Book Review: Worlds Away

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes edited by Andrew Blauvelt, published by Walker Arts Center, 2008 (Amazon)

The exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, currently at the Walker Arts Center, aims to "demonstrate how the American suburb has played a catalytic role in the creation of new art." It further aims to challenge "preconceived ideas and expectations about suburbia (pro or con)," featuring "artwork by Gregory Crewdson, Dan Graham, Catherine Opie, and Edward Ruscha, among others, and architectural projects by firms such as Fashion.Architecture.Taste, The Center for Land Use Interpretation, MVRDV, and Estudio Teddy Cruz." The companion book collects the exhibited artwork and architectural projects alongside relevant texts, be they previously written or done especially for the exhibition and book.

The book is a well-designed object, with the writings printed on colored pages and the artwork and projects highlighted on glossy white pages. The design and ordering rewards jumping around within the pages (I followed references in editor Andrew Blauvelt's introduction to the various essays, a parallel of sorts between his take on the exhibition and the ideas presented within the book). Many of the essays (some excerpted from books) will be familiar to those with interests in suburbia, from John Archer's aesthetic exploration of self and Robert Bruegmann's controversial critique of sprawl's detractors to Ellen Dunham-Jones's embrace of New Urbanism and the all-too-common Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown interview. Essays that directly tackle the subjects of suburbia and art -- including Robert Bueka's look at the portrayal of suburbia in film and Holly Wlodarczyk's look at photography in the postwar American suburbs -- are the most interesting, as is Rachel Hooper and Jayme Yen's "Lexicon of Suburban Neologisms," an extension of sorts of Dolores Hayden's Field Guide to Sprawl.

Like the exhibition, the book does not try to make an exhaustive presentation of the subject. Instead it presents a variety of voices on the suburban realm, particularly embracing the contradictions and hidden dimensions that betray our expectations. The questioning of our preconceptions comes across strongest not in an essay like Bruegmann's (whose conservative approach questions cities as suitable environments for sustainable living, among other questionable tactics) but in the artwork that does not try to push a position. The fact that the artists presented here decide to use suburbia as inspiration for further inspection of the phenomenon (an open loop of sorts that influences both artist and viewer) is perhaps the strongest idea that the book and exhibition can convey: culture, in the snooty sense, is not limited to cities and their populations and institutions; it is found just where many people don't expect to find it. What this says about the future of the suburbs, the city, and the United States is, as can be expected from this survey, up for interpretation. The varied contributions and selections are a refreshing antidote to the more focused and polemical books devoted to the subject, giving the reader some perspective that many of these other books lack.