burn down the suburbs, and other comments on reburbia – mammoth // building nothing out of something

burn down the suburbs, and other comments on reburbia

Though I’m on vacation at the moment, I thought I’d chime in with a couple comments on our reburbia entry (posted by Stephen below) and perhaps articulate more fully some of the thoughts behind it:

1. We were as interested in articulating a series of comments on the relationship between designers and suburbia as we were in producing an architectural proposal (which isn’t to say that we were disinterested in producing a proposal, and it’s entirely valid to judge the clarity, value, etc. of the proposal on architectural grounds alone).

2. We (architects, landscape architects, etc.) are not doing ourselves (or suburbia, or humanity, or the remainder of the world) any favors by pursuing an excessively antagonistic stance towards suburbia.

Exhibit A for “excessive antagonism”: “Let Them Burn”, one of the “notable entries” on the Reburbia site, which (really) proposes burning down the suburbs and dancing on the ashes.

As Nam mentions in the comments on Stephen’s post, the re-burbia competition’s phrasing and framing seems to imply a buy-in to the “the burbs are totally wasteland mentality”, which is as unfortunate as it is inaccurate (though, being familiar with some of the jurors from their other work, I’m sure that that mentality was not exclusive or controlling in the judging).

3. (We Don’t Have to Make Every Suburb a City)

(a) We aren’t going to be able to fix the suburbs by making them exactly like cities. While I love cities (and live in one, and couldn’t be happier with the kind of transportation flexibility offered by living two blocks from a Metro stop), I’m not the sort of person who needs to buy into a new vision for the suburbs in order for that vision to be realized. The sort of person we need to convince lives in the suburbs and loves the suburbs. This person isn’t a reluctant suburbanite, priced out of urban living by restrictive zoning or pushed out by crumbling school systems. Schemes that concentrate the suburbs along (mass) transportation arterials, imitate Le Corbusian glass-towers-in-a-park, or model new developments after historical town planning may appeal to the latter, but not the former (note in particular the comments on “Urban Sprawl Repair Kit”, which I suspect provide a typical window into the average suburbanite’s reaction). A new vision for the suburbs ought to begin with understanding what characteristics of the suburbs make them appealing to the suburbanite and then find ways to solve problems while retaining or even expanding upon those characteristics.

(b) Exhibit A for “making the suburbs like cities”: “Arterials for Living” (another notable entry), which is, at least architecturally, a likeable enough proposal (I’d rather live there than in, say, Chino Hills), but which exposes (unintentionally, I think) a bit of the dark and arrogant underbelly of the typical urbanist’s distaste for the suburbs when it slyly suggests “relocating” suburbanites to newly-built dense housing along boulevards and “razing” their existing housing.  While its possible that this would be a peacable and pleasant process, its much more likely that this sort of intensive dislocation would follow the pattern of most forced relocations and quickly devolve into a nightmarish scenario (the Suburban Resistance Army, et cetera).

(c) When we talk about adjusting transportation options, or zoning regulations, or whatever else we do to promote urban living, we’re not really talking about wiping out the suburbs.  We’re playing with percentages; and if we take as a given that the suburbs will continue to exist, we have to talk about how we can solve suburban problems without falling back onto urban solutions.

4. While I’d like to think that our entry at least outlined one sort of strategy for solving a problem (lack of density, for instance) while retaining and magnifying one of the characteristics that make the suburbs attractive (the availability of land), there are certainly many other strategies that might share this approach.  In fact, one of the entries published on the re-burbia site, “ParkUrbia”, shares this sort of approach.  The title of Philippe Barriere Collective‘s entry may give me another opportunity to complain about the excessive use of prefixes and suffixes in naming architectural projects, but I think ParkUrbia might be the smartest entry to the competition (at least, of the published entrants) — I can’t figure out how it didn’t merit a place among the finalists and am disappointed to not have the opportunity to vote for it.

Regardless of that, though, what interests me about ParkUrbia at the moment is how it approaches the suburbs: not with destructive intent, not with the desire to re-make them in the image of an entirely different settlement pattern, but grabbing one of the characteristics that people love about the suburbs — the feeling of being in a park — and multiplying it.  While one might contend that Barriere has gone too far, that the point of the suburb is that it pairs the illusion of the park with the advantages of the city and that Barriere’s scheme produces such an inherently low density as to ruin the ability of the suburb to function as an amalgamation of park and city, I’d argue that there’s no need to see Barriere’s scheme as an exclusive future for the suburbs when it might function quite well (and beautifully) as one of many adjustments, perhaps ranging from something like Paul Lukez’s work at the densest to ParkUrbia at the most spread-out.

5. Since our scheme is about twenty percent tongue-in-cheek, I enjoying seeing that a number of the other schemes were, too, even if I could find other things to dislike about them.  A few of them weren’t but probably should have been.

5 Responses to “burn down the suburbs, and other comments on reburbia”

  1. namhenderson says:

    Re: points b and c, I think any large scale approach of relocation and “slum upgrading” from sub-urbanism into Urbanism (of towers etc), is bound to fail. If only because they like contemporary slum redevelopment/clearance plans are massive scale, top down and urberplanned.
    An infrastructural approach and almost Maker magazine/DIY (or to borrow Sterling’s phrase Favela Chic)one, will i think be more successful. Personally, I think the Urban Typhoon/Airoots/PUKAR folks have taken some good steps in Dharavi. But that is “slums” not sub-urbs.
    The kit approach though is key.

  2. sevensixfive says:

    I was most struck by the blurry line btw jokes, homage, ripoff, and fuzzy math in the finalists. It’s sometimes tough to tell if the projects are really proposing some kind of snake oil free energy scheme, or just satirizing all the other perpetual motion/ bad spreadsheet ideas.

    As you imply here, Rob, the notable entries are much more interesting and provocative than the 20 finalists.

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