side won out when I reviewed (admittedly online) the proposals included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Foreclosed exhibition.
Don’t get me wrong–there are great architecture firms represented in the show, firms like Chicago’s Studio Gang and New York’s Work AC. But as Diana Lind, editor of The Next American City, noted in a sharp review of Foreclosed, none of the architects involved actually lives in a suburb. Accordingly, some of the proposals suggest an intolerance for any mode of living except what might be called the hyperurban.
So Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS would fill in the streets of Orange, N.J., with ribbons of new mixed-use development, bringing the density (and aesthetic) of Chelsea or SoHo to a place that already has more building stock than it can handle. For sprawling Temple Terrace, Fla., as it considers creating its first-ever downtown, Visible Weather dreamed up a superstructure reminiscent of Archigram’s Plug-In City.
Would a place to get ice cream or kick a ball around have been too prosaic? Given the competition’s starting-point–an academic screenplay in which Socrates muses about the housing bubble–I think we can answer yes.
Foreclosed has merits (it does not treat “suburbia” as a monolith, for one), but it brought up bad memories of last year’s misbegotten exercise in suburban fantasy: Open House, organized by Droog and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In this high-design caper, architects from Manhattan and Brooklyn (sample firm name: Fake Industries Architectural Agonism) went to Levittown, the ur-suburb on Long Island, to organize conceptual happenings in houses there.
One house became a makeshift casino; another was transformed into a “Domesticity Museum.” The homeowners were, ostensibly, collaborators, although in a critique of the project as spot-on as Lind’s of Foreclosed, Allison Arieff put paid to the notion that the householders discovered their own “solutions” to suburban “problems.” The ideas were generated for them, by the designers.
Arieff was on the jury of Build a Better Burb, another design competition last year that focused on suburban Long Island. The proposals awarded by Better Burb couldn’t have been more different from the conceptual-art events of Open House: accessory dwelling units, transit networks, ecological regionalism. In other words, pragmatic strategies for sustainable suburban redevelopment.
Likewise, the book Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, proves that the discipline of urban design has a lot to offer American suburbs as they evolve to become less auto-dependent and more diverse. That’s the one crucial thing about the suburbs that some urbanites don’t seem to grasp: They’re evolving.
Yes, there are houses in foreclosure and malls that have seen better days. No, car dependence and diffuse development are not sustainable. But increasingly, suburbs are the American places that welcome new immigrants, offer the lion’s share of the jobs, and allow for a degree of social equity that’s become impossible in class-stratified city centers.
Lind speculates that maybe the pendulum has swung back to the suburbs again after the urban renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s. I am sure that it has. And if fixing the suburbs is the problem of our generation–as Dunham-Jones claims–we’d better get started. Tactically, and without prejudice.