Sunday, November 15, 2015

Reimagining Suburbia

Renzo Piano may be the most urban, and urbane, of great architects working today. He made his name in Paris in the 1970s, when he and Richard Rogers designed the Pompidou Center, a machine of a museum bristling with exposed steel and pipes. The “inside-out” building provoked howls from Parisians at first, but the Pompidou soon became a beloved landmark and helped revive the then-ailing Marais district. Since that time, the Italian architect has designed a master plan for the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. He has built an airport in Osaka and the tallest skyscraper in London. He has left elegant, precisely crafted museums and galleries in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. So critics did a double take last year when Piano announced that he was designing a new shopping center in San Ramon, California. Renzo Piano—winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel—was designing a suburban mall? (...)

Today, architects’ attitudes to suburbia tend to split three ways. The first and most common attitude is indifference. Architects are largely urban creatures, working for urban developers and museum boards and teaching in urban architectural schools. For decades, they have tried to fend off inner-city decay using strategies good (historic preservation) and very bad (“towers in the park” urban renewal). Now that many big-city American downtowns have been revived and gentrified, architects remain as city-transfixed as ever.

The second mode, espoused by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown in the late 1960s and early ’70s, is an appreciation, more or less ironic, for the pop art charms of endlessly repeated little houses and the “jazzed-up” road signs that Peter Blake so loathed. Attitude number three is the anti-suburban crusade led by the traditionalist architects and planners who call themselves New Urbanists. This group wants to eradicate cul-de-sacs and two-car garages and replace them with dense, walkable urban districts that mix different kinds of buildings and human activities. Suburban sprawl is a cancer, they say, a blight.

It is hard to argue with the urgency that the New Urbanists feel. Suburbia has many problems, and ugly buildings are just the start: a debased public realm, low-quality (or nonexistent) public transportation, and road designs that isolate residents rather than connect them. Worst of all is the environmental impact: compared with city dwellers, residents of a conventional suburb use more energy to heat and cool their homes, and drive almost everywhere out of necessity.

But even when the money is on hand for large-scale redevelopment of a suburb (and it usually isn’t), rewriting the zoning code isn’t enough. Great places need imaginative, contemporary architecture, too, and this has been in short supply in suburban makeovers. Many of the new ersatz “town centers” have turned out just as cheap looking and bland as the shopping malls they replaced.

Part of the problem is that developers and government officials assume buildings are for suburbs, while Architecture-with-a-capital-A is for cities. The bar has been set too low. But architects aren’t exactly hastening to raise it. The avant-garde architect Charles Renfro, for instance, while talking last year about suburbia, called it “reprehensible.”

To condemn suburbia in moral terms like this, to call it a cancer or dismiss its residents as gas-guzzling yahoos, is unfair to the millions of people who actually live there (your author included). It also betrays ignorance of how the suburbs have changed since the days of white flight and Leave It to Beaver. As American suburbs mature, they become ethnically diverse—often more so than the cities they border—and acquire layers and juxtapositions. A school moves into the shell of a Kmart; a Hindu temple abuts the golf course; informal mercados spring up on cracked parking lots. New places begin to develop the texture we prize so much in old ones.

Maybe suburbia is, as Venturi famously wrote, almost all right. Maybe we just don’t understand how it’s evolving, the way we couldn’t conceive of an urban renaissance a generation ago.

by Amanda Kolson Hurley, American Scholar | Read more:
Image: Renzo Piano Building Workshop/VBNB/Nicolas Boutet and Vincent Barué