An Architectural Analysis of the Suburban Dream.
“The American Dream is as real as any tax deduction, in that it too drives the housing markets”—excerpt from The Buell Hypothesis
The idealized good life and its implicit values pervade life’s decisions big and small. This ideal penetrates deep into every living room, backyard, and front porch, and connects every detail of every suburban home to a larger value system. Herein is an exploration of the underlying rhetoric dictating the suburban system through the basic unit of a house.
The value system implicit to the Good Life composes rhetorical resources out of which residents build their lives, and their homes. The tenets of this rhetoric are divided here along what Dolores Hayden refers to as the suburban triple dream: home, community, and nature.¹
First, the home. The home is concerned with ownership, psychological as well as financial. The home is intimate, personal, and individual. It is distinguished. It must discern itself from its neighbour, even while communing with it. It must adapt to our lives and our families lives. It must be renovated, and painted, and reupholstered. The front door of our home must be ceremonial, preferably behind a gracious porch. But the intimacy between car and house summons another main entry, inside the garage.²
The community integrates the homes yearning for individuality within an architecturally and economically homogenized network. Like the front door, a thin patch of sidewalk is ceremoniously draped in front of the home, even while the driveway and road domineer along and across it. The community is predominantly a vehicular network, connecting home to home, home to school, home to work, and so on. In some ways, the home itself is a community. A gathering place for families and between families, who transition mainly between home and work, lacking what sociologist Ray Oldenburg refers to as ‘a third space’ (a recognized and regular place for communal gathering).³
And nature must be present. Green is of utmost importance here, presented as a vast patchwork of grass. Publicly accessible on either side of sidewalk, privately accessible and freely modifiable in every homeowner’s backyard. A miniature bucolic countryside is crammed into every patch of lawn and every cluster of trees.
HOW IT IS SYBMOLICALLY
The underlying rhetoric surrounding the triple dream of home, community, and nature is symbolically expressed. Like an ultimate ‘architecture parlante’, the suburban home is a symbolic performance.⁴ One that beckons loudly: ‘Hello! I am a home! I look like a home, and I feel like a home. I am special but not strange, unique but not out of place’.
The symbolic performance of our suburban unit is expressed through the aesthetics of memory and safety: Memory is a powerful appeal to a better time. A desire for something lost: A nostalgic image of a fondly remembered English cottage home, a picturesque Tuscan landscape, a magnificent Palladian villa, or a monumental Doric Temple.
Safety on the other hand, is dialectically and aesthetically produced to quench the suburban obsession with security. The past 100 years of North American political and cultural discourse has rendered the city a site of turmoil and decay. A moral catastrophe. As a counterpoint to the denigrated image of city, our suburban unit uses what Greg Dickinson calls the affective aesthetics of safety: gates, fences, security signs, and advertisements. The aesthetic performances of memory and safety, when combined, produce an architectural image of comfort and stability.⁵
HOW IT IS
What happens when an ideal is written into the law? When it is institutionalized and enforced? When it is reproduced, imitated, and mimicked. Ask a creator of an ideal, like Nas or The Beatles, and they will tell you. It loses its original charm, its former richness and beauty.
Such is what happened when the rhetoric underlying the American dream was adopted into municipal zoning ordinances in suburbs worldwide. Our private house, and the public dream to which it corresponds, both were institutionalized within systems of social and economic policy. Systems that were meant to support the dream of individuality, ownership, nature, safety, and memory, resulted in excessive homogenization and conformity.
Research in robotics, artificial intelligence, and human psychology tells us that what we look for when navigating the world is sufficient order and direction.⁶ A process of symbolic extraction of relevant data, and a removal of irrelevant data, as demonstrated by a dollar bill drawn from memory vs. one that is copied. However, like inadequate order, excessive order in our environment produces confusion, and puts us psychologically at odds with the world. For Kevin Lynch, this was the ultimate failure of urbanism. For him, a harmonious relationship between city and user was a nuanced interplay between legible order and formal diversity. With its excessive repetition of an institutionalized image, this necessary Lynchian ‘differentiation’ is lost on suburbia.⁷
HOW IT RESISTS WHILE SUBURBS
Locally, suburbs are diverging for various reasons: cultural, economic, political, and so on. But there are two universal forces of change to suburbs: The need to accommodate for rapid urbanization and densification, and the need to meet energy demands sustainably. Today, populations are rising, homeownership rates falling, photovoltaics are cheaper and more efficient, electric vehicles are becoming a viable option, transit arteries densify, and poor residents are flocking to suburbs more than they do to cities.
So the world is changing rapidly, and so are suburbs. Today, they continue to deviate further and further from the dream they once aimed towards. Lacking an updated ideal to aim at, societal forces pull our suburban model in one direction, often while the rhetoric of ‘the good life’ pulls it in another, resulting in mutations.
Suburbs like the one in question adopt various compact, attached or mid-rise forms reminiscent of the suburban ideal. But while conditions change, the dream remains stagnant. We require an updated ideal to aim at. One that can alter the far-reaching economic, social, and political systems which rely on the dream, so that we can properly accommodate and adapt. Architecture is uniquely suited to contemplate possible futures in this regard. With architecture, we can change the dream, in order to change the city, as the Buell hypothesis posits.²
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