Suburban Aesthetics is Not an Oxymoron | 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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Suburban Aesthetics is Not an Oxymoron

by John Archer

(excerpted from Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes)

John Archer is chair of the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches a course titled Suburbia. His most recent book, Architecture and Suburbia (2005), explores the historical relation between the single-family house and the rise of modern suburbia over the past three centuries.

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same.

Conventional wisdom often recognizes these lyrics—Malvina Reynolds’ 1962 acerbic critique of suburban tract housing in Daly City, California—as epitomizing America’s exasperation with the ever-growing expanse of suburbia.1 Not only do the lyrics deride mass-produced housing as fostering homogeneity and conformity, but they also disparage the aesthetics of these houses, both individually and as an ensemble, in abject terms. Reynolds’ critique continues to be well-known nearly a half century later, having been popularized in the 1960s by folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, and most recently adopted as a theme song for the suburban dark-comedy television series Weeds.

Reynolds was hardly alone in her assessment of suburbia. Just the previous year, urban critic Lewis Mumford had similarly bewailed the homogeneity and aesthetic vacuity of suburbia as:

a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis. 2

In 1964 Ada Louise Huxtable decried the “regimented hordes of split-levels lined up for miles in close, unlovely rows.” And in that same year, Peter Blake’s book God’s Own Junkyard vilified suburbia’s “interminable wastelands dotted with millions of monotonous little houses on monotonous little lots and crisscrossed by highways lined with billboards, jazzed-up diners, used-car lots, drive-in movies, beflagged gas stations, and garish motels.” Blake acknowledged little, if any, hope for aesthetic redemption: “In today’s Suburbia, it is virtually impossible to create outdoor spaces of any character.”3

This concerted spate of critiques, reacting to the proliferation across America of mass-produced tract housing over the previous decade and a half, and setting the tone for the critique of suburbia ever since, is hardly without irony. Here, on the eve of the widespread civic unrest of the 1960s, and the profound social, cultural, and political changes that ensued, the aesthetic establishment circled the wagons against suburbia, outlining a conservative dogma that continues to shape the way in which academic and professional critics try to get us to think about suburbia today.4 For while the 1960s ushered in an era of populist, antiestablishment reform (much of which has been reversed by ensuing waves of conservatism) and precipitated far-reaching changes in popular culture, the critique of suburbia has maintained its disdain for the working-class and petit-bourgeois tastes of those who choose, and prefer, to live in developer-built, mass-marketed, tract-house environments.

The conservatism of the 1960s complaints is more evident in light of their origins in more than two centuries of vilification of suburbs, dating to the historical beginnings of modern suburbia in eighteenth-century England. Lines published in 1754 in one popular periodical, for example, denounced, in terms very similar to Malvina Reynolds’, the unsophisticated, underfinanced, and underlandscaped sort of “box” that people with no taste were building on the outskirts of London:

A little country box you boast
So neat, ’tis cover’d all with dust;
And nought about it to be seen,
Except a nettle-bed, that’s green;
Your Villa! rural but the name in,
So desart, it would breed a famine.5

A century later, New York architect William Ranlett wrote in similarly derogatory terms about the suburbs of his own time. Starting from the premise that cities are to be apprehended in terms comparable to a work of art—a genteel aesthetic stance in its own right—he found that American suburbs were little more than visual blight: “The suburbs of our cities are, generally, like a shabby frame to a fine picture. . . . [T]hey are put up in a hurry by careless speculators, and very little regard is paid to their externals.” At the end of the twentieth century, the refrain was still the same: speaking acerbically, yet in tune with many in the design establishment, James Howard Kunstler described “the building of suburbia” as “a self-destructive act,” a “tragic process” that “is bankrupting us economically, socially, ecologically, and spiritually,” “not merely the symptom of a troubled culture but in many ways a primary cause of our troubles.” A good portion of the blame is directed at the aesthetic “banality” of suburbia: “a fake fanlight window in a tract house is the supposed solution for the problem of a house designed and built without affection for nobody in particular. A Victorian street light is the supposed cure for overly wide, arbitrarily curvy streets that are poorly defined by tract houses.”6

Persistent Precepts

Despite the historical persistence and consistency of critiques such as these, mocking uniformity, sneering at shoddy construction, and decrying the absence of taste (or worse), a substantive history of suburban aesthetics—the criteria according to which society has judged the design and appearance of suburban dwellings and landscapes—remains to be written.7 Although such a history is not possible here, a preliminary survey of the popular and professional literature on architecture, landscape, planning, and urban/suburban design of the past two-and-a-half centuries does yield four key precepts that have persisted over the history of suburbia.

First, a common factor in assessing the relationship between dwelling and landscape is picturesque design—adopting the English landscape aesthetic known as the picturesque, or at the very least acknowledging an overt pictorial relationship between the dwelling and “nature.” Second, design is recognized as a didactic instrument that is available for improving the morality, taste, and welfare of the populace. Third, preference is best given to the neighborhood or community, not the parcel of private property, as the principal aesthetic object. And fourth, an authoritative role in the evaluation and practice of urban/suburban design ought to be reserved for the professional planner and designer.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) sprawling developments across the United States and the globe that defy these principles, there is scant counterdiscourse that explores the sorts of aesthetic—pragmatic, everyday, bourgeois, self-oriented, and identity-centered—that do prevail in this terra abdicata. Before turning to the grounds and substance of such aesthetics, however, a closer look at the currently dominant discourse will help to clarify the comparatively elite and intangible premises on which the debate has been conducted so far.

I am greatly indebted to Holley Wlodarczyk for her research assistance with this project, and I am grateful for financial support from the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota McKnight Arts and Humanities Endowment.


1 Excerpt from “Little Boxes,” words and music by Malvina Reynolds. Copyright 1962 Schroder Music Co. (ASCAP); renewed 1990. (↑)

2 Lewis Mumford, The City in History (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961), 486. (↑)

3 Ada Louise Huxtable, “‘Clusters’ Instead of ‘Slurbs.’” New York Times Magazine, February 9, 1964, 37; Peter Blake, God’s Own Junkyard: The Deterioration of America’s Landscape (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), 8, 20. (↑)

4 More recently, the term “sprawl” has been appropriated in the negative appraisal of suburbia, but often as not the specific faults and the proposed remedies are aesthetic. See, for example, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream (New York: North Point Press, 2000), and Dolores Hayden, A Field Guide to Sprawl (New York: Norton, 2004). (↑)

5 On the origins of suburbia in eighteenth-century England, see John Archer, Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690–2000 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). (↑)

6 William Ranlett, The City Architect (New York: De Witt & Davenport, 1856), 12. “Letter on the Villas of Our Tradesmen,” The Connoisseur 1, no. 33 (September 17, 1754). James Howard Kunstler, Home from Nowhere (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 17–18. (↑)

7 Emily Talen and Cliff Ellis have made a substantial contribution in “Cities as Art: Exploring the Possibility of an Aesthetic Dimension in Planning,” Planning Theory & Practice 5:1 (March 2004): 11–32. Also see Archer, Architecture and Suburbia. (↑)

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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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