Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes at the Carnegie Museum of Art

More Americans now live in suburbs than in rural and urban areas combined. Despite this staggering statistic, the suburbs have been underexamined until recently, and even defining suburbia itself has proven to be a surprisingly difficult challenge. Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, on view in Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center from October 4, 2008 to January 18, 2009, is the first major museum exhibition to look at suburbia and its physical and social complexities. The exhibition features more than 100 architectural drawings and models, installations, photographs, paintings, works on paper, sculptures, and videos, created in response to contemporary suburbia by 33 artists and architects. Worlds Away is co-organized by Tracy Myers, Carnegie Museum of Art curator of architecture, and Andrew Blauvelt, design director and curator at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

The suburban landscape over the last half-century has evolved from the mythical white, middle-class utopia of nuclear families to a place that embraces diverse communities of new immigrants, ethnic minorities, and households without children. Where the suburb was once the residential tract of homes located at the end of the street car line or the “bedroom community” of sitcom notoriety, it has been dynamically transformed to include self-contained city-like “technoburbs” of office parks and high-tech research campuses and “boomburbs,” where explosive growth creates a population size rivaling that of adjacent cities.

“Our goal is to demonstrate how the American suburb has catalyzed the creation of new art and suggested new ways of thinking about suburbia’s physical form,” says Myers. “The fact that an architect or artist is paying attention to suburbia might cause a visitor to stop and think, ‘Maybe I need to consider my own situation, my own neighborhood, my own environment.'”

“This exhibition is not intended as a primer on the latest statistics about suburbia or a history of it,” says Blauvelt. “Rather, it features the work of artists and architects who, without that burden, have imaginatively considered the subject: drawing inspiration from, provoking discussion about, and casting either an appreciative or critical eye on an environment that, for better or worse, constitutes an ever-larger portion of our world.”

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes is organized around three main themes: residential areas and homes; retail, with a focus on the strip mall, shopping mall, and “big box” stores; and roadways and car culture.

The Residential Tract Home
Comprising the largest part of the exhibition, the works in this section dig beneath the seemingly homogenous surface of suburbia to reveal its unexpected richness and changing dynamics. Architects estudio teddy cruz’s projects respond to the reciprocal effects of US suburbanization and Latin American immigration on the suburbs of San Diego and Tijuana. Residential landscape photography, a genre of its own since the 1960s, is analyzed by artists including Dan Graham, whose Homes for America series depicts the repetition of the typical suburban neighborhood. Photographs from The Valley, a series by Larry Sultan, challenge the idea of picture-perfect suburbia and delve into the not-so-perfect lifestyle of the adult entertainment industry, which uses suburban homes as film sets. Floto+Warner react to more lighthearted aspects of the suburban home with their “redesign” of inflatable holiday lawn adornments.

The Strip Mall, Shopping Mall, and Big Box
As “bedroom communities,” the suburbs were places were people slept; they traveled to the city for work or recreation. When these communities stretched farther from the urban core, sites to work, shop, and play were cultivated closer to home for the convenience of suburban residents. Relaxed zoning codes encouraged the development of retail outlets along suburban thoroughfares and heavily traveled roadways. The strip mall emerged, and by the late 1950s, fueled by financial incentives and changes to tax codes, fully enclosed and climate-controlled shopping malls were developed. Today, the megamall and big box storessingle stores that have enormous footprints and stock large volumes of different productsare common sights in suburbia.

With tremendous growth came new challenges, including a proliferation of dead or dying malls and big box stores. Worlds Away artist Julie Christensen has photographically documented the adaptive reuse of former big box stores to alternative businesses. The recent interest in big box stores in urban locations has created an opportunity to rethink the large footprint, horizontal orientation, and parking schemes of such venues for both urban and suburban sites. LTL Architects creatively explore the potential for vertical expansion in their speculative project New Suburbanism, proposing construction of residential units atop a big box store and introducing into the suburban milieu a historically urban mix of retail and residential.

Roadways and Car Culture
Without expansive transportation networks, suburbia would not be possible. Beginning in the 19th century with the extension of railway and streetcar lines and continuing with the creation of the federal interstate highway system in the 20th century, suburbia grew farther away from the urban core. These networks have defined the pattern of suburban growth, with developmentwhether housing, shopping, or office parksevolving in relation to them. Six photographs from Edward Ruscha’s Parking Lot series document the parking lot in the suburban landscape. Artist Andrew Bush uses roadways as his “vehicle” for capturing candid portraits of suburban drivers. Autotechnogeoglyphics: Vehicular Test Tracks in America, photographs by the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), illustrates very clearly the importance of car culture and its impact on the American landscape.

A 336-page fully illustrated, color catalogue accompanies the exhibition. Edited by exhibition co-curator Andrew Blauvelt, it contains interviews, new essays, and reprints of influential writings by John Archer, David Brooks, Beatriz Colomina, Malcolm Gladwell, and others. The catalogue is available for $34.95 at the Carnegie Museum of Art store.