Tag Archives: suburbia

Why the American dream is a tribute band

“Helloooooooo, Suburbia! (The audience goes wild.)

“When the tour bus got into town this morning we drove by some Santa Barbara-styled homes (loud roar from the audience) on our way to lunch at a post-modern strip mall (another loud roar).

“Now who’s ready to rock? (Yet another loud roar.) And who’s ready to rock AND roll? (Loud roar, with a hint of bewilderment.) Let’s get this party started with some Rick Springfield! (Guitar riff; thunderous roar; mosh pit ensues; tear gas fills the air.)

This is what entered my head as I looked upon the “Foreclosed” article and slide show at Architectural Record.

Suburbia needs help. It was designed with the mindset that energy and resources will always be inexpensive and abundant. The amount of energy and resources used per capita is proving to be unsustainable. So what do we do?

We can’t continue to build suburbia the way we’ve been building it. But we can’t build it in a manner that won’t be accepted by contemporary society. Our culture moves forward by being nudged, not by being thrown over a cliff. The short-term goal of redesigning suburbia should involve a nudge, and the long-term goal should involve a series of nudges.

In regards to city planning, one could argue that we’ve seen it all. These nudges are going to push the designs of our cities towards something we’ve seen in the past, but should it resemble something that’s worked before (i.e. a city plan that’s been inhabited for hundreds of years) or something that’s been proposed (i.e. a city plan that’s been drawn and not built, or that’s been built and rejected by its inhabitants).

Does this design by Studio Gang Architects really differ from this by Archigram? Is the Simultaneous City really that much different from Pruitt Igoe? Is this neighborhood really just this neighborhood plus Frank Gehry?

We’re stuck with suburbia (think of the environmental impact if we wiped the slate clean), but there’s no reason why it has to be a bad place. (Bad is highly subjective, although my use of bad involves its complete dependency on inexpensive energy and resources.)

Suburbia will become better by taking advantage of what’s already there with more density (not high-rises–remember, just a nudge), making purposeful use of the spaces between circulation and destinations (just a fancy way of saying design and make use of the wide open spaces throughout suburbia that currently are a waste of unoccupied lawns and parking lots), and subdue the car-centric attitude of design and focus on alternate means for people to get around if they want to walk (and accomplish something by walking other than burning some calories).

We have seen it all. Suburbia will always be a tribute band and, if successful, will probably look like something from the 80s–the 1780s.

“Rock me Amadeus!”


Architecture of wellness

There are many rules and guidelines that regulate the built environment. For the most part these rules and guidelines are in place to benefit the wellness of its occupants. The first building code involved protecting cities from completely burning down when a single fire would break out (think London and Chicago). As building codes evolved there became building codes that required fresh air in people’s sleeping quarters, stable construction so that buildings wouldn’t collapse during a minuscule earthquake, enough exits in a building so that everyone inside could exit in case of an emergency, and so on and so forth.

But what’s missing are guidelines on how a building promotes well-being. We spend a majority of our lives inside buildings, so doesn’t it make sense that buildings should be required to make your life better? Of course buildings improve life at a minimal level – they keep us warm when it’s cold outside (and vice versa), they’re fitted with electricity so that we can refrigerate our food, they protect us from bears – but do they improve life?

If you look at our homes and offices, you can easily argue that our built environment promotes a sedentary lifestyle. There’s a balance between providing resources for promoting a healthy lifestyle and the stimulation for motivating people to want a healthy lifestyle. If most suburban homes were within a quarter of a mile of a grocery store, and the path between these homes and the grocery store were designed to focus on the pedestrian (such as not requiring people to cross six lanes of traffic moving at fifty miles per hour, or not walking across acres of parking lot) then it’s safe to say that more people would walk to the store. But our built environments are generally designed to be focused on people traveling by car, so most people decide not to walk over a mile and across six lanes of traffic and parking lots. The same can be said of office buildings making it more convenient (and more accepting) to use the elevator than the stairs, especially in a two or three-story building.

I found the above sign near a pedestrian bridge in Denver that connects Lower Downtown with the Platte Valley neighborhood. I don’t know if the sign was in response to gang warfare between rival tai chi and tae bo classes, or if a group of weightlifters were trying to clean and jerk cars in the adjacent parking lot, but it seems to me that this sign epitomizes the problem with a built environment that is unable to promote a healthier lifestyle. There should be signs in every building that state “Please exercise“.

Highways connect as well as disconnect

When the Interstate Highway System was first constructed in this country, it was envisioned that limited-access divided highways would provide faster, and thus more direct, connections between cities. These highways would promote free trade (quicker delivery times between farming communities and the major metropolitan areas) and provide a means for deploying defensive forces in case of a nuclear attack. (Notice how the loop highways around major cities are beyond the blast zone of an atomic/nuclear explosion when detonated downtown.)

The interstate highways have also provided connections between business districts (within a city as well as suburban areas) and residential zones. Despite these meaningful connections the highways have provided a permanent disconnect between adjacent areas. Interstate highways have typically reduced the vehicular and pedestrian connections between each side of the highways (overpasses and underpasses cost money).

One great example of this disconnect is in downtown St. Louis. The postcard image of downtown St. Louis always shows the Jefferson Expansion Memorial (known as “The Arch” to all of its friends) standing tall along the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, with the modest skyline residing behind. What the postcard doesn’t illustrate is the chasm separating the Arch grounds from downtown – Interstate 70. Highways are wide vehicular friendly areas that for some reason dissuade people from crossing. (Maybe it’s something in our DNA that goes back tens of thousands of years ago when we weren’t at the top of the food chain, and any time we walked across an expansive open plain we would typically be eaten by something higher up on the food chain.)

There is an architectural competition hoping to solve the interstate chasm between downtown St. Louis and The Arch. Of course this issue isn’t just in St. Louis, but also in most major cities with an interstate highway dissecting one vital neighborhood from another (which includes all major cities).

The solution needs to solve two issues – provide a connection between one end of the highway and the opposite end, and provide a connection between one side of the highway and the opposite side. The solution goes away from the either/or attitude that was predominant for designing our built environment after World War II (a circulation path is for either cars or pedestrians) and begins to embrace the pre-World War II attitude of both/and (a circulation path is for both cars and pedestrians).

One more hint that the City of Tomorrow will look like the City of Yesteryear.

House of the Future – (+) Apartment

When I picture the city and town of the future, I see a denser built environment than what we currently have, especially in suburbia. But it’s not very “green” to raze suburban neighborhoods and build denser habitats. A few things that most suburban neighborhoods have going for them (at least in my 1960s built neighborhood) are big ass yards and lots of street parking.

The house of the future – at least the suburban-infill house of the future – is a House (+) Apartment. There are two primary aspects for the (+) Apartment: the sociological part and the constructibility part.

The sociological aspect involves the reason of why should it be done. Why would anyone want to build an apartment onto their property? One reason is to have someone else pay for your mortgage, thus making home ownership more affordable to a lot more people. An apartment, say somewhere in the order of a few hundred square feet in area, would allow the homeowner to turn their property into something that makes money. And for security reasons this apartment would not have any shared spaces with the house and would have its own sleeping quarters, kitchen, bath, and a small yard that provides a more substantial connection to exterior space than the typical apartment building. And if your house is close to a desirable location that a renter would desire (like a college or mass transit) then the more rent the homeowner could charge.

The other sociological aspect involves family. There are two trends that may not change in the near future: children are living at home longer after high school graduation, and people are living longer after retirement. College is becoming incredibly more expensive, so a method for saving money is to live with parents. Retirement communities are also becoming more expensive, so a method for saving money is to live with children. A young adult attending college or a retired grandparent enjoying the rewards of working a hard life should command more respect than living in a spare bedroom at the end of the hallway. The (+) Apartment affords a level of independence that is deserving of them.

Now, the constructibility. The question of do we have the necessary technology to perform such a task is answered by the fact homes built a hundred years ago sometimes have these structures (whether if it was for carriages, horses, or servants). Of course not every home within suburbia has the necessary land or space of the garage, but as an architect I’m quite confident that if someone wanted a way to have a free mortgage then there is a way. There are other hurdles such as city ordinances allowing freestanding structures for the purpose of habitation, and setbacks from the house and neighboring houses, and setbacks from the street, but if cities want to increase their tax base without constructing more streets and stretching existing services then it can happen. Another bonus for the homeowner is having less grass to water (at least that would be a bonus here in the Front Range).

The House of the Future – free of charge! Who wouldn’t like that?

Agriburbia in Colorado

Just when you thought the suffix -burbia couldn’t be made into something else, we now have agriburbia.

In today’s Denver Post there’s an article about combining suburban development with agricultural uses.  The integration of these two developing strategies seems to fall somewhere within the realm of a Broadacre City by Frank Lloyd Wright and Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian nation.

There’s also the idea of promoting a more sustainable environment by producing goods locally (minimal transportation of goods translates into less fuel used for shipping), and maximizing the impact of water usage for something that can be consumed rather than make your lawn look more green.

Proof that sustainability can be achieved with a green thumb.

ReBurbia Competition

Tis’ the season for architectural competitions.  The latest one that has piqued my interest is ReBurbia.

We now live in an era where the idea of building big and building everywhere no longer seems plausible.  An environment dependent almost solely on driving one’s car to accomplish even the most simple tasks is becoming more absurd than ever.

For the last fifty years we have designed and built our communities to be more convenient to automobiles than to pedestrians.  Our houses are designed to have the garage more prominent than the front porch (if one even exists).  We drive on wide boulevards that are engineered to handle traffic driving at 200 miles per hour, yet are intimidating for pedestrians that try to safely cross ten lanes of traffic in a timely manner.  And our stores are surrounded by parking that’s designed as if every day was going to experience the same number of shoppers as Black Friday.

If you live, work, or even drive through suburbia chances are you have found something to gripe about.  (If you have nothing to gripe about might I suggest that you run all of your errands by walking or riding a bike)  So if you have something to gripe about and you feel as though you may have a solution for your gripe, definitely submit your idea to this competition.  I know sometimes these competitions come across as computer intensive exercises showcasing people’s abilities to create brain numbing virtual worlds, a good idea is still a good idea, even if that idea is drawn up with crayons and finger paints.

McMansions – Welcome to the Architectural Steroid Era


You’ve probably heard the term and wasn’t quite sure exactly what it meant – McMansion.  Is it the official residence of Ronald McDonald?  Is it a house lived in by the Scottish-Irish aristocracy?

The term McMansion refers to the very large houses that have become more prevalent in our suburban and exurban landscape.  Like their fast food counterpart for which their name derives from they are designed within a vacuum of space and time.  Their design is not influenced by site or the owner, but rather the final product is a culmination of fashion and fad added onto a floor plan that lacks innovation and efficiencies.  For a better visual of the definition just think of a 1983 Plymouth Horizon hatchback with chrome 24″ spinner wheels on it.

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