In a project that can only be described as an orchestrated charade, some of the most well known starchitects of our times create absurd commentary on the present state of suburbia in America and explore possible "Transformative Solutions". With the exception of a few sane ideas, this is a complete joke. More importantly, this is a huge missed opportunity and an insult to not just the profession of design but also to residents of all suburban communities. As designers, it is our duty to improve the quality of life in suburbia through Sensible Interventions such as infill projects, community agriculture and transit oriented interventions. Creating senseless narratives for the sake of a theoretical discourse is not an option. Bravo to the author Allison Arieff on calling out this hoax!
Photo By: Allison Arieff
Suburbia: What a ConceptBy ALLISON ARIEFF
Levittown is actually in far better shape than many of its more recent brethren. Its schools are good, its economy relatively stable There have been foreclosures, of course, and the area continues to face many of the challenges confronted by communities nationwide, suburban and otherwise. But in the end, Levittown was chosen, as DS+R’s Charles Renfro told me, “very specifically for its iconicity,” not because its residents needed (or requested) help. “Levittown is understood and falls away as a specific place with specific problems. It’s a standard bearer of suburbia.”
But in approaching a real place as a perfect blank canvas on which to execute distinctly urban interventions, the Open House project conveniently excused itself from substantively engaging with the real issues facing suburbia’s future. Which is a pity. Because it would have been interesting to see what they’d come up with if they had.
Both Droog and Diller Scofidio+Renfro are sublimely urban. Projects like DS+R’s High Line, for example, hit the perfect sweet spot between city and country for Manhattanites. There’s glamour mixed in with the grass and gravel. But the suburban existence is as exotic to them as say, Dubai, the site of Droog Lab’s first project where, says co-founder Renny Ramakers, they’d made a deliberate decision not to explore it as “a spending society — people felt we weren’t being critical enough; they couldn’t understand why. In this project I don’t want to be critical, I want to look for inspiration because in every part of the world, people are creating their own society, their own community.”
But that’s not really valid. Can we discuss the future of suburbia (or the future of anything, really) without being critical? Without talking about developing accessible transit or increasing walkability (and community) through mixed-use development, for example? This alas, is not uncommon. Addressing suburban ills requires massive change to systems, to finance, to transportation and infrastructure, and perhaps most challenging, to a culture deeply wedded to suburbia as emblematic of the American Dream. Droog is a fixture at the Milan Furniture Fair, and Open House felt more like a satellite exhibition of that annual homage to high-end design consumerism. Perhaps it was wrong to expect anything different.
“This isn’t a self-help project,” Renfro told me after the event. “It wasn’t intended to identify the problems [of suburbia]; it was intended to think about the future and thus it wasn’t like sweeping into New Orleans after Katrina or anything. What we needed was a place whose fabric almost fell away, that you understood it as almost prototypical suburbia.”
Borrowing from R. Buckminster Fuller’s observation that “our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought,” Open House explained its premise in materials distributed at a daylong event last month that began with a symposium and culminated in a bus tour of eight installations by architectural teams in eight Levittown homes. From the literature:
Washing machines sit idle most of the time. Homes offer views that mostly go unnoticed. At the same time, housing foreclosures are on the rise and ready-made jobs are not easy to find. Inspired by the service-oriented mentality of New York, Open House by Droog led by Diller Scofidio + Renfro is a movement in which suburban homeowners supplement their income and develop a new vocation by offering home-made services and facilities to the public.
Or, as printed buttons worn by participating Open House designers advertised, “Discover Your Inner Service Provider.”
During the symposium, held in a crowded room in decidedly un-suburban Tribeca, I listened to the architect and theorist Mark Wasiuta provide a critical analysis of the suburban grow home, a no doubt popular, if hidden, way legions are discovering their inner service providers, as any watcher of Showtime’s “Weeds” (in which a widowed housewife turns to marijuana dealing to support her family) well knows. I scribbled in my notebook, “Is there anything more absurd than listening to a New York academic theorize about suburbia through the lens of ‘60s conceptualism?” and then scratched my head during a presentation of artist Mary Carroll’s “180 Degrees,” a conceptual project intended to turn the suburban home on its head. How? Well, by literally rotating an actual suburban home 180 degrees. Yet I remained open to the aspirational goals Ramakers and her collaborators had set, and so I boarded one of two tour buses bound for Levittown, along with about 50 others.
On the way, I interviewed Ramakers, a woman whose work and outlook I’ve long admired, revered even, for its wit, sophistication and love of craft. Our conversation revealed her rather surprising fascination with Manhattan’s service economy: People hire others to walk their dogs! To deliver their lunch and coach them on their love lives! How very clever!
Observing this very American can-do spirit on the streets of Manhattan had led Droog Labs to develop what architects would call the “program,” the aforementioned discovering of one’s inner service provider (further explained in the literature below):
Open House encourages self-inventiveness, offers ideas, and proposes new models for suburban housing, striking a new balance between the private and public realm. Starting with an economic argument for the struggling middle class, the proposal also addresses the challenges posed by urban sprawl and single-owner consumption. The new residential marketplace not only brings more capital and density to the neighborhood, it also increases social cohesion through service exchange.
I asked Ramakers whether Droog’s suburban intervention might help address as well some of the more immediate needs associated with suburbia, like the number of people trying to hold on to their homes in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, or ways of retrofitting large homes into multi-family housing, or integrating transit to reduce traffic and resource usage?
“I don’t think so,” she told me. “Because the emphasis was really on the inner service provider. When the [Droog Lab] team did the research on service economy [in New York City] they found out from lots of people who created jobs for themselves. They did so partly to earn money, partly to gain self-confidence. We want to encourage people to do something they’re good at.”
Fair enough. Individuals should be empowered to improve their own communities and economic situations. But there was a disconnect here, and it’s a crucial one: the handful of Levittown residents who’d agreed to participate didn’t discover their inner service providers. To all appearances, the teams of Open House designers discovered it for them, despite Droog’s stated desire to eliminate the top down approach characteristic of most design work.
Take House #1 by L.E.FT (Makram el Kadi and Ziad Jamaleddine). Inspired, in theory, “by the suburban housedress of the 1950s, House Dress takes the domestic garment onto the architectural scale to make an exclusive suburban event space … House Dress conceals enough to create a sense of intimacy yet reveals enough to create a public spectacle.”
In practice, the homeowner, an avid gamer, discussed turning the proposed event space into a gambling casino. (One can imagine what a hit that would be with the average homeowners’ association; one might not be able to figure out, however, what any of that has to do with a housedress.) That idea morphed instead into a place to play board games. A nice community service, to be sure, but probably not a great income generator for the owner.
I paid my entrance fee ($1) to “Lisa & Leo’s Domestic Museum” (a.k.a. the Vanderberg residence) and was led through the foyer toward a “gift shop” selling Levittown postcards, jewelry and other miscellaneous trinkets. To my left, red ropes cordoned off the Dining Area “exhibit.” We were also able to watch real live suburban dwellers in their natural habitat watching television, brewing (and selling) coffee and, of course, making hamburgers on the patio grill.
The experience was awkward — it felt like some amalgam of tame reality TV and World Expositions of centuries past, where natives were on put on display for public entertainment. Cities and towns often propose new museums to spur economic development and confer cultural capital — it’s called the Bilbao Effect — but more often than not such institutional efforts fail. I wondered why this museum couldn’t have been Lisa & Leo’s Café instead, a neighborhood place for casual food that might actually attract repeat business and generate real income for the Vanderbergs.
A glimmer of hope was found at House #4, Bright Dawn Farm byFreecell (Lauren Crahan & John Hartmann). Here, the designers had clearly collaborated more closely with homeowner Dawn Occhiogrosso, an avid gardener, and had transformed her backyard into a suburban farm. I’ve been yammering on about the positive benefits of growing one’s own food for years now so of course this project was my favorite. Freecell’s horizontal greenhouse was a potent symbol of spring, of possibility, displaying even in the midst of the mizzle rows of beautiful basil, cilantro, tomato starts and other vegetables and herbs (all for sale on your way out: 2 bunches for $5).
The neighborhood benefit of #4 seemed immediately apparent: the homeowner could cultivate her crops and host a weekly summer market, encouraging community involvement and healthy eating, and getting more folks out of their cars and walking through their own community. But when I asked Occhiogrosso whether she planned to go ahead and put the plants in the ground, she said no, she didn’t have the time or the inclination.
House #6, the Attention Clinic, was an homage, designer Claudia Linders said, appropriately enough in this increasingly absurdist context, to Monty Python’s Argument Clinic. In concept and efficacy, it reminded me a whole lot of Lucy from the “Peanuts” comic strip, dispensing advice for a nickel. Once inside the home, visitors were given a printed menu listing “Only a $100 hour” options that included a “Listening Ear” (3 min./$5), “Reliable Advice (4 min./$6.80) and a “Warm Hug” (a bargain at $1.70 per minute). In the not-so-olden days, neighbors would drop by for a cup of coffee and a chat; here, the maker of the coffee was being encouraged to charge an hourly rate for it.
Most striking to me about #6 was that the woman who lived here, an original resident of Levittown, had renovated part of her home into a granny flat and had in fact unleashed her inner service early by renting that unit out for the better part of the last two decades. This — legal in Levittown only for senior citizens, and illegal in an astounding number of cities, towns and suburbs — was the one service that made absolute sense, yet Open House hadn’t picked up on it. It was definitely worth challenging existing zoning provisions to expand. (A plan to do just that was presented as one of the winning entries in Long Island Index’s Build a Better Burb competition last year.)
What what most tangible in Open House was the work that remained most invisible. The design team of EFGH (Hayley Eber and Frank Gesualdi) with Irina Chemyakova explored the potential benefits that changes to code, zoning and other regulatory modifications might have on the existing suburb. The things they proposed, much in keeping with the work of others spearheading the movement to rethink suburbia like Ellen Dunham-Jones, June Williamson andGalina Tachieva, included increasing density, retrofitting existing buildings for new uses, and experimenting with public/private space.
These changes, along with residents’ inclination to improve their own communities, could lead to better models for future development. I’ve observed little glimmers of the possibilities in truly collaborative projects like Farmer D’s suburban agriculture communities in the southeastern United States, the Ainsworth Collective’s efforts to develop a sustainable neighborhood in Portland, Ore., or the livable community projects of the Dallas suburb Oak Cliff.
Did Levittown residents benefit from Open House? Well, the project did raise $1,500 for local charities, and no doubt provided some good fodder for future storytelling. But it seems a missed opportunity to not have involved them more in the process. That, however, is not a concern shared by Renfro, who told me, “Architects shape peoples lives. Some projects are more collaborative, some less. We always bring some form of authority to a project and some form of proselytizing. This will make your life better, richer, more productive. People approach us to do it. Open House was different because we said ‘we want to do this for you.’”
Saturday, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is presenting a symposium to kick off “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream,”an exhibit planned for 2012 that’s based on the museum’s enlisting “five interdisciplinary teams of architects to envision a rethinking of housing and related infrastructures that could catalyze urban transformation, particularly in the country’s suburbs.” Let’s hope they’ll proceed with the understanding that while life may imitate art, it’s not necessarily meant to be displayed as such.