The pleasures of suburbia
TOMATOES AND BEANS climbing bamboo frames. Fresh herbs. Daffodils, daisies, succulents, lilies. The toddler careering through the garden, giggling. Rosellas, cockatoos, magpies. An elderly neighbour watering plants in her swimsuit. The beach close by. A good, almost-affordable house with space for all that accumulated stuff. There are pleasures to be found in suburbia.
When architects collectively discuss the suburbs, talk often quickly descends into “us” – sophisticated, articulate, cultured, design-aware denizens of the inner urban environment – and “them” – the conservative, conventional masses of suburbia, living lives innocent of design. These cliches seems to arise inevitably, despite individual participants having much more sophisticated understandings of the complexity of city and suburbs, and despite the fact that many Australian architects have more personal experience of life in the suburbs than is often acknowledged.
Such generalizations are dangerous. They draw an artificially sharp line between architecture and suburbia. They perpetuate the idea that the profession has given up on the suburbs, and they allow no way forward for a re-engagement. They suggest that those who live in suburbia have nothing to contribute to debate about urbanized environments, and that architects are increasingly irrelevant to the concerns of the majority of the population. To undo such obstructive oppositions we need to approach the “problem” of the suburbs from a number of directions – pragmatic, theoretical and personal.
So, although I usually dislike “confessional” editorials, here comes the personal. Two years ago, my partner and I bought a house in suburban Melbourne. This surprised us.We both grew up in suburban New Zealand but had lived our adult lives in the inner city. He is an academic, I am an editor.We each have undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications in architecture.We often wear black.We have a large book collection, eat out too much and have travelled a bit.We don’t imagine that we fit the profile of the typical suburban house owner. But, then, perhaps we do.We don’t have family money, and hadn’t bought property when prices were low, so when we finally decided to buy we found we couldn’t afford even the meanest, most dilapidated hovel in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. And we wanted a garden. And now we have a daughter. So, like many other home buyers, a house in the suburbs was the only semi-affordable option.We found a wonderful sixties house. Carefully designed, with a flat roof, loose planning and generous glazing, it is a house from an earlier model of the suburban dream – modernism gone comfy in the affluence of the sixties. It suits the way we live in a manner that a cramped single-fronted terrace would not have. And we have found that our neighbours are in fact a much more diverse group than earlier neighbours in the “cosmopolitan” inner city. I wonder how many others find themselves in similar situations – going to the suburbs as a way of affording architecture and a garden, and finding that there also is something interesting in the everydayness of suburbia.
This is not to suggest that the problems of sprawl and congestion, and the poor quality of much recent suburban development don’t matter. Of course they do. But architecture also needs to acknowledge that many people live in suburbia for quite straightforward reasons. This means that there is a need to come up with other housing models which afford the pleasures of suburbia, but which are more sustainable. Similarly, we also need to recognize that the suburbs themselves are not a monolithic singular thing, and that housing is not the only issue. The idea that architecture has abandoned the suburbs is also a bit of a myth. There are many architects working away quietly in suburban environments, and many of the projects that grace the pages of this and other magazines are in fact in suburban locations, although this is often not that apparent. And we should not forget earlier explorations of suburbia by Edmond and Corrigan and others.
This issue of Architecture Australia collects together a range of material that differently addresses the conditions of suburbia. Kelvin Walsh outlines theoretical frameworks that help us to understand the contemporary postmetropolis and the implications of the increasing blurring between city and suburbs. Richard Glover gives us a new view of the McMansion phenomena, and the projects under review demonstrate inventive responses to various suburban contexts. These indicate the opportunities that are afforded as architects work both to ameliorate the problems of suburbia and to explore its potential.