Thursday, February 28, 2008

When Suburbia Was A Dream

In The Next Slum?, the Atlantic Monthly argues that suburbs are slowly but surely becoming irrelevant. Worse: future slums, as people re-focus on city life and city regeneration.
A fascinating read, especially put in the context of Robe Keil's recent book Little Boxes - The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb. The book focuses on Henry Doelger's Westlake suburb development south of San Francisco -- a poster child for post-WW2 suburbia in California, and the U.S. Henry Doegler was considered "The Henry Ford of housing," as he concentrated on creating "an utopian vision of middle-class affluence, order, and pleasantness" with well-thought and planned little tract houses with a lot.

The Atlantic focuses on McMansion disgruntlement, but the "ticky tacky" Doelger houses, those epitomes of suburban conformity, seem to have found renewed appeal. "With today's houses becoming more massive and conspicuously opulent all the time, a number of home buyers are rediscovering the value of modest homes," writes Keil.

Keil adds, "One of the tenets of mid-century modernism was that good design could (and should) bring a better lifestyle to as many people as possible, not just the privileged. Keeping homes within the economic reach of people who were previously living in crowded city apartments required that developers like Doelger make use of mass-production techniques. Critics of these homes fail to realize that something doesn't have to be expensive or completely unique to be good. The fact that there is more than one Volkswagen beetle or more than one tupperware container in the world doesn't make these iconic designs less valid."

How better suited a concept than to this slippery housing market? The Atlantic article, and Rob Kiel's book, are excellent reads for those seeking to decipher the suburbia spleen, McMansion fatigue, and inner-city comeback in this country.
[update 05/30/08: And age of transformation in The Economist]
illustration: scan from Little Boxes book - more scans here