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MIT’s Future of Suburbia

MIT on the “Future of Suburbia”

Architect, May 2016

At trendy urban coffee shops, the kind where Edison bulbs float above the counter and vintage chairs line the concrete floor, the prized artisanal beans are, more likely than not, roasted in some suburban facility before they’re loaded on a truck and driven downtown. The iPhones that customers gaze at while sipping their macchiatos were likely assembled in the suburbs of Shenzhen. The avocados mashed on whole-grain toast were probably grown in exurban San Diego or Monterrey, and were sitting, just a few days before, in a wholesaler’s unit off the interstate. Whether we are aware of it or not, even the most self-consciously curated “urban” lives are staged and supplied by the jumbled realm of suburbia.

And yet the bias against suburbia remains strong among designers and critics, whether it manifests as tirades against sprawl or utter indifference. Unless they’re wooed by an Apple or a Facebook, top-tier architects rarely work in the ’burbs. When Renzo Piano, Hon. FAIA, announced that his studio was conducting long-term research on suburbia, the news was novel enough to be reported by NPR.

Enter the Center for Advanced Urbanism (CAU) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which is determined to make designers think about the suburbs, and to think about them in a particular way. The center’s biennial research theme is the “Future of Suburbia,” and in late March/early April it hosted an exhibition and a conference by that name at the university’s Media Lab. The culmination of the effort—which has involved a dozen MIT faculty and more than 100 experts from around the globe—will be Infinite Suburbia, a 1,200-page tome that Princeton Architectural Press will publish in fall 2017. All in all, CAU is making a concerted bid to reposition suburbia as a serious subject of design inquiry. It couldn’t have come soon enough.

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