[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.
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 First House
Suburban structures occasionally call to mind their roots in the frontier experience — a pioneering spirit crystallized in the image of a small house standing at the edge of a vast and savage landscape. Confronting the wilderness, this cabin provides a place of refuge for the men and women who work the land in advance of the settlement yet to come. Today the legacy of the pioneer’s cabin can be encountered at the fringes of suburbia like a portent of the vast expanses of housing that will follow in its wake. In true pioneering fashion, the structure shown here lays claim to the landscape simply by virtue of being there first. The homespun elements of pitched roof and white timber siding, fetishistically pristine against the churned soil of the building site, are the formal embodiment of the myth of Manifest Destiny — a symbol of enterprise, resourcefulness and ultimate triumph in the face of an unknown and threatening world. Like Abbe Laugier’s own primitive hut, both natural and affected, this cabin stands as the proud primogenitor of suburbia.
As an integral part of the house-buying process, suburban model homes aim to present potential buyers with the perfect living experience. Sometimes this goes too far. The two-car garage shown here appears in the Windgate Ranch development in Scottsdale, Arizona, where it adorns a model home in a cul-de-sac alongside other similar properties. The tree, shrubs and barrel cactus in the foreground demonstrate the type of landscaping that may be purchased as an optional extra. In common with most model homes, however, there is a distinct sense that the perfection to which it aspires has been achieved at the cost of some basic practicalities. Here, the temptation to portray a verdant, impeccably manicured home has produced a garage rendered unusable by decorative landscaping (in another part of the cul-de-sac, a fence encircles the entrance, making it impassable by car). When this house is eventually sold and absorbed into the rest of the community, the planting will be removed and the garage restored to its rightful function. In the meantime, however, it suggests a dystopian vision of the resurgent desert landscape invading suburbia after the cars have gone — a seemingly normal suburban house turned, with Piranesian caprice, into a deteriorated edifice of suburban perfection.
This security booth guards the entrance to a condominium in Phoenix, Arizona. A pane of seamless black glass divides the building, severing the base from the heavy cornice above. Reminiscent of the tinted windows of a passing SUV, this glass contrasts sharply with the brick and tile of the domestic environment. Moreover, the absence of mullions or any form of vertical connection ensures that the panoramic view from within remains unobscured. Only the Palo Verde tree (whose twin trunks bisect the elevation) appears to be tolerated because it does not interfere with oblique views of cars approaching and leaving the development. Nothing else is allowed to interrupt the view or indeed the uncompromising approach towards residential security declared by this glazed wall. The black glass serves a dual function, protecting the booth’s occupants from the harsh desert sunlight while providing a one-way screen through which to observe people entering the development. Approaching the booth on foot (an unusual scenario in the first place), it becomes apparent that the interior contains nothing except a small strip of carpet and some disconnected cables. The camera and entry phone on the side only seem to affirm its hidden redundancy; today, residents act as their own security guards. This black glass panopticon, meanwhile, serves up a forbidding and yet ultimately empty gesture — a sphinx-like monolith of dark austerity set before a bed of cheerful red geraniums.
The Same Building
Suburban buildings in the penultimate stages of construction share a curiously common trait. This building, part of a grand estate on a five-acre lot developed by a custom home-builder in the Cave Creek region of Phoenix, derives its mute appearance from the fact that almost every exterior surface is clad in orientated strand board (OSB) — including the roof, chimneystack, eaves and window arches. At this stage the building is in its most homogenous state, exposing a fundamental material ubiquity that subjects all its surfaces to an indiscriminately reductive treatment. These familiar forms seem cast in a hesitant approximation of the architecture they will one day become. At once familiar and foreign, this temporary blankness reveals the underlying clotheshorse of most suburban buildings and reduces the house-like silhouette to a dematerialized simplicity. The majority of buildings in this region and of this period will look like this for a brief moment in their lives; OSB affiliates all new buildings, regardless of their standing within the suburban pecking order. This house will shortly separate itself from the crowd and achieve lofty status through the application of finishes and decoration — but for a short while it must endure the humbling exposure of its OSB-clad conformity.
In Iowa and much of the Midwest, houses have extensions called Bump Outs. These provide additional volumes to the main living areas by pushing internal elements such as bookcases and fireplaces outwards to line up with the inside face of the walls. This arrangement helps to hollow out the living space and maintain an even, rectangular interior plan, improving circulation and creating an uncluttered space surrounded by built-in features. Externally, the physical expression of these volumes typically references a porch or bay window. Here, an interior fireplace is reduced to a small metal vent in the short space between the hearth and the exterior. Instead of forming a brick chimney stack, it is subsumed into the all-pervading language of UPVC siding and capped under a shallow pitch of asphalt roof shingles. However, while Bump Outs share the formal characteristics of traditional and vernacular additions, the lack of any kind of opening suggests an erased, featureless house that is perhaps deformed or at best missing something important. It is this lack of expression that makes Bump Outs so striking, a simultaneity of continuity and removal exacerbated, on the one hand, by the uniformity of their cladding and, on the other, by the cantilever which suspends the extension delicately off the ground plane. Floating, mute, referential and yet subversive, the resonances of Bump Outs are of an absurdist artistic installation as much as a recent suburban architectural convention.
Suburban homes often have odd, at times even ambiguous relationships to their own history. This house is part of a recently built development in Charlotte, North Carolina, which (like many such developments) is not quite finished and is therefore punctuated by a series of blank side elevations looking out onto empty lots. Here, the foreground is graded in preparation for the construction of the next building, although this doesn’t appear to be imminent. Meanwhile, the house itself sits on a raised mound and turns an inscrutable single-windowed elevation to the Carolina landscape. As the cultivated earth of the foreground gradually opens out onto grassland with woods and hills beyond, it inadvertently creates a vista oddly appropriate to the context of southern colonial architecture. The house commands a position within the landscape similar to that of an estate residence, and it requires only a small shift of imagination to transform the foreground into corn stubble or a grazing field and the distant woodlands into hunting grounds. This inference is compounded by the colonial style of architecture to which the house and the surrounding development all heavily refer — a style perhaps more appropriate to Carolina than those other states where it is indiscriminately employed. It is this appropriateness, however, that makes its disjunction all the more extreme; the most abject facade of this building enjoys the most commanding view while the actual front elevation is stubbornly fixated by an abbreviated prospect of the road and the house opposite. Unwittingly, the house has the strangely contemptuous air of a building that appears to be turning away from the traditions of its ancestors.
The Descent of the Shed
A great deal of suburban architecture may be bought off the shelf in hardware superstores like Home Depot and Lowe's. Here at a branch of Home Depot in College Station, Texas, a string of prefabricated garden sheds are arranged in ascending order outside the store’s front entrance. The structures are carefully spaced to create an enhanced perspective of rural typologies and conventional pitched-roof forms, almost like an evolutionary tree, while their rhythmic variation suggests the parametric sequencing of a core module. Regardless of size, each shed is formed from a basic family of elements, differentiated by the orientation and pattern of their pressed-board cladding, configurations of standard doors and windows and the contrast between their primary color and their delineating trim. In addition, some are oriented with side views while others present their gable ends. Today, sheds like these are more likely to be used in a domestic context than an agricultural one, and the vast majority of these structures will end up in the back yards of single-family houses. There they will serve as understudies to the main house, underscoring the enduring legitimacy of this basic typology. In the meantime, however, they are lined up in front of Home Depot’s entrance like some typological bar chart describing the gradual reduction of the grand agricultural shed down to the suburban backyards of a small Texan City.
OSB-clad houses under construction have an intriguing way of changing a building’s sense of scale. This photograph shows a development which appears reduced to the elemental purity of an architectural model. The unfinished OSB sheathing and the archetypal forms it describes evoke qualities that immediately recall Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo or even the wooden models of Palladian villas (and the Villa Barbero in particular). The observer may be struck in the first instance by the timber-clad abstract typologies, and in the second by the balance of the classical forms — two precedents which appear to have combined to produce a building which looks like a full-scale model. There is, however, a ruinous aspect to this building that both adds to and complicates these references. The windowless sockets convey an evacuated property while the sloppy overpainting of the black eaves suggests a recent fire. The advantage of seeing a building in this state is that it creates a more compelling interpretation of these architectural precedents. While most suburban buildings tend to normalize historical precedent, this building offers a new perspective in the form of an abandoned, toy-like version of past architecture.
The property lines between suburban lots are often difficult to see — the result, in part, of the consensus among its occupants not to build fences or walls between individual houses. This tradition can be traced back to the earliest North American suburbs and the legacy of the Parkway green space running through the center of each community. Here the lack of any division between properties produces a continuous belt of grass lawns uniting each lot along the roadside, an arrangement contrived to maintain the romantic idyll of suburban homes set within a “natural” landscape. In effect, the lawn takes on a dual role as both the private extension of outdoor space belonging to a particular property and a linear public park. The mutual exclusivity of these two functions, however, means that in practice it oscillates between the two. Despite the ephemerality of these property lines, owners understand them in a very tangible way, abiding by the rules of adjacency and respecting the proprietorial lot. To the untrained eye, barriers between lots can be detected in the slight tonal differences generated by discordant mowing schedules and the subtle variations in grass type and weed-killer. While these minute horticultural differences offer perhaps the most subtle of suburban effects, they are also one of the most important for the way in which they maintain the unique and rarefied aura of outdoor suburban space.
This fragment of landscaping stands in sharp contrast to the barren surroundings of the Blue Horizons development in Buckeye, Arizona. Although from this perspective it appears as a lone outbreak of vegetation, it actually forms part of a continuous strip of greenery that lines the development’s primary roads and links with the neighborhood via a series of entry points and openings. At this particular point the landscaping turns inwards towards the residential zone and then halts suddenly in the face of a vast expanse of undeveloped lots. A pleasant winding promenade through the greenery abruptly terminates in a stark vista of approximately 600 undeveloped subdivisions extending almost as far as the eye can see. Local municipalities require landscaping like this to be in place before any houses are built, but in this case there seems to be an additional motivation behind this lavish gesture. The hostility of the terrain combined with the (as yet) revenueless development would seem to make the maintenance of such planting prohibitively expensive, but all the evidence points to a team of workers whose efforts echo the optimistic trajectory of the landscaping itself. Curiously, the spectacle of this planting against such a forlorn backdrop only seems to reaffirm the conviction of this project, evoking not fragility but tenacity. Elsewhere, the landscaping is adjoined by baseball fields and play areas, also in prime condition and yet also largely unused. Deployed in this manner, landscaping takes on a new significance — not merely a benign backdrop but the primary agent in the establishment of suburbia, advancing across the inhospitable terrain of the Arizona desert in unwavering affirmation of the Arcadian principles of endless suburban propagation.
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.”
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.