Because suburbia occupies a dominant presence in so many lives—a place of not only residence but also of work, commerce, worship, education, and leisure—it has become a focal point for competing interests and viewpoints. The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. more
Drawn Here: Sean Griffiths of FAT
Target Free Thursday Nights
Thursday, March 6 7:00 pm
Escape to the Suburbs!
Free First Saturday
Saturday, April 5 10:00 am to 3:00 pm
Next Exit: The Shifting Landscape of Suburbia
Target Free Thursday Nights
Thursday, April 24 7:00 pm
Andrew Blauvelt and Tracy Myers are co-curators of the exhibition . Blauvelt is design director and curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Myers is curator of architecture at the Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
Katherine Solomonson teaches in the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota, where she also serves as an associate dean of the College of Design. Her teaching and research focus on the history of American buildings, landscapes, cities, and suburbs.
Katherine Solomonson: What brought about this exhibition and the collaboration between you and your institutions, the Walker Art Center and the Heinz Architectural Center?
Andrew Blauvelt: It’s really the result of several factors. An earlier Walker exhibition I had curated, Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life, was about designers and architects looking at everyday situations, rituals, and materials and transforming these into a new kind of condition. It was modeled on an avant-garde position of transformation—the shock of the new, the spectacular out of the quotidian. I was thinking of exploring the opposite: the shock of the familiar. The suburbs are ubiquitous and the most familiar of spaces, although they are little understood. This exhibition complements what I’m trying to do with architecture and design in general at the Walker, which is to look at topics that are just off center to the professions, more marginalized.
Tracy Myers: My undergraduate degree is in government and economics, with an urban studies focus, and my graduate education is in art and architectural history. I’m engaged with the “real world” of architecture through my involvement in a community development company, so there’s a kind of mélange of interests. About five years ago, I became aware of a project by LTL Architects called New Suburbanism (page 161) that looks at the big box as an opportunity to restore the section to suburbia by using it as a platform, literally, for the construction of a complex residential condition. That project was seminal for my thinking about suburbia; it just stuck. Andrew’s and my interests are complementary in looking alternately at the large scale and the finer grain, and in a way, that’s how you have to look at suburbia. It’s not as monolithic as I had thought.
KS: You’re dealing with two different institutions, and you’ve come to this from different perspectives. In rich collaborations, you reach a point you never would have alone. How have your own ideas come into dialogue with one another?
AB: To start, I wasn’t interested in doing an exhibition in which suburbia would be the brunt of all criticism. I wanted a more realistic and more balanced approach.
KS: The word “realistic” or “real” comes up periodically in the prospectus you sent me. I have a sense of where you’re going with this, but I was wondering if you could talk about what you mean by “real” and “realistic” perspectives.
AB: The “real” is proposed as the inverse of the imaginary. The imaginary suburbia refers to its mythological construction through the media, film, literature, magazines, self-promotion, and marketing. What is the reality behind all of these myths? And the mythology itself has included both utopian perspectives and dystopic representations. Negotiating those two extremes is a way of constructing a kind of reality. There are, of course, different versions of reality, I understand that, but what people understand to be true about suburbia is different—if you look at the statistics, if you see what is happening on the ground—versus the kind of picture you get in the media or in the galleries.
TM: Or in academia.
AB: Or in architecture.
TM: My mantra is that more than half the country lives in suburbs; the suburbs are not going to go away, so rather than demonizing them, maybe there are ways to bring some better qualities to them through the practice and thinking of architecture. I’ve tried to step back from the normative position that suburbs are beyond redemption, because while the people who live in suburbs might not articulate what they like about them in the terms that are familiar to architects, critics, and curators, every condition has something of value in it. Andrew is coming to the point of the real, and I’m working beyond the real, or something that is prospective as opposed to representing the current reality. I think that’s a point of convergence for us.
AB: You still have all three positions about suburbia out there: the apologists for suburbia, the promoters of suburbia, and the critics of suburbia that extend way back into urban history. The subject of suburbia is a moving target—the suburbs are dynamic and change over time. And this is probably why you’ll never get agreement about them.
TM: Exactly. The demographers, the federal government—nobody seems to be able to agree on what the word “suburb” means. Statistical studies use the words “urban” and “suburban” in the same sentence to refer to the same conditions. There are different types of suburbs, so we finally had to agree that we weren’t going to pin down a definition.
KS: The fact is that suburban conditions have always been quite diverse. There are particular stereotypes and myths about suburbia that obscure that diversity. One thing that strikes me about what I’m seeing in your choices for the exhibition is that you’re actively exploring the diversity of those conditions. I appreciate your decision not to lock into a tight definition of what suburbia actually is. At the same time, there are underlying assumptions behind the choices you made for this exhibition. So what kind of things were you looking for, beyond people engaging the real conditions of suburbia or the diversity of suburbia?
TM: I think we don’t want the show to appear to be a bunch of architectural projects surrounded by artworks. What is it that we want people to know or understand or question when they leave this exhibition? That is the question that drives me in developing an exhibition. What do I want people to know? Which is, of course, rather presumptuous.
AB: Well, I might have a low bar. [laughs] I would hope that visitors, if they are typical urban dwellers who think of suburbia as that place out there where “those” people live, might take away a different perspective on it, and vice versa. Perhaps the suburban resident who doesn’t quite see all the issues and problems happening in his or her environment would gain that perspective.
TM: If they look at the world differently—even if it’s not tomorrow, but five years from now—and say, “I remember a thing I saw at this exhibition,” then that is success to me. So I don’t think it’s setting a low bar to really challenge people’s assumptions.
AB: True. I think a lot of visitors might actually be nostalgic because so many people have been born and raised in suburbia. America is a suburban nation now. So what would that evoke in someone? Would they run screaming, or would they embrace “the good old days”?
KS: To what extent does the exhibition engage with a nostalgic point of view?
AB: The exhibition might induce some nostalgia; visitors might say, “Yeah, I remember growing up in the burbs.” But a lot of nostalgia is actually created through the media too, through film—and many people think of suburbia through that framework.
TM: Or television.
KS: Exactly. So you also said you see that in some of the art. Could you talk about that?
AB: Gregory Crewdson, for instance, is using film actors and actresses whom you might recognize from movies set in suburbia (pages 86–88). He’s a photographer, but the work is very filmic. His scenes become a kind of mise en abyme—a picture within a picture—when you’re seeing the person from a film and this photograph, and you think, “Wait a minute, isn’t that so-and-so the actor?” It induces a certain kind of reverie.
TM: In a certain sense, that’s the physical analogue to the intellectual framework of the exhibition: What am I looking at? What’s the intellectual construct that has built up around ideas of suburbia and what is the real condition? Implicitly or explicitly, that’s the central question the exhibition poses.
KS: Talk about cultural constructs and representations versus the real condition. You have many examples of the way that people are reimagining suburbia, not so much as a revelation of the real condition but as a dialogue with it, I think. What is it that the artists and architects can show us that demographers and scholars might not?
AB: It’s the old cliché, but a picture is worth a thousand words. The symbolism around an image or around a building is so much stronger. Images tend to be more specific, and that carries with it much more baggage, while statistics and theories seem more abstract to most people.
TM: Surely people pass in their grocery store, or at the gas station, the new suburbanite: the immigrant, the African American family, or the Indian family, or whomever. But it might not really register. Although I don’t believe that artistic representation of something necessarily endows it with additional value, the fact that an artist pays attention to suburbia might cause a visitor to stop and say, “Wait a minute. If this is important or interesting enough for an artist to be exploring it, or for an architect to be thinking about it, then it must be meaningful, and maybe I need to stop and think about my own situation, my own neighborhood, my own environment.”
KS: And beyond that, you have work here that represents a rich critique. In what ways do you see the exhibition exploring, for example, the increasing cultural diversity of suburbia?
AB: Artist Laura Migliorino, who lives here in Minneapolis, travels past suburban development every day and was intrigued because she watched the sprawl happen—it just follows you to your workplace, down the highway, and it evolves over the years (pages 33–37). And then one day she decided to explore it. She started asking to photograph people there, and was surprised by the diversity she found. Some of that diversity is due to the fact that most immigrants used to settle in urban areas, in the city, which was the traditional place because it was the most convenient and cheapest place to live. Today, the settlement pattern is very different—now it’s suburban—and for different reasons.
TM: It’s also where the jobs are. Most of the job growth since the 1980s has been in the suburbs.
AB: And when you don’t have great public transportation, you have to live closer to work. Some of that might be fueled by basic housing needs. If you have an Asian immigrant culture that is based around multigenerational family life, and the family is all living under one roof (or wants to), then the house type that you’re looking for might be a first-ring suburban house. It’s a larger structure, there are many bedrooms, and it’s at a price point that is more affordable.
TM: Or people might build another structure on their property to accommodate multigenerational families or multiple individuals, not related, living within one house. One of the interesting things is that many of the conditions people thought they were leaving behind in the city now occur in older suburbs. Infrastructure is getting old, taxes are going up, and immigration is increasing density and diversity. In some places, this has led to overt hostility—it’s upending all the expectations of people who moved to the suburbs thirty or forty years ago.
KS: There are also the retail battles. If you’re going to fashion a new retail district in a culturally diverse suburb like Fremont, California, which has become an ethnoburb with large Chinese and Indian populations, what kind of retail will there be? Will there be a diverse range of restaurants and grocery stores, or will it be anchored with big box retail or national chains? There was some tension over this a few years ago. But then there’s architect Teddy Cruz . . .
AB: I was also going to bring him up because he offers a good example of how looking at patterns of habitation and dwelling in Tijuana might affect suburban development in San Diego and vice-versa (page 120).
TM: He’s very interested in not eradicating, or obliterating, the local immigrant culture’s particular practices and traditions, but rather allowing the architecture to respond to them and privilege them. As someone who is involved in community development, I know how very complicated it can be, and the thing that most fascinates me about Teddy’s work is the process-based nature of it. And this is what makes it so challenging to represent: he describes it as triangulation among the citizens, the architects, and the city government, trying to convince the city to accommodate these situations that fall outside the mental framework of what is an appropriate way to live, or what is an appropriate way to build. It’s multigenerational; it celebrates communal living outdoors. Some of the other architectural projects in the exhibition are actually rather neutral in the way they incorporate thinking about changing demographics. They’re not so much responding to a specific kind of population as they are responding to a specific physical and economic condition.
KS: Why do you think that is?
TM: Well, mostly it’s a matter of the scale of the condition those particular projects address: a dead mall, for example, or a larger exurban situation rather than a single residence. These are theoretical projects that could be realized.
AB: They tend to be pragmatic, yet visionary. And they’re not formally driven, which doesn’t mean that they look bad! It’s thinking about occupiable space, rather than simply the purity of space, for example.
TM: Another thing about the architectural projects is their incremental nature, as in the proposals of Lateral Architecture (page 235) and Interboro (page 225). I think this marks a big change in architectural thinking; whether or not it filters through the profession in general remains to be seen. Both of those projects accept given conditions and propose changes that either respond to those conditions and make lemonade out of lemons, as it were, or in some other way try to massage the condition.
AB: It’s very tactical, looking for opportunities when or where you can. Lateral Architecture, for example, examines the space between big boxes in what are called power centers and ways that it can be occupied or programmed differently. It’s not Victor Gruen’s utopian vision of the regional shopping mall. In fact, Interboro studied the activity patterns of a dead mall. The mall is not truly dead because people are still there; not a lot of people, of course, but it’s more about a mall’s afterlife, or half-life, while it is in economic transition.
TM: And some of the mall activity is very illicit. Recognizing that fact is a much more realistic way of thinking about any kind of change than trying to completely transform something.
KS: Another thing that strikes me with somebody like Teddy Cruz is that he is opening up opportunities for others to continue to transform the landscape.
AB: Exactly. He’s ceding control, or perhaps better, creating a framework. It’s not about mastery. You create a structure, and allow it to evolve and develop on its own terms. As an architect you have to be okay with that, but it demands a strong framework.
TM: The subtext is not the typical attitude that drove modernist planning: “This is all wrong. We have to change it.” Lateral and Interboro are saying, “Okay, the status quo might not be great, but this is what it is. What can we do with it, rather than trying to transform the attitudes that led to this situation?” I think that’s pretty radical, actually.
KS: It raises the issue of critique from the outside in as opposed to the inside out—about artists and architects who might have grown up in suburbia, who might be living in suburban conditions, engaging with them as they’re producing and examining the increasing complexity of their reactions to suburbia. Are you still seeing a cultural vanguard’s reaction very much from the outside?
AB: The cultural vanguard’s negative critique of suburbia, I believe, forms the normative position on suburbia. However, lived experience and firsthand knowledge of the place can produce more nuanced or complex, and even contradictory, reactions.
TM: A ghost in the room, of course, is the New Urbanism (page 282).
KS: I was going to ask you about that. Why is it absent from the exhibition?
TM: I’m sure this question of New Urbanism will be raised. I don’t think that New Urbanism can be considered to be cutting-edge thinking at this point; it’s so entrenched. There’s the issue of New Urbanism really being New Suburbanism, because for the first ten years it was all little Smurf villages being built in cornfields.
KS: But New Urbanism didn’t start out to be monolithic, either. New Urbanism and neo-traditionalism became conflated.
TM: All the projects we included are thinking more imaginatively about the conditions to which many New Urbanist responses have become, for whatever reason, formulaic. So these are projects that are just taking a different tack. We agreed from the beginning that this was not going to be a historical show, or that it would document every condition or idea. But I’m perfectly comfortable with not including New Urbanism because I just think it’s time for other ideas to be presented.
AB: I think some of the issues would come up anyway, the base issues—not classic solutions of New Urbanism, but the problems they’re trying to solve: land and energy resources, transportation issues, notions of community. The conflation of New Urbanism and neo-traditionalism is absolutely true. Of course, the whole justification is that . . .
TM: That’s what people like.
AB: Yes, the people’s choice, populist tastes. It’s a double-edged sword. I always joke that suburbia is the only successful architectural utopia—it just wasn’t authored by architects. This populist reduction has to do with class and cultural capital, but it also has to do with all sorts of factors that go into any complex system.
KS: It has to do with zoning, economics, and federal policy too. Moving on, I also wanted to ask how photographers are responding to existing suburban conditions.
AB: The artists are observing what is at hand. We tend to think of art within an urban mindset: the city, bohemia, Paris, New York.
KS: Both as subject and as site of production.
AB: Yes. It’s about the artist and where they’re working, what they’re drawing upon as subject matter and inspiration. So you have painters such as Sarah McKenzie, who is living in Colorado and literally painting what she was seeing out her window (page 113). And if you’ve been in Denver, you know the explosion of housing all across the countryside there—that’s what she painted. And you can see that approach across so many different artists in the exhibition. That’s what was around them, and what they grew up with; it becomes source material. This is a little bit different than an earlier generation of artists such as Dan Graham (pages 38–39), Ed Ruscha (pages 193–197), or Robert Smithson, who viewed suburbia more as outsiders.
Another example is Matthew Moore, who studied sculpture and whose family operated a farm in Arizona (pages 252–256). He returned there and creates land-based projects, for instance, by growing different crops on parcels of farmland acreage to re-create the image of houses or the housing subdivision that will or might occupy these places. The projects are documented from the air. He has a really interesting, conflicted relationship with this process of suburban development. Some of his farmland has been sold off to a developer, but he went to city hall to obtain their plans, and he literally grew them. What’s more destructive: agricultural or residential development? They’re both damaging ecologically, but what’s truly worse? If you’re in Phoenix, it might actually be agriculture. As a farmer, he’s dealing with that sort of conflict too, but he’s also complicit in that cycle, and he understands that.
KS: If one of the goals here is to raise questions, what kinds of issues do you find photographers exploring?
AB: It depends on the photographer. Brian Ulrich has more of a critical take on suburbia that is born out of a larger engagement with issues of consumer culture (pages 232–234). He makes these amazing portraits of shoppers whom he photographs largely in big box stores, but he also has a parallel set of images that have to do with thrift stores—the economy of resale and the economy of conspicuous consumption. He takes these photos in IKEA, Home Depot, Target, Lowe’s, and so on. They remind me of Post-Impressionist paintings—like Manet’s bartender, whose expression of urban ennui is recalled in some of Ulrich’s portraits, a kind of suburban ennui. Is this our shock? Is it shocking to see this beautifully composed portrait of someone pushing a cart through Costco? Maybe those things aren’t related, but it suggests that this is our millennial moment.
KS: I was wondering, too, about changing visual strategies. You’re dealing with this expansive landscape. One strategy you talked about was the aerial view, and then there are panoramic views that try to capture the expansiveness. But there are also a few photographers you’ve selected who really close in and restrict our vision so that we don’t get that sense of spatial expansion. What are some of the other strategies people are using?
AB: Ulrich has to photograph in what is in legal terms private property—the big box and the mall. He sometimes uses a range-finder camera so he can just glance down to see the frame. It’s candid, so he gets a natural reaction. It’s also about what you photograph. Larry Sultan, who created a series of photographs called The Valley, about the adult-entertainment film industry housed in the San Fernando Valley, gives us a glimpse of what we may not be aware of, or dare not see (pages 126–128).
TM: Or Stefanie Nagorka building sculptures in the aisles of a Home Depot (pages 202–205). There are interesting layers there: art in Home Depot; Home Depot as the source for material that can be made into an object of aesthetic pleasure, contemplation, or provocation.
KS: It’s also potentially a commentary on the notion of people going into Home Depot and getting their materials to create aesthetically satisfying environments for themselves.
AB: This discussion reminds me of Julia Christensen, who documents how defunct big box stores are being reused (pages 206–208). I asked her what advantage she has as an artist versus an architect or a planner (page 209). Her answer was that she does not arrive with an agenda—a statistical imperative, a particular architectural interest—but really tries to connect with people about how they understand what they’re doing. In her work, the range of reuse is amazing—former big boxes that are now megachurches, or even the Spam Museum.
TM: The architectural form that comes from a similar point of view is FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste) (page 43). Sean Griffiths, who is one of the partners, has observed very honestly that architects typically bring their elitist taste to their projects. FAT’s work is really meant to subvert that notion and embrace the taste of the people for whom they’re building or whom they’re studying. For example, FAT was asked by a newspaper in London a few years ago to design a suburban house for a dysfunctional family. [laughter] Which is not to imply that all suburban families are dysfunctional, but rather to acknowledge that families are imperfect. In other projects, they have taken the bric-a-brac, the tchotchkes, and the do-it-yourself architectural styling of families and incorporated them into their design rather than neutralizing them and saying, “You don’t need one hundred cows. You’ve got to get those out of here, it ruins our aesthetics!”
KS: They design so those one hundred cows can be on display?
TM: Yes. They’re very indebted to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown for inspiration in terms of assumptions about quality and taste (page 49). They’re indebted to the idea that any critique of suburbia is really about taste: suburban taste—lawn jockeys and the perfectly trimmed hedge, “carpenter Gothic” architectural details.
KS: So do you find a sense of irony in FAT?
TM: No, their attitude isn’t cloying or overly self-conscious. I think it is genuine appreciation for that which others find somehow objectionable.
KS: Another ghost in the room is the argument that suburban ways of living simply are not sustainable. Issues of sustainability seem not to be explicitly present here, or are they?
TM: They’re not explicitly addressed. I’m not sure it was necessarily a conscious decision. When I was first thinking about the exhibition, this was absolutely something I was going to explore, all these strategies for remediating suburban conditions.
AB: Some of the projects do engage with ecological issues, but in different ways. It wasn’t primary, but the Coen+Partners project for Mayo Woodlands has land conservation in its genesis (page 173). It’s also about erasing or remediating the typical cul-de-sac layout they inherited from an aborted development plan for the site.
TM: There’s densification—someone like Cruz, who’s looking at a mixed-use program.
KS: I found it intriguing to see the SITE projects in this particular context, especially the parking lot that becomes the roof of the store (page 78). Talk about changing ways of reading images! When you think about storm-water-runoff issues today, and so on, it becomes powerful in a different way.
AB: Any meaningful examination would have to study both cities and suburbs, and their respective and cumulative environmental impacts: the electrical consumption associated with city living or house and lot sizes—suburban lawns, because of their size, may have more green potential versus the asphalt jungle and the heat-island effects from cities; or other factors, such as commuting and telecommuting. Basically put, there are challenges to sustainability in both cities and suburbs, and because it affects both environments and lifestyles, it could be its own show.
KS: For this exhibition then, it seems that rather than calling out sustainability as a separate issue, you’ve threaded it through the whole show—which seems a good thing, if you consider that to be effective, sustainability needs to infiltrate design, not to mention our thinking.
AB: Our approach was: suburbia exists and persists. It’s a dominant reality, so what can be done within that context? People contend that the end of suburbia will be caused by rising energy prices—oil shortages and higher gas prices. Historically, this is not true. The largest expansion of suburbia was in the 1970s during that energy crisis.
TM: Americans are not going to give up their cars.
AB: Or where they want to live. So there’s nothing particularly logical about one thing leading to another. The very latest spin on this end-of-suburbia thesis is the subprime lending collapse combined with higher energy prices. I don’t think this is going to doom suburbia, either.
KS: You do have some architecture projects from the 1970s and 1980s, but why is it that you’re mostly finding artists discovering suburbia sooner? Or is that really true?
AB: For the sake of disclosure I should note that the exhibition does not include the work of many photographers who did document the suburban landscape in the 1980s. That could be a show in and of itself. I think it’s a missing component within suburbia for so many decades—the lack of architectural engagement, whether by choice or circumstance. It simply did not happen as much.
TM: That lack of engagement on the part of architects is particularly paradoxical, given the history of American suburbs. Some of what are now recognized as the country’s great architectural innovators—A. J. Davis, Frederick Law Olmsted, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright—theorized about, or were involved in, the design of early suburbs. And as Kate mentioned in another conversation, there are any number of architect-designed gas stations, corporate office parks, as well as the occasional architect-designed suburban house. But in the past fifty years, it’s only the New Urbanists who have seriously looked at suburbia per se—and generally, they’ve assumed a tabula rasa rather than dealing with suburbia on its existing terms. I think a lot of this has to do with architecture schools. I don’t know of any architecture program with a component that examines suburbia on an ongoing basis. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, has an urban lab—a fifth-year urban design studio—but it is very seldom organized around a suburban site.
KS: We actually have one at the University of Minnesota, the Metropolitan Design Center [formerly the Design Center for the American Urban Landscape]. By the late 1990s, most of their work was looking at first-ring suburbs, and they organized a conference called Reframing Suburbia that John Archer and I were involved in, which brought planners, policymakers, and design professionals together with academics in history and cultural studies, among others.
TM: But that’s certainly not the norm. It’s especially interesting in light of the fact that most Americans live in suburbs and most college students are coming from there. Most architecture schools are perpetuating architects’ interest in the city by offering urban design labs, but not really looking beyond that. Public officials also need to start thinking of suburbs as areas to be designed—to which some conscious notion of organization should be brought. City officials are just now starting to understand that good design is good business, and that having an architect involved in a project might be more expensive up front, but it could yield dividends in the end. So there’s also that policy component to the explanation of why architects haven’t been invited to the table very often. Architects need to understand that these places have value, and they need to be engaged by those who are in a position to make a difference in those landscapes.
AB: There is huge potential because suburbia is an area where habitation patterns, technologies, and societal expectations are changing. It might be the last architectural frontier.
KS: I think the lack of engagement by architects is embedded in attitudes within the profession, because it’s basically not the sort of landscape that offers those heroic opportunities.
AB: True, but perhaps it’s time to embrace suburbia’s antiheroic opportunities.
We asked people to make a video telling us about the suburbs and put it on YouTube. Selected videos are showing in the gallery at the Walker Art Center during the run of the exhibition.
Do you live in a suburb? Do you work or go to school in one? What is your experience of the “burbs? ”…
Whether you love them or hate them we’re interested in your thoughts on the phenomenon of the American suburb. We invite you to make a 5-minute video about strip malls, cul-de-sacs, office parks, and green lawns or whatever suburbia means to you. A select number of videos will be chosen to screen as part of the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes in the Target Gallery from February 15 to May 18, 2008.
To participate, upload your video to YouTube and add the tag “walkerworldsaway” or post it as a response to our video above. We’ll feature all videos on the Walker’s YouTube page. To be considered for gallery screening, entries must be 5 minutes or less and be online by January 18, 2008.