Should suburbs be designed?

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by Peter G. Rowe.

The MIT Press, $39.95.I RECENTLY conducted a graduate seminar on the subject of housing. If things got dull, as they sometimes did, I knew that I could always animate the discussion by introducing the subject of suburbia–or, rather, by insinuating that suburban housing had some merit. I might just as well have been defending male chauvinism or global warming. On this one subject, at least, my architecture students were unanimous: the suburbs, like fast food, big business, and Styrofoam cups, were bad, beneath contempt, certainly beneath study. One would never have guessed from their spirited condemnations that most of these young men and women had grown up in suburban surroundings and would probably return there to raise their families.

My students’ reaction is hardly surprising. Ever since the 1950s, when David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd and William H. Whyte, Jr.’s The Organization Man appeared, the suburbs have been associated with middle-class alienation and white-collar conformity. Resolutely middlebrow, suburbs incorporated none of the traditional virtues of the city; moreover, the rise of the postwar suburbs coincided with the decline of the city center. Even Lewis Mumford, an earlier advocate of garden cities, came to see the growth of suburbs as an ominous sign of the disintegration of the traditional city, and a symptom of the deterioration of civilized life. (Mumford spent the last fifty years of his life living outside New York.)


These critics were reacting to the postwar suburbs exemplified by Levittown, but the idea of living outside the city was much older than that. The first modern suburbs were built on the outskirts of London in the late eighteenth century, and they reversed the tradition according to which the middle class lived in the center of the city and the poor on the edges. Although Continental cities resisted sub-urbanization (Vienna and Paris were ringed by dense working-class neighborhoods), in America the British model prevailed; the first “villa park,” Llewellyn Park, was built on the outskirts of New York in 1857. The long history of the American suburb demonstrates the resiliency of this urban form, which underwent many changes as it accommodated various types of families (first the rich, then the middle class, then everyone else), ways of life, and modes of transportation: the railroad, the streetcar, and finally the automobile.

In 1970, for the first time, there were more suburbanites in the United States than people living in cities or rural areas. The 1990 census shows that 46.2 percent of the U.S. population now lives in metropolitan areas outside central cities–that is, in the suburbs. Almost all city growth now takes place in the suburbs, not in central cities. (From 1950 to 1960 the population of central cities in large metropolitan areas grew by a national average of only 1.5 percent; the suburbs increased by 53.9 percent.) The so-called back-to-the-city movement of the 1970s fizzled out; high rents, high prices, and high crime have continued to drive young families to the suburbs. Clearly, suburbs–in one form or another–are here to stay.

According to Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia University and the author of Crabgrass Frontier, one of the best recent histories of the American suburb, “Suburbia has become the quintessential physical achievement of the United States….” Why, then, the antipathy of my students, or indeed of most intellectuals, to the suburb? One reason, I think, is that suburbs have become a stereotype. To most people, suburbs still conjure up images of uniformity and monotonous sprawl, of white middle-class exclusivity, and of bedroom communities composed of self-satisfied lawn-rakers and smug backyard barbecuers.

The reality is much more complicated. There are hundred-year-old suburbs that are now considered a part of the city and far-flung raw tracts where the lawns have barely had time to grow in. And suburbs are no longer as economically and racially homogeneous as they once were. There are rich suburbs and poor suburbs, and although it is true that inner cities are frequently minority ghettos, the suburbs are beginning to show considerable diversity (during the 1970s, for example, the suburban black population increased by nearly 40 percent). Critics point out that individual suburban enclaves often exhibit ethnic homogeneity (Chicano, black, Italian, Jewish), but surely that is only a mirror of traditional city neighborhoods. The conventional view of suburbs as consisting exclusively of single-family houses is no longer true; suburbs are just as likely to contain high-rise apartments, condominiums, and attached town houses.

Nor is it any longer correct to describe suburbs as chiefly residential. As Joel Garreau points out in his recent book, Edge City, the nature of suburban growth is different from what it was in the past. There is now far more office space on the outskirts of New York than in Manhattan; across the country corporations are relocating their offices outside the city, to peripheral areas like Houston’s Galleria, San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, and Boston’s Burlington Mall. These new suburban areas (or “urban villages,” as the October, 1986, cover story in The Atlantic called them) are no longer dependent on the metropolis for employment, shopping, or entertainment. They have become self-sufficient cities in their own right. Indeed, they have even spawned their own suburbs–“sub-suburbs,” half-rural communities surrounded by countryside.

Sprawling rather than dense, based on the car rather than the pedestrian, and characterized by diversity rather than homogeneity, American suburbs challenge conventional notions of urbanity. This is not the way cities are supposed to look. The disparity did not seem to bother the planners of the first suburbs, people like Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, or the generation that followed–Grosvenor Atterbury, Bertram Goodhue, John Nolen. Nor did it disturb Frank Lloyd Wright, who celebrated the suburban ideal in his Broadacre City proposal, which was exhibited in Rockefeller Center in 1935. But postwar planners and architects, influenced by the largely European ideology of modern architecture, preferred to turn a blind eye to what was happening in the suburbs and focus their attention on urban renewal and downtown rehabilitation. It is only in the past two decades that some postmodern designers, such as Robert Venturi and Robert A. M. Stern, and town planners, such as Denise Scott Brown and Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, have begun to take the suburban environment seriously. Stern, in particular, has mounted a spirited defense of the suburban enclave.

THE PHYSICAL character of American suburban development is the subject of Making a Middle Landscape, by Peter Rowe, a professor of architecture and urban design at Harvard. In an attempt to break down the suburban stereotype, Rowe has coined the term “middle landscape” (between city and country), and he devotes a good deal of his book to an interesting examination of the evolution of the four chief cultural artifacts that have shaped it: houses, shopping places, workplaces, and highways.


The suburban house has gone through several transformations, from the picturesque cottages that Alexander Jackson Davis designed for Llewellyn Park to the postwar Cape Cod houses that William Levitt built in Long Island potato fields. The turn-of-the-century Chicago bungalow, which became the predominant type in California in the 1920s, was supplanted by the western-inspired ranch house, which is still being built across the United States and Canada. The Colonial-revival house became another popular model. After about 1975, according to Rowe, the Colonial and the ranch were merged in a house that combined the compact, two-story appearance of the Colonial with the less formal, open-room arrangement of the ranch.

The shopping center is a suburban fixture that is usually taken for granted, but it, too, underwent many changes before assuming its present form. The earliest suburbs were explicitly promoted as purely residential, and contained no shops whatsoever–express companies delivered goods (usually by rail) from the city. Eventually, commercial strips grew up along the major streets, following the lines of electric streetcars. The first so-called shopping village, consisting of a grouping stores interspersed with parking lots, was built outside Kansas City in 1908. The developers of Shaker Heights, a famous planned community in Cleveland, built a shopping center in 1929 that included shops, a bank, and a theater. During the 1950s shopping centers began to be replaced by shopping malls that were increasingly self-contained, often enclosed, and completely oriented to the automobile. Or, rather, they were designed to be reached by automobile, for the shopping mall is really oriented to the pedestrian. The latest malls are best described as bazaars. They contain not only shops but also hotels, offices, and community, entertainment, and leisure facilities. Increasingly, their architectural form, too, is richer, often evocative of traditional town markets.

The first American suburbs were inspired by British examples. But American builders were soon developing their own ideas, and what emerges strikingly from Rowe’s historical review is the degree of architectural innovation that went into making the suburban landscape. This involved not only inventing new house types and new forms of commercial centers but also refining (if that is the word) the iconography of roadside buildings–everything from gas stations to restaurants and, although Rowe does not include them, movie theaters and even churches. More elegant were the office campuses and corporate estates, often in parklike settings. Tying it all together were a system of parkways (the first begun in 1906) and expressways and an elaborate network of boulevards, streets, looped roads, and cul-de-sacs.

The author of Making a Middle Landscape admirably describes the evolution of these suburban building types, but one senses, here and there, a dissatisfaction with the appearance of the suburban environment, which, whatever its originality, has always exhibited more architectural deja vu than avantgarde. As the final section of the book makes clear, Rowe’s ambitious proposal is to refashion the American suburb to make it more, well, aesthetic. The results, mainly illustrated by the projects of Harvard graduate students, are not convincing. Rowe criticizes the suburban environment’s tendency toward conservatism, nostalgia, and sentimentality, and would replace these with a warmed-over abstract modernism (itself rapidly becoming a form of nostalgia, at least among some architects). He calls for a “modern pastoralism,” which appears to consist of monumental buildings juxtaposed with untouched nature. Le Corbusier meets Kmart–an odd coupling indeed.

It is unlikely that Rowe’s proposal for a “poetic of the middle landscape” will have much impact on the bumptious developments going up at Tysons Corner, outside Washington, D.C., or on the mammoth shopping mall about to open on the outskirts of Minneapolis. The sort of visual order and coherence that Rowe calls for are at odds with the dynamic and individualistic urges impelling suburban development today, whether in the mall or in the housing neighborhood.

The contemporary suburb appears to be driven almost wholly by market forces and not tempered, as the first villa parks were, by any intellectual ideal, except perhaps individual freedom. Some kind of considered architectural response to the way the majority of Americans want to live might be a good thing. I say “might” because the intervention of design professionals has not always had a salutary effect on the built environment–one thinks of the sterile British new towns, or of the dampening effect of architectural stylistic uniformity on many suburbs. Nor is it altogether clear which of several possible directions designers ought to take: modern architecture in the park, as Rowe suggests; a return to the tradition of the villa park; or a sort of habitable theme park. Given the catholicism of the marketplace, the likelihood is some combination of all three.