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Monday, April 07, 2008

Book Review: Two Books on Suburbia

Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000 by John Archer
Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness by Elizabeth Farrelly

In recent years critiques of suburbia have shifted from a focus on the much-known negative traits of the condition to an acceptance of their existence, good or bad, and asking: What can be done to improve them, to make them sustainable? These two books fall at both ends of the spectrum, be they fashionable or not. Australian writer Elizabeth Farrelly falls into the former category, outlining a sometimes harsh and always biting critique of the conditions that not so much create suburbia but make it bigger, more bloated and further from sustainability with each passing day. Professor of cultural studies and comparative literature John Archer rather is aligned with the latter in his academic history of suburbia as a locale for shaping and expressing of the individual self.
Certainly each book differs in its aim, style, audience, and speculations, but like other books on the suburban condition they share certain traits by sharing a particular subject. For example Farrelly, who constantly ricochets from theme to theme throughout her book, examines democratic freedom and its impact on architecture, comparing it to how architecture created under tyrannies is prized by so many citizens of democratic countries, "from Mykonos to Paris." Her all-too-brief look (like much of the themes covered in the rest of the book) at what could be used as a description of Archer's thesis gets to one of the many repercussions of the conditions that created and perpetuate suburbia, but it leaves the reader nodding but asking for more. Sure, Farrelly speculates on the future of the world post-peak oil, with rising waters, billions more people, and not enough food to go around (humorously, to a non-Australian, where the best case scenario exists in Australia) but it is severed too drastically from what came before that it is hard to swallow; it is too distant and lacks the in-between steps that really need speculation. Nevertheless her book is a thought-provoking and very entertaining romp through the varied aspects of the contemporary suburban condition, with the usual SUVs, McMansions, and other destructive pieces skewered with Farrelly's skilled and witty prose.
Archer, on the other hand, strays from the judgments that are Farrelly's life-blood, opting for an academic analysis of the thesis that suburbia rose from the 17th century to today, a la England and the United States as the locale for exploring identity of the capitalist bourgeoisie. This study of individualism expressed in architecture begins with John Locke's theories on shifting social relations and continues through the English villas and rus in urbes, before arriving in America and its rampant embrace of the suburban ideals, most especially in the mid-20th century when the dream was nationalized, to use Archer's phrase. The spanning of over 300 years and two countries means that by the time Archer arrives at the current day the lineage he traces seems so remote. But the consistent emphasis on identity holds the book together, even though the writing doesn't hold one's attention as rapt as Farrelly's. Like her, Archer offers a future scenario, though advice would be a more appropriate word. While he sets his aim closer to the present than Farrelly, Archer's embrace of the hybrid as a solution for suburbia's future course also leaves one longing for more. His thorough and deep history becomes a future that is little more than surface, the applied decoration that makes on house different from another. It seems that the problems of suburbia (energy consumption, wasteful land use, the destruction of natural areas, etc.) are much greater than the difference between you and me, but here we have another overlap between the two books: Archer and Farrelly see architectural expression as important elements in suburbia's future, the former with the location of the individual in a changing suburban landscape and the latter with the shared beauty that lies not just on the surface but deep down within all of us.

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