[The Sprawl Net]
This review originally appeared in the Fall 1992 issue of Design Book Review. Reprinted with permission.

The Disappearing Suburb

By Richard Ingersoll


Peter G. Rowe. Making a Middle Landscape. MIT Press, 1991.

André Corboz. Looking for a City in America: Down These Mean Streets a Man Must Go . . . Getty Center for the Humanities, 1992. Photography by Dennis Keeley.

Deyan Sudjic. The 100 Mile City. Andre Deutsch, 1991. Photography by Phil Sayer.


Cities have become impossible to describe. Their centers are not as central as they used to be, their edges ambiguous, they have no beginnings and apparently no end. Neither words, numbers, nor pictures can adequately comprehend their complex forms and social structures. It is even difficult to refer to them as cities anymore since they defy the physical and political finitudes of urbs and civitas that for centuries have been the basis of a theory of the city. It's almost as if Frank Lloyd Wright's 1932 tract against the metropolis, The Disappearing City, has been vindicated, and the diffusionary proposal of Broadacre City has become the de facto ideology of urbanism.

In the United States, there are now as many people living, working, and entertaining themselves in the ambiguous nether-city of the urban perimeter as there are in the cities' recognizable cores. Mass access to independent transportation and increasingly flexible communication and production technologies have helped eliminate certain spatial dependencies that previously bound cities into coherent fabrics. The decentralization of the historic core, however, has led not so much to the disappearance of the city as it has to the disappearance of the suburb.

Robert Fishman, in his superb history of Anglo-American suburbs, Bourgeois Utopias (New York: Basic Books, 1987), was probably the first scholar to propose that the suburb, as a semirural residential district dependent on a center city for jobs, goods, and culture, was becoming an anomaly. He suggested that the current scattering of offices, industries, shopping centers, and even cultural facilities on the urban periphery has led to a situation that could only be described as a ``technoburb.'' Joel Garreau, in his popular chronicle of ex-urban development, calls such areas ``edge cities.'' A drastic reorientation of urban life toward the polynucleated suburban sprawl is occuring faster than it's being registered. Not only does it have immense implications for design and society, but it serves as a favorite, alarmist, fin-de-millenium topic.

Although speed of access is a major design feature of the suburbs, once accessed they are not easy territory for the uninitiated to navigate because they lack a clear sense of hierarchy, linkage, and reference points. As a subject of study, suburbs have not attracted much attention for analogous reasons. But now that demographics and economics show there is power out there, researchers finally have a mandate to chart the reclusive other-half of the modern city. Following up on the formidable social research of Crabgrass Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), Kenneth T. Jackson's authoritative history of the suburbanization of the United States, Peter G. Rowe, the newly appointed dean of Harvard's graduate school of design, has tried in Making a Middle Landscape to address the morphological and typological spectrum of the design of suburbs. It is an ambitious treatise that helps visualize the very familiar but elusive anatomy of sprawl. The middle landscape, neither urban nor rural, is an aesthetic and social condition that is difficult to bring into focus because of its own historical irresolution. Rowe's approach is to establish the historical circumstances, in particular those after World War II, to examine the typological developments, and to propose a creative synthesis. The book is amazingly straightforward about a topic that is easily prone to kitsch treatments, and while the parts may not add up to the whole to which it aspires, it remains a valuable source, with a nearly encyclopedic bibliography. It is a good complement to, though certainly no substitute for, Jackson's text.

In the first part of the book, Rowe compares the development of Framingham, Massachusetts, a small town near Boston's Route 128 Beltway, with Sharpstown, a planned subdivision in Houston. While Framingham, site of one of the first shopping malls in the country, absorbed the ad hoc sprawl of shopping centers, office parks, and developer homes in the 1950s, Sharpstown, the product of a single developer, was plotted out in regular ``printed circuit'' patterns on either side of a newly completed freeway. Both suburbs initially attracted white middle-class homebuyers but, after thirty years, they've become more economically and racially mixed. The acquaintance with these real suburbs as places and not just concepts allows the second chapter to encounter a series of general questions about suburbia: ``Monolith or diverse social entity?'' or ``Wasteful fragmentation or pure democracy?'' ``Private commodity or public good?'' ``Monotonous conformity or individual comfort?'' ``Placelessness or place?'' The answer to all these questions is, unfortunately, usually both, or else contingent on the individual's choice due to the author's relentless desire for objectivity. So while in theory the suburb can be accused as being racist, classist, and anti-social, in practice there is also evidence that allows for contradiction.

The most useful sections of Rowe's book are those on building types: the house, shopping centers, corporate estates, and roadways. The suburban single-family house is probably the most maligned but least understood artifact of the modern city. Rowe treats it almost the way a realtor would, limiting his discussion to six categories: the bungalow, colonial revival, ranch, figured compact plan, zero lot line (which includes condominiums), and ``contemporary'' house. He suggests that the house type will persist even after it has outlived the social unit on which it was based because of the conservative nature of the real estate industry. The impact of automobiles and television on this building type is barely acknowledged, nor is any attention given to the resurgence of enclaving in the organization of suburban space. So, while attentive to plan arrangements and styles, the discussion in general falls short of conveying the true value of the single-family house.

The chapter on shopping outlines the various ways to accommodate suburban retail with parking. Rowe describes and analyzes the strip, the shopping village (like Kansas City's Country Club Plaza of 1922), the pedestrian mall surrounded by parking lots (such as Shoppers World in Framingham, 1951), and the enclosed mall (such as the Galleria in Houston, 1970). The chapter on the suburban corporate office isolates types based on factory layouts, college campus design, courtyard concepts, systems modules, and castle-like hierarchies. Again, the author's commitment to taxonomical explication in these two chapters deflects the reader from the historical reorientation of urban functions which they facilitated. The best chapter by far is the one on roadways, the functional ingredient that makes the diffused city possible. If there is a single artifact that is memorable or gives shape to the periphery it is the paved road. Whether a limited-access freeway or a cul-de-sac of a subdivision, the roadway, which no longer has the public function of the street, is nonetheless the last truly public agenda of the suburbs. The beautifully landscaped parkways of New England, most of them the work of Gilmore D. Clarke, who should be elevated into the pantheon of good design, convey the essence of a suburban pastoral ideal within reach of the metropolis.

The final section of Rowe's book concentrates on a theory of modern pastoralism as the source of design poetics. A vague objective of making the design of individual houses or projects correspond to a larger sense of a garden is put forth with methods borrowed from modern art, such as juxtaposition, scaling, and reordering. Whereas most critics have trouble accepting the suburb for what it is and would like to convert it into a more comprehensible urban condition, Rowe is more acquiescent, arguing for an ``elaboration'' of the middle landscape from within that phenomenon. Unfortunately the whole text lacks the polemical sparks that Reyner Banham and Robert Venturi generated twenty years ago when they revelled in the pop-ness of suburbia. The field will certainly be more accurately defined through Rowe's book, but I doubt it will inspire much change.

The middle landscape, whose national heritage is outlined by Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden (which Rowe fails to cite as the source for the title of his book), has a parallel history in Rowe's country of origin, Australia, and is currently being replicated wherever there is a high rate of automobile ownership. The reproduction of the American model of development makes the topic doubly important -- both culturally and politically. Events such as the construction of single-family suburban homes to attract settlers to Israel's contested borders or the appearance of gated enclaves on the edges of Milan, Madrid, and Zurich beg for political interpretations. Rowe's apolitical and nonpolemical approach, which approximates the blandness of the environments catalogued, may seem fair but ultimately does a disservice to the subject. The underlying ecological inefficiencies of suburban sprawl, for example, even if nonpolluting vehicles are introduced tomorrow, make the form of the polynucleated, sprawling city an intensely political matter where there can be no middle ground.

Awareness of the middle landscape is essential to an interpretation of the United States, where there is the greatest degree of home ownership in the world. Europeans recognize the issue immediately. One of the most recent returns to Tocquevillian reflections on America is André Corboz's Looking for a City in America. It is actually a modest fifteen-page essay that has been inflated by the Getty Center (this is the first of a series of ``occasional papers from Los Angeles'' that goes under the rubric of ``Angel's Flight'') into a book-priced booklet, text sandwiched between sixty pages of handsome film-noir-style black-and-white photos of Los Angeles by Dennis Keeley. The resulting product is a tantalizing but slightly awkward marriage of form and content. Corboz, who is Swiss but taught for many years in Canada, is one of the more thoughtful urban historians of our time and his method is to question assumptions rather than define norms. His text is infused with historical observations and subtle ironies:

The corresponding American ideal of the individual home is both quintessentially petit-bourgeois and excessively expensive to service. Yet what is most important to emphasize is that precisely this execrable ideal motivates the most lucid planners in their urban projects. Twenty years ago, Americans were described as alienated for this reason. Two-hundred and fifty million alienated people living in a single country would be problematic indeed.
In observing the American middle landscape, he urges the reader not to find it desirable or spiteful or kitsch, but rather to abandon the comparing of it to the European 19th-century city with which it shares no basis. He quotes Jürgen Habermas: ``Our concept of the city is associated with a specific way of life that has been modified to such an extent that as a concept it cannot survive the change.'' To think otherwise would be to ignore the transformation that is engulfing all urban areas of industrialized countries with similar decentralization -- in particular the proud cities of Europe.

The ``peripheralization'' of urban functions has led to what Mel Webber long ago theorized as the ``urban realm,'' a despatialized city where major economic, social, and political activities, affected by high-speed information techniques, are no longer reliant on propinquity. By far the best written and most insightful presentation of the current urban realm -- one that accounts for the social and political essence of the phenomenon without losing sight of its formal developments -- is Deyan Sudjic's The 100 Mile City. Sudjic, a British critic who writes frequently for the Guardian and other architecture magazines, brings a truly critical dimension to what Rowe and others have rendered somewhat harmless. His theme is the intersection of power with the production of the environment.

He begins with the observation that there are five major cities in the current global system: Paris, London, New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. In many ways these control and command cities are more like each other than they are like the cities of their respective nations. Each stretches out over immense territories, at roughly one hundred miles in diameter, and claims hegemonic financial and cultural functions. As they decentralize they become more central in global terms. Sudjic limits his discussion mostly to these five cities in exposing the diffused city's transformative programs, such as new industrial technologies, new museums, shopping centers, airports, freeways, housing, theme parks, and historical preservation.

Sudjic is the ideal new architectural critic because he addresses the practices that produce the city, neither condemning nor promoting the individuals or works involved. He has proven that architecture is much more interesting than it is allowed to be when kept within the narrow confines of aesthetic, technical, or programmatic criteria. At the beginning of the book he stalks the most underrepresented characters in the story of modern architecture: the developers. He intrepidly reports on the mercenary behavior of Olympia & York, developers of both the Canary Wharf project in London and New York's Battery Park City, while exposing the political processes that facilitate their activities. The carefully described schemes, scams, and collusions add resonance to the author's insistence that ``commercial developers are in business to respond to opportunities. They are not interested in, or equipped for, planning cities. Yet that is just what they are doing by default.'' Architects, in his view, have the unenviable role of either being messengers for the changing conditions of modern life, or becoming scapegoats because they have conveyed the message. In a theoretical discussion of urban form, Sudjic glances at nostalgic visions of Ebenezer Howard and Camillo Sitte, as well as the unsentimental propositions of Baron Haussmann and Le Corbusier, before settling on Jane Jacobs, who, more than anyone else, set an agenda for urban appreciation during the last thirty years. Going back to her privileged neighborhood in Greenwich Village, Sudjic finds that the qualities so beloved in those streets no longer match the desired social reality. It is an elegant rebuttal and reminder that nostalgic visions lead to a sort of social entropy.

There is a lot of news in The 100 Mile City, and it must be taken a bit on faith as there are no footnotes. The book seems to have been assembled with the speed of an instant replay, as it deals with many projects completed in the year of its publication. The stories of the conversion of all major port cities to container facilities during the last thirty years, and the rapid changes of production sites for industries that were once central to the city, such as newspapers, are well known but have never been so artfully connected to the fate of urbanism. Likewise, the dismantling of the housing policies of the welfare state during the l980s is dutifully outlined with thought-provoking digressions about indenturing mortgages (the average thirty-year-old American pays 44 percent of his or her income toward mortgage), gentrification, and displacement. To present the museum as the ``surrogate for public life'' is perhaps not the most original observation, but the case studies of Paris, Frankfurt, and Los Angeles are fresh and exciting evidence. The chapter on airports as the new public space of the city, both as gateway and piazza, provides a disturbing analysis of the increasing independence of conventional social activities from conventional space. While too much has been pouted about the Disney effect of simulations as desired substitutes for urban reality, it is an inescapable aspect of the new urban realm and Sudjic treats it with remarkable erudition. He discloses how Disney inherited the mantle of city planning and then supplies an excellent description of what are essentially modem pilgrimage sites that contain reverential homages to the lost city.

The hundred mile city is where suburbs have ceased to be suburban and the whole urbanized territory can be seen as an immense force field reacting to human mobility and real estate possibilities. The dynamics of global economic competition have led to disposable cities and expendable parts of cities, which generate great waste and tragic displacement. Highly planned environments, such as Battery Park City, do not necessarily result in better environments than minimally planned downtown Houston, but corporate-organized spaces in Los Angeles fare no better than the state-determined La Défense in Paris. One minimum advantage that a city can achieve is a commitment to an efficient transportation infrastructure. Paris, Tokyo, and Frankfurt are shown to be good examples. According to Sudjic, ``Both in terms of movement across a city and the quality of life within it, the nature of a civic transport system is the starting point for building a sense of civic cohesion.'' To rely on a myth of community embodied in the traditional Jane Jacobs- or Seaside-like street in the age of an information-based culture is to completely ignore the paradox of decentralization that favors the stronger attractions of privacy and mobility.

Although Sudjic's concluding statement -- ``The only plausible strategy is to attempt to harness the dynamics of development to move things in a direction that you want'' -- does not live up to the power of his analysis throughout the rest of the book, it is indicative of the touchy moral dilemma of the late 20th-century city. Whether it is second-person singular or plural, the question of who is the ``you'' begs for commitment: if ``you'' is Donald Trump, the outcome might be more spectacular but less humane than if the ``you'' is Deyan Sudjic.

The splendid photographs by Phil Sayer are stark, subjective visions of the disjointedness of the new urban realm, revealing the glitz, grit, unwieldiness, and fragility of late 20th-century urban environments. Like Rowe's middle landscape, Sudjic's hundred mile city has a certain inevitability to it, from both the producer's and consumer's points of view. It is thus somewhat unassailable because it is no longer a matter of built environment but of a culture, or way of life. His text does not contain a platform for reform but supplies subtle insights into the social and environmental costs of the new urban realm as well as reservations about the delusions of historicist resistance. While the destiny of the city is beyond any individual's control, an awareness of the consequences of forces and forms so brilliantly detailed in this book intimates how the players in the game of city-making should act as the suburbs briskly disappear into a greater urban realm.


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lda@owlnet.rice.edu 5/21/95