Sunday, May 17, 2009

Avenue: Notes Towards A Spatial Theory of Suburbia

How does one look seriously at the suburbs? How does one get past the lazy assumptions to understand what makes them work, as well as what doesn't?

When Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown took their students to study America's Levitown suburb they had to develop new methods to describe its spaces. The traditional tools of architectural representation - plans, sections and models - were supplanted by photography, film, cartoons and collections of artifacts and ephemera.

The Venturi's study was predominantly, though not exclusively, sign based rather than spatial. Their interest was in the signs and symbols of the American suburb rather than its spatial organisation. This still remains its least analysed and understood aspect from an architectural point of view. Beyond such pejorative descriptions as 'sprawl' there is no serious spatial vocabulary for suburbia.

Perhaps it
doesn't lend itself to traditional forms of architectural analysis. The qualities denigrated by architects and urbanists - its formlessness and lack of spatial hierarchy - require different modes of representation. Equally the same traditional tools are instrumental in establishing the counter claims of urbanism. Or, put another way, architecture's representational and analytical tools are better at describing the positive qualities of urban because that's what they have been developed to do.

The ubiquity of the representational devices employed by architects blinds us to their partiality. The figure-ground drawing for instance has been vital in establishing how we think about the city and, in particular, the relationship between private and public space. Possibly the most influential figure-ground plan ever was Giambattista Nolli's 1748 map of Rome. Nolli's plan
represents enclosed public spaces as equivalent to open civic spaces, illustrating them as white positive ground against the black figure of buildings. This technique gives the piazzas, colonnades and courtyards a compelling physicality, suggesting the convivial, communal qualities of internal rooms but on a much larger scale.

Following Nolli, the external spaces of the city are conceived as urban living rooms fostering civic qualities through the physical proximity of bodies in space. By contrast suburbia's fragmented spaces are seen as encouraging social atomisation through physical dispersal. But if the city is made of up of certain typological components - streets, squares and colonnades - then what are the suburban equivalents? The avenue, the parade and the cul-de-sac?
What kinds of social spaces do these create? What civic qualities do they possess?

To begin to find out one might have to look beyond architectural representation to other art forms. Pop music in particular has a vital relationship to suburbia. Frequently this is antagonistic - a railing against suburbia's political and social conservatism - as in goth, grunge or metal. The relationship is more ambiguously affectionate in the case of the English literary pop tradition of The Kinks, Small Faces and the Beatles through to The Jam, Blur and Pulp. The fact that pop is often an escape - both literal and metaphorical - from suburbia, means that this portrayal is inevitably double edged, describing this landscape with a mixture of affectionate observation and caustic commentary.

Equally the endless suburbs of somewhere like LA have have been a key subject matter from the surf pop of the '50's and '60's through the denim rock of Laurel Canyon's decadent suburbs in the 1970's to the G Funk and west coast rap of Dr Dre and Death Row records. With Dr Dre the music's languid affluence and smooth sense of unease acts as a darkly satirical ramping up of the familiar cliches of suburban one-upmanship. The video for Still Dre even works as a satire of '50's LA pop with Dre and Snoop Dog cruising the suburban streets in retro Cadillacs on the way to the beach.

Whilst Pulp are in many ways a quintessentially urban band - and the very particular urbanism of Sheffield at that - they also brilliantly evoke an edge of the city feeling too. Jarvis' tales of adult affairs and formative sexual experiences gone wrong exist within the social mores of close knit suburban communities. David's Last Summer combines both an affectionate homage to suburban childhood and the corresponding desire to escape. Its spoken word vocal bids suburban teenage life a fond farewell, although it remains ambiguous as to whether this is as a result of growing up and moving on or something more tragic. Its evocation of the teenage house parties and exquisitely endless summers on the cusp of adulthood is hard to beat.

Walking to parties whilst it's still light outside.
Peter was upset at first but now he's in the garden talking to somebody Polish.
Why don't we set up a tent and spend the night out there?
And we can pretend that we're somewhere foreign but we'll still be able to use the fridge if we get hungry
or too hot.

These are also the spaces described by the paintings of George Shaw. Shaw paints suburbia but he also gets to the heart of its more ambiguous and difficult to define spaces; left over places, ends of terraces, undeveloped land. These places exist on the margins of suburbia where development has (temporarily) stopped and become a temporary home to all sorts of improper activities. Ignored by most people, these are public spaces for (mostly) minor acts of transgression. It is also the same dead space
of Pulp's song Reservoir, which captures the unpleasant goings-on of unpopulated bits of suburban infrastructure.

But the 'proper' spaces of suburbia also lend themselves to reinterpretation. The suburban cul-de-sac is a public space as well as a piece of pragmatic development. Perhaps because of their social and economic exclusivity these spaces become home to street parties and events as well as informal meetings. The drawing below (by my colleague Sean Griffiths) is of the street where he grew up and describes the impromptu football matches that were played on it. The 'pitch' is distorted by circumstance so that the house gates becomes the go
al-mouth, stretching and rotating the familiar layout. Here, ironically, is the classic figure ground plan of the city but adapted to show things that are usually left out such as activity and event.

Perhaps this is where suburban place differs from urban space. It is repetitive and formally unexciting. The architecture isn't challenging or formally inventive in the way that architects want it to be. It's what happens in it that's interesting though. This activity requires an expanded version of traditional architectural drawing to capture, one that describes places rather than buildings and content rather than form.


Markasaurus said...

The anonymity of the suburbs allow a huge variety of activities to occur, often in very close proximity, mostly because of the banality of the forms and the lack of a true public realm. For my M. Arch. thesis I looked at this condition in the fringes of Los Angeles, a place where pornography studios share space with churches, horse breeders and the aerospace industry because they are all able to inhabit the same featureless office parks ( It is hard to imagine what the drawing would be that could explain the activity in a place like this, because the content of buildings changes dramatically and often on short notice as uses are swapped every time a new tenant signs a lease- unlike the Nolli plan, which can still be used to navigate Rome today hundreds of years after its creation. Now that many large cities have become upper-class realms of consumption, marginal activities have been priced out (or regulated out, as in the case of adult-oriented businesses in places like New York) so they have relocated to the fringe. The closest thing we have to a modern Nolli map for navigating these spaces is Google Maps, as it maps content which can be unlocked with searches and GPS-enabled smart phones. Too bad it doesn't look half as good as Nolli's plan.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks for your comment Mark - all good stuff and perhaps my analysis ends up being too specifically drawing based. I will check out your thesis though. Sounds great!