The Design Observer Group


Posted 10.20.11


Jason Griffiths

Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing



[Photos by Jason Griffiths]

On October 18, 2002, Alex Gino and I set out to explore the American suburbs. Over 178 days we drove 22,382 miles, made 134 suburban house calls and took 2,593 photographs. Our goal was not a particular place per se but more a collective view of contemporary housing. The distended sense of mass that characterizes suburbia was important as it provided a counter-experience to our usual architectural tourism; rather than pre­planned visits to single buildings, we sought out a general condition away from the urban core and within the continuous pattern of houses at the periphery of America's cities. Instead of the unique we sought the multidirectional, and instead of the specific, the placeless.


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Our aim was to acquire an intimate understanding of the suburban environment through an uninterrupted tour of gently graded inclines and burnished concrete surfaces. In the tradition of the European traveler (we are both from London) our approach was systematic: typically, we would look for the newest development or gated community and then attempt to drive every road within its confines in a deliberate circuit. On each visit we photographed houses repeatedly from as many angles as we could, including, if possible, from inside. We talked to owners, estate agents, builders and service workers, and we visited show homes, building sites and yard sales. Once we had exhausted the internal routes we would explore these developments from outside, along perimeter roads, highways and service routes.

Gradually, we began to form an impression of suburbia as the pursuit of a collective ideal that continually resists its denouement. This elusiveness became the focus of our research. Like an architectural pattern book, our visual account of the contemporary suburban picture records the fastidious and relentless pursuit of perfection played out in the houses and spaces at the edges of American cities. This is a realm where nothing, from the flow of water to the grain of a carpet, eludes inspection. Our experience suggested this pursuit as the very measure of the suburbanite (or, as Robert Fishman terms it, "techno-urbanite") whose identity is gauged in the thoroughness with which he renews everything within his immediate environment. Privately owned single-unit homes account for over two-thirds of the annual housing starts in the United States, confirming the dominance of the suburban ideal in the ceaseless quest for an ideal place of repose (and this dominance has persisted through the downturn). Suburbia is a complete environment, born of the manic restoration of arcadia, painstakingly reassembled and neurotically reinforced through social practice, law and an omnipresent desire to be well groomed and nice.

The tour set in motion an interest that stays with us today. Wherever we have lived, we have continued to visit the suburbs and build on what we discovered. Many of these photographs were taken around Phoenix and in the American Southwest, where we choose to live and work. Here suburbia lies in abundance in its latest, most audacious form; and yet frozen in a moment of doubt and stasis. Phoenix is a city (like Las Vegas) where the apotheosis of the suburban experiment now hangs in the balance — perhaps it will prove to be its greatest achievement, or perhaps the mark in the sand where the dream finally came to a halt. ...

The gentle loops and arcs of today's suburban roads stand in contrast to the unyielding grid of the city's road network. Unsurprisingly, our attempts to drive each and every road within a development often resulted in complete disorientation. But rather than fighting this process of perpetually getting lost, we discovered it to be a prime way to experience the sense of abandonment that pervades these suburbs. Accordingly, our journeys became deliberately labyrinthine misadventures of slow and directionless movement.

Our focus on the newest suburbs meant that we would often find ourselves in completed and yet apparently unoccupied places. In appearance, these outdoor suburban spaces had a ready familiarity, but in reality it is hard to describe just how disconcertingly abandoned they feel. It was, for example, very easy to take photographs without people in them, but almost impossible to find people when we wanted to include them. As we stood in one spot, waiting for something to happen, the silence would only occasionally be broken by the ponderous movement of a car or the inevitable jogger or dog walker. As soon as they had gone, the quiet would come back and re-establish control. ...

Suburban homeowners maintain a steadfast dedication to the suburban ethic. The relentlessness of suburbia may at times be disturbing, but it is equally compelling, and it is hard not to be impressed by the manner in which this realm propagates itself through the rules that bind its devotees. Intricately tied to the history of the picturesque, these rules have helped to define a level of exclusivity that has been a key factor in conditioning suburbia from the very beginning, when it was the domain of an English mercantile elite. Both the American Revolution and the Civil War were crucial moments in establishing the preeminence of the New England style in architecture, as Jeffersonian and neo-Georgian styles were adopted as part of a process of self-definition and then gradually migrated westward under the aegis of Manifest Destiny. Viewed in this way, American architecture can be seen as a process through which imported styles were assimilated into an existing context and modified to suit immediate needs; or, as Aaron Betsky has noted, "modes become tropes and then standard building practice." [1]

The myth of Manifest Destiny — which has imbued American architecture with a lasting sense of its own inevitability — still persists in the covert supermodernity of today's living environments. Contemporary American houses evince the same "pull to the new" and "push from the old" that characterized the first suburbs. Although rephrased in contemporary marketing terminology, the suburban ideal still retains the sense of an escape from complexity, age, fear, insecurity, imperfection — precisely the motives that have periodically drawn people to search for a new beginning. In 1893 Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed, but American developers have successfully fought to reconceptualize this ideal ever since. What began with the fertile wilderness has continued through numerous phases — from Frederick Law Olmsted's Riverside, Illinois, to the Beach Boys' idyll of a surfers' suburb — periodically reconfiguring itself to appeal to the society it most depends on for its survival.

Our broad sweep across the suburbs suggested that mass production has enabled suburbia's picturesque origins to reach new heights. Since the Second World War, suburbia has gradually evolved from an industrialized construction methodology to an all-pervading system of lifestyle choices and market analyses in an effort to appeal to ever-widening ethnic groups and diverse incomes. Unlike architectural movements, suburbia never breaks with its past but smoothly absorbs and adapts to any situation it is confronted with. At times it seemed to us a mechanized form of repetition within which the essential ingredients are always, in some form, present. Seen like this, long undulating rows of houses symbolize a continual process of selection from the pattern book of suburbia's past. Though endlessly rehashed and reconfigured, elements of the park and the parkway, of John Nash and Capability Brown, et aI., are still clearly visible. But this process is matched by an almost gleeful disregard for historical continuity: rather than deferring to the past, suburbia appears to revel in its choice of ebullient hyped-up styles and hybrid forms, all complying with the singular aim of suburbia's continuous propagation. ...

Our experience convinced us that contemporary architecture is still understood within the suburbs as an alternative to daily existence — it is a wholly different type of building or environment, one to be experienced on holidays, trips downtown and so on. In short, suburbia views what architects understand to be "architecture" as the antithesis of its daily ritual. For us, a potential way around this problem lay in an exploration of how the documentation of ordinary environments might be translated into architecture. ...

Suburbia may at times appear to subjugate design into stasis, but it simultaneously seems to present incredible potential. What it offers cannot be tidily compartmentalized as irony, serialization, mass-customization or typology. Instead it suggests combinations, rearranged, improved and reapplied as architecture. While we recognize that suburbia is clearly problematic, we also feel that solutions must lie within the reconfiguration of familial forms for architecture. If recent histories of postmodernism have sought to mimic the condition within which it seeks to operate, such as the commercial vernacular or fragmentation, then our found condition is banality — a repetitious landscape desensitized by excess choice. Our response to this world is not dialectic or corrective; our rejection of the suburban ethic coexists with an intense pleasure in its scenographic feel. We now live and work in Phoenix because it represents the apotheosis of "nice" — a benign reductio ad absurdum of suburban pleasantries. ...

From the outset, the North American suburbs appeared to us as a great silent veto against design — an entrenched body of dissenters content simply to use their sheer bulk as a defining statement. Despite this we set ourselves the goal of neither denigrating nor defending it. We may perhaps have been preconditioned to search out irony, but this, like most of our preconceptions, quickly began to fade. Our initial impression of suburbia devolved around an abstracted idea of repetition and serialization — a dehumanized world comprised of a form of nullified architecture. Eight years and thousands of miles later, this view has shifted into a multiplicity of facets describing a place that is far more difficult to define. Our once hermetic view of the supposedly hermetic suburban world has taken on a prismatic new form — and with it a far greater sense of omnipresence.