Sympathy for the Suburbs – Next City

Sympathy for the Suburbs

A new exhibit at the MoMA links the suburban single-family home to the foreclosure crisis with provocative results.

The foreclosure crisis changed the housing market forever by lowering housing prices, altering the character of neighborhoods and creating a seemingly limitless supply of abandoned properties, but surprisingly, it has done little to change the kind of housing that gets built. Sure, new subdivisions are fewer and farther between, and the average size of houses seems to have plateaued if not declined, but the single-family-two-car-garage-grass-lawn style house is still undeniably America’s favorite housing type. A provocative exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Foreclosed, wants to change that, by insisting that suburban single-family homes have played a role in the foreclosure crisis. Curated by Barry Bergdoll and produced in less than three years (lightning-fast for large museums like MoMA), Foreclosed presents five architectural projects that rethink the suburbs from their economic underpinnings to their aesthetic character. But while the exhibit’s thesis that sprawl is toxic jives with that of many urbanists, the architectural remedies on display seem almost as problematic.

There’s good economic and environmental data to support the claim that the suburbs are unsustainable. Each single family house requires its own heating/cooling, plumbing and electricity, missing out on the efficiencies of multi-family housing; the lack of density in the suburbs requires that the people who live there own a car, or often two or three cars, just to take care of life’s daily business, unlike walkable urban environments where people only drive for long trips; all that time spent driving means less time exercising and socializing, whereas urbanites walk off the calories and benefit from the ways that ideas circulate more freely in cities; and there’s the burden of homeownership (30 percent of the U.S. population pays more than 30 percent of their income on housing) that can drain a family’s financial resources. If it does nothing else, the exhibit will convince you that the American Dream has turned into something of a nightmare.

But Foreclosed seethes with disdain for the suburbs, and the lack of an empathetic understanding of how the suburbs function and are changing, ultimately makes the exhibit look less visionary than ignorant. As an urban dweller who is deeply frustrated by the social, economic and environmental consequences of sprawl and car-centered communities, I too want to see clever ways of retrofitting these parts of the country. But saying that, I wish the exhibit had improved upon the suburbs rather than suggest transforming them beyond recognition.

It was critically apparent that none of the architects participating in the exhibit actually live in the suburbs (a fact confirmed by the exhibit’s curator). To Bergdoll, the last great American architect to live and work in the burbs was Frank Lloyd Wright, who was based in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park at the turn of the 20th century. This outsider perspective on the suburbs is the exhibit’s crucial flaw and inevitably influenced the architects to propose interventions in suburbia that have all the grace of a superblock in the middle of the city grid. Despite their good intentions, their efforts at sustainability and their smart alternatives to homeownership, the architects’ wrath for the suburbs has caused them to create projects that annihilate the suburbs rather than improve them.

The exhibit begins with pages from The Buell Hypothesis, an ingenious and cheeky “screenplay” in the form of a Platonic dialogue that argues against the suburbs (if you can’t make it to the exhibit, I urge you to read the Hypothesis nonetheless). In addition to the screenplay, the Hypothesis delivers quantitative data about a handful of sites around the country that have been deeply altered by the foreclosure crisis. Five of these sites were then chosen as the locales for Foreclosed teams to rethink the design of the housing and economic structures of these suburbs. The Hypothesis suggests that the dominant symbol of single-family homeownership is ruinous: “If you change the narratives guiding suburban housing (such as that of the American Dream) and the priorities they imply—including spatial arrangements, ownership patterns, the balance between public and private interests, and the mixtures of activities and services that any town or city entails—then you begin the process of redirecting suburban sprawl.”

In order to change the narrative of the American Dream, the teams have attacked it. With the exception of Andrew Zago’s project in Rialto, California that retains a cul-de-sac structure while beefing up the housing density, these projects are aggressively anti-suburban in their form. For example, WORKac’s Nature-City replaces a neighborhood’s dominant single-family house typology with large multi-family buildings. The winding cul-de-sac roads are then met with a grid form. This disrespect for the rhythms of a suburban lifestyle is most apparent in a project by Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS. With a site in inner-ring suburbs of The Oranges, New Jersey, the MOS team took on the challenge of numerous foreclosed and abandoned structures as well as crumbling streets that are difficult for the city to maintain. But the team’s response included a three-story structure that would occupy former streets—as if this would be any easier to the city to maintain, as if this intrusion in the grid would be convenient or desirable at all to current inhabitants of the town.

These fanciful responses seem most ignorant of a basic cause of the foreclosure crisis: With cheap money, we simply overbuilt the country. Even without building new homes, we are still probably a few years away from reaching a point of real demand that will drive the housing market. The problem in The Oranges isn’t that it needs new housing or buildings—The Oranges lost almost 10 percent of their population between 2000 and 2010—but rather that it needs people with jobs. Unfortunately none of Foreclosed’s projects propose ways of removing housing, an incredibly difficult but important task that has stymied communities from Detroit to Phoenix.

The best proposals, those lead by Jeanne Gang and Andrew Zago, focus on retrofitting the existing infrastructure. In Cicero, Ill., Gang’s team explored how housing needs shift over time and proposed a buy-as-you-go housing typology that responds to these changing needs. Centered around a former factory that would be reused as housing, Gang’s proposal also replaces the common form of home ownership with a limited equity collective. “It decouples the ownership of homes from that of the land beneath them; residents own their spaces, and thus have an incentive to care for them, but land and shared amenities are jointly owned by all, in a private trust.” This reduces what Gang calls the “casino effect” of the housing market.

Zago’s team took a traditional cul-de-sac and improved upon it. Seeking to relax the boundaries of the typical single-family home, the project proposes spaces that are privately owned, land banked or owned and maintained by the community. With a mix of single family homes, townhouses and multifamily homes, this project demonstrates a kind of sympathy for suburban tastes that the other projects lack.

Zago’s principal metaphor is “misregisration”—a fancy word for the printing problem that leaves blurry images—and uses this concept to blur the indoor/outdoor connections of housing and of private/public space. This is the most apt metaphor of the show. Suburban demographics, housing and lifestyles are blurry at the moment. The distinctions between suburbia and cities are as unclear as a misregistered photo. Instead the urbanist community dogmatically champions density—see Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City or Market Urbanism’s blog—in a way that is ultimately myopic. The Modernist responses to suburbia that try to erase what is there to create something anew, rather than accept what is there to advance it, would not have been acceptable if they were proposed for an inner city—why is it ok to treat the suburbs this way?

It’s important to take a long view of the suburban/urban divide and realize that the pendulum has by now swung all the way to cities and may be swinging back to the ‘burbs. Poverty, unemployment and environmental degredation are now facing cities and suburbs in equal measure. But there are good reasons to expect that the suburbs, with their ethnic diversity, will become increasingly vibrant places. By contrast, you look at places like New York where the dynamics of globalization and wealth disparity has radically changed its sense of community. The 2010 Census noted that on the prime East Side of Manhattan “about 30 percent of the more than 5,000 apartments are routinely vacant more than 10 months a year because their owners or renters have permanent homes elsewhere… Since 2000, the number of Manhattan apartments occupied by absentee owners and renters swelled by more than 70 percent, to nearly 34,000, from 19,000.” This commodification of New York and its experiences is almost enough to make one nostalgic for the guilelessness of a 1st-generation strip mall.

Urbanists should look beyond the simplistic view that suburbs are, ipso facto, unsustainable. Los Angeles, essentially one of the country’s largests suburbs, also has one of the country’s lowest carbon emission rates when counting transportation and residential energy usage. More important than reducing car emissions may be to reduce the amount of energy derived from coal and increase alternative energy.

All this suggests that unlike the saying that “you are what you eat,” you may not be where you live. I would be willing to bet that the carbon footprint of the average person in any of these suburban communities is far lower than that of the architects participating in Foreclosed. The average person drives 15,000 miles per year ; that’s just three roundtrips from New York to LA in one year. I’ll be the first to admit I have flown more than 15,000 miles per year for the past two years—and could have flown more miles if I’d accepted every out-of-town invitation offered to me.

We need to stop demonizing the suburbs and start recognizing that we are all in this together. Is it better to annihilate suburbia or perfect it? Pragmatic solutions, like changing zoning to encourage density, more sustainable landscaping and agriculture, could be relatively easy to enact and would go a long way to improving the vitality of the suburbs. As CityLAB has shown with its Backyard Homes project in Los Angeles, just adding auxiliary buildings could increase density and make the suburbs more amenable to non-traditional households.

These radical visions that are so insensitive to the suburbs remind me of the Modernist public housing projects that were once foisted on inner cities. Created by well-intentioned but essentially ignorant architects and planners, those buildings made sense in theory but not in practice. They didn’t respond to the rhythms and needs of the people who would be housed there, because the architects didn’t really respect or understand the lives of poor people. MoMA should have found some architects who could love and live in the suburbs, showing us the way to make the most of suburban housing instead of wishing it didn’t exist.

Diana Lind is the former executive director and editor in chief of Next City.

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Tags: new york citybuilt environmentchicagolos angelesarts and culturearchitecturesuburbsmuseums