New day for suburbia

Times Staff Writer

MINNEAPOLIS -- Suburbia is almost all right.

That's the guiding idea, anyway, behind "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes" at the Walker Art Center through Aug. 17. Echoing the populism of Robert Venturi's hugely influential declaration in his 1966 book "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture" that "Main Street is almost all right," the exhibition sets out to convince the museum's sophisticated, largely urban audience that the American suburbs are more dynamic and endearingly odd than they ever would have guessed.

Like Venturi -- or Charles Moore and James Wines, two figures who tried to make suburbia a respected site for high-design architects in the 1970s -- the show begins with the notion that our creative class as a whole ought to spend less time telling Americans how they should live and more time examining how they actually do.

As much as ever, that means in a tract house, along a fairway or facing a cul de sac: According to the 2000 Census, more Americans reside in the suburbs than in central cities or rural areas combined.

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The suburbs, considered

The show was organized jointly by the Walker with the Heinz Architectural Center at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art and curated by Andrew Blauvelt of the Walker with the Heinz's Tracy Myers. Their thesis is straightforward: As Blauvelt puts it in the catalog, "the contemporary suburb remains surprisingly unconsidered, at least on its own terms."

Although that may be exaggerated as a blanket statement -- Hollywood directors and New York novelists have been obsessed with the suburbs for a long time -- it remains a fair critique of the architecture world.

Certainly, while some of us were failing to notice, the suburbs got a whole lot more interesting during the last three decades. They undoubtedly grew more diverse. Roughly 30% of suburban residents are minorities, and the figure is rising.

Many immigrants now bypass cities, their traditional first stop on the upward-mobility track, and move straight to the American suburbs.

With a second generation of Americans who grew up in postwar suburbs now coming of age, there is also a swelling group of artists and architects who see suburban life not with detachment or disdain but with familiarity -- and even nostalgia.

In earlier decades, those artists might have agreed with the old critique that the suburbs are a place where cookie-cutter architecture breeds cookie-cutter attitudes.

To judge by "The Sopranos," "Weeds" and other TV series, however, the prevailing attitude today is almost exactly the opposite: that look-alike McMansions conceal and even make possible all kinds of fascinatingly aberrant behavior.

At the same time, the line between urban and suburban life is increasingly blurry. Empty-nesters who fled the city for the suburbs 40 years ago, and can now afford to pay $1 million for a swank new downtown condo in Seattle or Dallas, are bringing their suburban values into the city.

Suburbs, meanwhile, have begun to take on urban flavor, much of it authentic and some of it merely the stuff of marketing. Art galleries and sophisticated cuisine sprout in strip malls; new suburban housing developments are modeled after "artist lofts."

In Los Angeles, the first large city to grow along suburban lines, density, infill and traffic are bringing urban headaches -- and opportunities -- to our front lawns.

Among the most compelling projects in the show is a study by Teddy Cruz, the San Diego architect, on the two-way movement of attitudes as well as objects across the U.S.-Mexico border.

His photographs document the process by which parts of older houses in the San Diego suburbs -- garage doors, aluminum window frames -- are salvaged before they can reach the landfill by professional or amateur contractors, who then drive them south across the border.

There, they become the building blocks of ad-hoc housing in Tijuana and other poor Mexican cities.

Meanwhile, Mexican immigrants flowing legally and illegally into San Diego County bring their own traditions and tastes to the suburban landscape of Southern California, transforming its culture from the bottom up.

The show is organized using something of the same logic, with the architecture illuminating and complicating the art and vice versa.

For Blauvelt, the cheek-by-jowl approach reflects the Walker's long-standing interest in all things interdisciplinary. And there is an easy dialogue among many of the works.

Angela Strassheim's photograph of a family praying together inside a McDonald's is the thematic flip side of the guerrilla sculptures Stefanie Nagorka creates with brick and concrete-block pavers at Home Depot stores.

In the first case, something traditionally private is put on display without self-consciousness; in the second, a piece of art you'd anticipate seeing in a public park or a museum is created inside the private-sector, generic world of a big-box retailer.

In some of the other pieces, such as a 1966 study of suburban housing by Dan Graham, art and architecture have become thoroughly intertwined.

But the two fields, ultimately, are different animals. If your goal as a curator is to capture the spirit or changing flavor of one place (say, a suburb) and display it somewhere else (say, a progressive museum in a midsize city), artists are particularly well suited to the task.

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The 'observer principle'

Architects, on the other hand, aren't exactly the best candidates to offer a window on overlooked corners of the culture. For them, examining a site and re-imagining it are essentially synonymous.

Activists by temperament and job description, they are the creative world's answer to science's "observer principle."

If simply by measuring something we change it, that goes triple for architects.

A couple of the architectural projects in the exhibition -- by Cruz and the London firm FAT, in particular -- seem to grow out of an intense, nonjudgmental engagement with the particular sensibility of contemporary suburban life.

But many of the others argue, in a way that runs counter to the organizing principle of the exhibition as a whole, simply for reforming or redeeming the suburbs.

Proposals by the urban firms LTL Architects, Coen + Partners and Lateral Architecture are essentially critiques, if savvy ones, of the way American suburbs have developed since World War II.

They rely on the familiar argument that the quickest way for the suburbs to improve is for them to start looking and operating more like cities.

And that, in the end, offers a clue about why the relationship begun in the 1970s by Wines, Moore and others between high-design architecture and the suburb never panned out.

Most leading architecture firms don't work in the suburbs for a very simple reason: Nobody in the suburbs hires them.

The top suburban developers, whether they build housing developments or shopping centers, have pretty much decided that architecture -- at least noticeably new or challenging architecture -- is unnecessary.

As Blauvelt writes, "In spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of signature architecture, suburbia is perhaps the most popularly successful of imagined utopian communities."

This is a pretty blunt message for any architect to hear. Huge numbers of people in this country decided at some point during the last 30 or 40 years that the ideal place to raise a family and pursue the American Dream is basically a place without architecture.

And for them, that absence is not just almost but entirely all right.

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christopher.hawthorne@ latimes.com

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