Intermediate Landscapes | Worlds Away

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes


Walker Art Center,
February 16 - August 17, 2008

Carnegie Museum of Art,
October 4, 2008 - January 18, 2009

Yale School of Architecture
March 2 - May 10, 2009

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

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Intermediate Landscapes

Constructing Suburbia in Postwar American Photography

by Holley Wlodarczyk

Holley Wlodarczyk is a PhD candidate in comparative studies in discourse and society at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses in film, television, and cultural studies. Her current research is centered on representations of suburbia in American visual culture.

Representations in the visual culture of suburbia have often been concerned with its status as a landscape in transition. Since photographers first turned their cameras toward the suburban landscape, a number of them have focused on scenes depicting various stages of construction, especially residential subdivisions and tract homes. While still unfinished and uninhabited, these vistas connote the movement or tension between our concepts of nature and culture, the beautiful and the banal, the wilderness of frontiers and the domesticity of home. Critical use and reception of these kinds of suburban views quite often serve as photographic evidence of undesirable phenomena such as urban sprawl, documenting the commonly destructive and wasteful processes used to transform the land from a perceived natural or pastoral condition into a homogenous built environment that lacks either aesthetic or productive value. As art, such photographs do more than simply record historical changes in land-use patterns. They participate in framing—visually and intellectually—our understanding of suburbia as a cultural as well as physical landscape, one that is often treated with indifference or derision in contemporary discourse. A brief survey of construction photographs made, exhibited, and published over the past several decades can illustrate how and why certain images validate—or even help to construct—more commonly negative views about suburbia in American culture, despite the fact that a growing and diverse majority of the population chooses to live there.

Mass consumption is as much a factor as mass production in critical accounts of national building trends. Despite historical scholarship tracing the origins of suburbia to late seventeenth- through mid-nineteenth-century philosophical, economic, social, and architectural transitions in the United States and abroad,1 the term more popularly evokes the middle-class, mass-produced developments of the postwar era as the progenitors of contemporary American suburbia. While the rapid growth of such suburbs following World War II was met with enthusiasm from a burgeoning, upwardly and outwardly mobile consumer society,2 increasingly high-profile, large-scale developments across the country almost immediately elicited strong disapproval from a broad range of critics. Photography played an important yet complicated role from the start, illustrating both positive and negative aspects of such rapid market growth. Aiding in the promotion of new home building practices and products, aerial photos offered newly empowered consumer-citizens encouraging views of plentiful, modern housing stocks equal to the task of satisfying long-suppressed desires and demands, especially following decades of Depression-era hardship and wartime sacrifice. New suburbs were seen here by many as not only a practical solution to a national housing shortage and uncertain peacetime economy, but also the potential fulfillment of more abstract and personal longings, such as self-determination and socioeconomic security. Yet while young couples and growing families may have seen only the promise of their own individualized American dream-come-true in one of the seemingly endless expanse of detached, single-family homes, the uniformity and scale of the view made possible by such images also practically illustrated aspects of such construction and consumption practices that architectural and social critics felt deserved their collective scorn.

William Garnett’s iconic 1950 aerial series documenting various stages in the construction of Lakewood, California, is perhaps one of the earliest and best-known examples of this dual function. Initially commissioned by the developers to promote both sales within the subdivision and, like Levittown on the East Coast, the efficiency of its revolutionary application of mass-production techniques to on-site home building, these same photographs have been often reproduced as visual proof of everything that was and is wrong with the modern suburb. While the scale and method of building these homes provides a visually interesting, almost abstract pattern from the air,3 it is precisely these factors of scale and method that soon caused the widest and most enduring concern warranting public reassessment of the social, aesthetic, and environmental costs of the emerging suburban landscape on the ground. As these concerns gained more traction in both the academic and popular press, certain trends in home building and town planning were viewed from an evolving political perspective that seemed to value more than just maintenance of the capitalist economy or possessive individualism. Focus on the “potential” represented in such imagery shifted from individual gain to collective loss. For example, in Adam Rome’s 2001 The Bulldozer in the Countryside, the author begins his study of the relationship between postwar suburban sprawl and the rising environmental movement with a discussion of the changing role of these (in)famous images in American visual culture. Though they were widely reprinted since their initial marketing usage, Rome points out that “by 1970, however, the Garnett photographs had become symbols of environmental devastation,” beginning with their republication in Peter Blake’s 1964 God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape, as “a biting pictorial attack on ‘the planned deterioration of America’s landscape.’”4 The progress once suggested by such construction photographs was quickly recaptioned and reread by postwar critics like Blake as destruction and decline, and the language accompanying such images—terms such as “sprawl” and “wasteland”—made the association quite clear for viewers and readers alike.5

Photography continues to be used to support environmental criticism as well as analysis of the socioeconomic system that encourages further development on urban fringes. In the 2004 collaboration between urban historian and architect Dolores Hayden and aerial photographer Jim Wark, the full-color aerial images in A Field Guide to Sprawl illustrate the evolving “vocabulary of sprawl,” including terms such as “boomburb?,” “privatopia,” “sitcom suburb,” and “snout house.” As with the Garnett images produced more than a half century earlier, any photograph’s viewing context can greatly change the meaning derived from it, regardless of the photographer’s original intent—or commission—in making it. Yet such views in and of themselves allow us to quite literally “look down on” the expanding suburban landscape, a position supported by Hayden’s brief text, clarifying the “smart growth” agenda the photographs are meant here to serve.

Another contemporary aerial photographer, Alex S. MacLean, has been straddling the commercial/critical fence in his own work, producing images for a variety of public and private concerns while also compiling effective projects with regard to provoking a more thoughtful discussion—and application—of planning and building practices. Though MacLean’s 2003 book, Designs on the Land: Exploring America from the Air, takes a broader look at the continuum of the built landscape from urban centers to pristine forest, desert, and ocean, several of his notable suburban photographs draw our attention to the dramatic pace and scale at which land is still being converted, giving viewers a sense of the “before” and “after” all in the same image.6 In this photograph, we get a bird’s-eye view of one of the methods and geographic settings of contemporary suburban construction projects. California hillsides are here flattened to create more accessible and traditional housing sites.

Meanwhile, in other suburban construction photographs in this collection, an imposed urban grid suggests the geometrically ordered landscape soon to be built up on the floor of a flat West Texas desert valley, a new Arizona subdivision fills in quadrants of a larger-scale agricultural grid, and two stages of cul-de-sac development lie in stark contrast, indicating the piecemeal construction—and habitation—of new houses and neighborhoods. Our own perspective while driving by or walking through such communities-in-progress could never capture the combined reach and impact of each individual house, driveway, or street on the larger landscape, yet this is precisely the point of view we are most often limited to in our daily visual lives, no matter what environment we personally inhabit—urban, suburban, or rural. Through such distanced and high-angled views, we can escape our customary terrestrial-based focus on individual properties, as experienced either individually (house and yard) or sequentially (longer street views). Even so, the meaning of these and similar aerial suburban photographs is not fixed, but rather firmly suggested by both their visual content and published context.

James Corner describes MacLean’s images as “a particularly emphatic double reading on the perverse expansionism of modern development and infrastructure across otherwise endless territory.”7 The phrase “otherwise endless territory” is especially significant if we understand—or desire—cities to be bounded, contained, and somehow manageable. If, in fact, suburbia is extending or transgressing a physically or conceptually established city limit, its incursion into the countryside can be seen as dangerously uncontrollable. Suburban sprawl, as a product of urban growth, is thus aligned against un- or underdeveloped territory, and is usually the less-valued quantity in such a cultural dichotomy that opposes natural to man-made landscapes. Yet in opposition to the “city” proper, suburbia—when seen as a hybrid of “natural” and “cultural” landscapes—is often devalued by critics who envision urban centers as more purely or honestly belonging to the latter category. As a third or middle term in such aesthetic and environmental discourses, suburbia is quite often denigrated for the very hybridity that makes it appealing for many potential and actual residents. Construction images are central to the visualization and documentation of suburban hybridity as process as well as product, the means by which suburbs bridge and encompass both the city and the country in their making.



1 See, for example, John Archer, Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). (↑)

2 For more on postwar suburban development in this context, see Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003). (↑)

3 In addition to their publication as marketing materials and critical historical documents of postwar suburban growth, Garnett’s photographs have also been recognized as having artistic merit, despite the perceived banality of their subject matter. For example, two of Garnett’s images were included in Volker Kahmen’s 1973 publication, Art History of Photography (originally published in German). (↑)

4 Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 1–2. In his assessment of the public’s increasing awareness of the value of open green space in new development, Rome further notes that by the mid-1960s and 1970s, “attacks on the bulldozer were supported by stark aerial photographs of the construction of subdivisions,” 151. (↑)

5 Blake refers to contemporary usage of “the great suburban sprawl” before briefly explaining the postwar “bureaucratic strait jacket on design” that “gives Suburbia its ‘wasteland’ appearance.” Peter Blake, God’s Own Junkyard: The Planned Deterioration of America’s Landscape (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 17. (↑)

6 Alex S. MacLean, Designs on the Land: Exploring America from the Air (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2003). (↑)

7 James Corner, “The Aerial American Landscape,” in MacLean, 11. (↑)

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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.

Selected Videos

See all submitted videos

Original Submission Call

See YouTube video call

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.

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Adaptive Reuse
Anchor Store
Asphalt Nation
Auto Park
Baby Boomer
Ball Pork
Bedroom Community
Big Box
Category Killer
Chain Store
Collector Road
Community Interest Development
Compact Land Use
Crunchy Suburb
Cup-holder Cuisine
Curb Appeal
Dead Mall
Deeded Community
Discount Department Store
Drive Til You Qualify
Edge City
Edifice Rex
Empty Nester
Family Room
Fast Food
Fast Food Cluster
First Ring
Food Court Druid
Garage Band
Garage Mahal
Gated Community
Group Attributes
Growth Machine
High Density
Home Office
Home Owner Association
HOV Lane
Inner Ring
Lifestyle Commuter
Light Rail
Logo Building
Low Density
Mall Rat
Media Room
Mixed-use Development
Monster Home
New Suburbanism
New Urbanism
No Growth
Noise Barrier
Office Park
Outer-ring Suburb
Outlet Store
Park and Ride
Patio Man
Peter Pan Suburb
Picture Window
Pork Chop
Power Center
Property Owner Association
Quality of Life
Realtor Mom
Ring Road
Slow Growth
Smart Growth
Snout House
Soccer Mom
Speed Bump
Sprawl Stress Syndrome
Spread City
Sprinkler City
Starter Castle
Streetcar Suburb
Strip Mall
Suburban Plantation
Tank Farm
Theme Park
Tower Farm
Tract Mansion
Trailer Park
Value Retailer
Warehouse Club
Weekend Home
Weekend Warrior
White Flight
Willow Syndrome
Yea it is That Way

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