Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Traitor to the cause...

I’ll be called a traitor. I’ll be laughed out of all respectable architecture circles. But I have to admit it. Having spent nearly a week visiting friends in the vast land of suburbia known as southern California, I could see myself living there. Yeah, I just said that.

Admittedly, this particular suburb of SoCal was only 20 minutes from the beach. And the sun was out nearly every day. For this New York City dweller, having come via London, the blinding yellow sun was like teasing a child with an ice cream cone after feeding them steamed broccoli. It was a bit of luxury, a break from a streak of ho-hum life. And you just want more. We’ll gloss over the fact that I was playing around for nearly a week without work. That would make any place seem appealing, I imagine.

More than the lack of responsibility, though, may have been the sense of overwhelming ease. It was a return to the lifestyle of my childhood – car rides to the grocery store, evening walks along streets where kids played ball in the street and the neighbors passed with their dogs in tow, all while bathed in the blanket of orange-red light that lay itself over every surface at sunset. Those were the visceral moments of my childhood, when the air carried a crisp chill, as it swept down from the canyons, carrying with it the scent of pine and mint. While I was with my friend, walking their stubborn yet adorable pit-bull along the trails surrounding their home, I was once again twelve, out for a walk with my own dog, transfixed by the beauty of nature.

I’ve been on the move a lot, recently; less than others, probably, but more than I’d prefer, to be honest. Before my year abroad, then back, I lived for seven years in Pittsburgh, five in the same house, which I have previously mentioned my fond affinity for. It grounded me, despite my fantasies of moving here or there. Wherever I was, I had a place to return to. It’s different now, in the city. To rent with roommates means living a life without absolute security – the knowledge that you’ll be in the same place a year from now.

The appeal of suburbia, in part, is that which has been marketed to us. In that sense, it is fantasy, make believe. No wonder that the front yard and picket fence ideal polarizes the population into camps of “hell yes” and “hell no”. Some want nothing more that to move into that home of their own, where they’ll raise their family, have play dates with neighbors, and eat out on weekends at the local Applebee’s.

I always thought of myself in the other camp, ready to make a life in the grittiness of urbanity. Any progressive architect could not consider otherwise. After all, we were supposed to know better, armed with our education, which allowed us to see past the developer’s illusions of suburban harmony. City living, at the fringes where industrial and commercial ventures meet, is where we are supposed to find ourselves. We’re homesteaders not suburbanites, right?

School seemed to reinforce that idea. Cool architecture existed within confined contexts, the spaces in-between. Those were the projects professors got excited about, that most of us, if given the choice, would pursue. Even in Urban Design studio, our site was not the blank slate of the suburban fringe, but the examination of existing, though decaying, centers.

Urban Design, as we were taught, was dogmatic. This was probably due, in part, to the fact that our professor was considered, by many, to be one of the fathers of the New Urbanism movement. We were taught the importance of tradition, uncovering the story of a place. For some reason, the story seemed to repeat itself over and over again as the semester went on, but there were some key ideas that made sense. The emphasis on community building, on diversity, appealed to the liberal, democratic spirit of architecture dreamers, hoping to change the world. But, the way we were taught, seemed limited, constrictive. There were so many rules.

When our professor first started preaching his ideas, in the 1960s, the ideas were challenged as contrary and radical. By god, who would want mixed income neighborhoods? Or messy commercial districts near the expansive yards of their personal estates?

That was then. For us, sitting in lecture, this wasn’t new, wasn’t radical. It seemed like common sense. But, feeling the need to pass the class, we begrudgingly did pattern-book house studies, mockingly repeated the “perfect” street sections for our group presentations, and told ourselves that, if we were to do it our way, we’d do it different, better.

Ironically, those tenets which we had to learn by heart – the 15 minute walking circles, the mixed-use main street at the center – are now the en vogue urban design principles being implemented from coast to coast, from one new development to the next. They definitely guided the design of my friend’s neighborhood, with its community park and arts center, a small area business zone with a café. The only concessions to the car-centric life that is California living: a super-sized (by city standards) grocery store, with parking, and a gas station, centrally located between the various residential developments.

Sure, my friend’s neighborhood lacked access to public transit. Sure, every house had at least two cars in the driveway (and often two in the attached garage). But, for the most part, these new developments were following, the ideas we were continuously taught in our Urban Design course. As I watched families arrive at the local ball field for their weekly games of softball, chat with neighbors as they let their dogs run free in the local dog-run, I felt a bit foolish in my contempt for my Urban Design class. It seemed that the rules worked. Very well, judging by the general contentment of everyone I passed.

Fact is, for a large portion of the population, this is the lifestyle they are seeking. Architects, quite often it seems, willfully ignore this. We chase the glitzy, the adventurous, the sexy, the new, Maybe it gets back to being told, over and over again, to “think outside the box”. We are attracted to the idea that the status quo needs improvement, change, a radical shift in ideology, and of course we are. That’s how we justify the existence of our profession.

Don’t get me wrong. Suburbia isn’t perfect. The new suburbs can be applauded for incorporating ideas of density, mixed use, community building. But they can also be derided for their emphasis on materialism, repetition, appearance. Without a doubt, every new development my friends and I explored, used the standard SoCal housing clichés; every development allowed the buyer to finish their house in one of four styles: Italian Villa, Arts and Crafts, Traditional or Hacidenda; every development had fanciful, aspirational names for their models, which all showed granite and stainless steel wherever possible; all developments had driveways proud and center; all developments still had private, fenced off yards.

But, as with all clichés, there is a foundation of truth. These homes are what many dream of. These are the places people hope to call home, imagine coming back to each and every night. These are the buildings people are willing to put their hard earned money towards. That says something to me. It says that these developers, for better or worse, understand the world better than I do. It reminds me that, for many, perhaps a majority, this is the lifestyle they want to live. Not the sleek, glassy living that our profession so often highlights, promotes. We vilify what the majority aspires to. That is a huge disconnect.

And that’s where I find myself, lost, torn between the nostalgia of my youth, the principles of my education, my nascent and undefined personal desires. Our profession tends to knock suburbia, its lack of identity, its mind-numbing sameness. But, and maybe this is just me, there is something appealing to the suburban model. Maybe it is because, for all its faults, it works rather well. I know. I was a product of it.


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