Angela Strassheim, Untitled (McDonald’s), 2004, Chromogenic print, 40 x 50", Courtesy the artist and Marvelli Gallery, New York.

Landscapes in a New and Barely-Imagined Suburban World

Sarah McKenzie, Site, 2007, oil on canvas 48 x 72", Courtesy the artist and Robischon Gallery, Denver.

Chris Ballantyne, Untitled (Additions), 2004, Acrylic on birch panel, 36 x 48", Collection Anthony Terrana, Wellesley, Massachusetts, Courtesy Peres Project, Los Angeles Berlin.

Angela Strassheim, Untitled (Elsa), 2003, C-print Edition of 8, 30 x 40”, Courtesy Marvelli Gallery, New York.

Michael Vahrenwald, Straw Hill, Wal-Mart, Bloomsburg, PA, 2005, c-print 48 x 60", Courtesy the artist,

Laura E. Migliorino, Egret Street, 2006, ink-jet on canvas, 22 x 22", Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Justin Smith Purchase Fund, 2007.

floto + warner, (Snowman), 2004, Inflatable sculpture, dimensions variable, Courtesy floto + warner, New York.

 

Walker Art Center
1750 Hennepin Ave.
Minneapolis
612-375-7600
Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes
February 16-August 17, 2008

The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. On the one hand, the suburbs are portrayed as a middle-class domestic utopia and on the other as a dystopic world of homogeneity and conformity. Both of these stereotypes belie a more realistic understanding of contemporary suburbia and its dynamic transformations, and how these representations and realities shape our society, influence our culture, and impact our lives. Challenging preconceived ideas and expectations about suburbia (either pro or con), Worlds Away seeks to impart a better understanding of how those ideas were formed and how they are challenged by contemporary realities.

Worlds Away features more than 75 works — paintings, photographs, prints, architectural models, sculptures, and videos — addressing commonly held assumptions about the origins, demographic composition, persistence, and sustainability of the suburban landscape. Some 30 artists and architects draw inspiration from, provoke discussion about, or cast either an appreciative or critical eye on today’s suburbs. The exhibition co-curators are Andrew Blauvelt, Walker design director and curator, and Tracy Myers, curator of architecture at Carnegie’s Heinz Architectural Center.

By 2000 more Americans lived in suburbs than in central cities and rural areas combined. As Americans have drifted ever farther from the urban core that historically was the site of the country’s economic, social, and cultural dynamism and evolution, the nation’s landscape, economy, and demography have been radically altered. Despite its sheer ubiquity and influence, the American suburb remains a critically under-examined force in shaping American cultural life.

Suburbs have been in a state of perpetual change: from early streetcar suburbs and postwar, sitcom-style “bedroom communities” to the more self-contained citylike suburbs of the late 20th century, such as the postindustrial “technoburb” with its new office parks and high-tech research campuses or “boomburbs,” whose explosive growth rivals the size of adjacent cities. As the suburban landscape evolved in the last century, its demographic composition has also changed. The mid-20th-century image of largely white, middle-class, two-parent families as the predominant household of suburbia has been transformed as contemporary statistics reveal that an increasing number of ethnic minorities and new immigrants make their homes in the suburbs and that households without children now comprise a plurality of suburbia.

The exhibition is arranged in three sections: the residential tract home; the retail zone, comprised of the strip mall, shopping center, and big box store; and the infrastructure for automobiles and the culture it has engendered. Several design firms are producing new works for the exhibition. Estudio Teddy Cruz explores the reciprocal influence of American suburbanization and Latin American immigration on suburban San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico; FAT (Fashion.Architecture.Taste) presents its work on a multiethnic suburban park in the Netherlands; Lateral Architecture explores the spaces between and around big box power centers, the successor to suburbia’s regional mall; Interboro examines life at a so-called “dead mall” in New York; Minneapolis-based Coen+Partners revises a traditional cul-de-sac development; the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) documents the major automotive test tracks located in various urban peripheries of the United States; and Jeffrey Inaba of INABA/C-Lab recasts the humble suburban trash container and the society of consumption and waste it represents.

Today’s suburban family can no longer be prescribed with the precision of nuclear-family stereotypes. Not only has the incidence of single head of households increased, but also the composition of residents now embodies multigenerational families living under one roof, multifamily housing, gay and lesbian households and families, and so-called “empty-nesters” and retirees without families. In fact, by 2000 the largest household type in suburbia was non-families (29 percent) — young singles and elderly persons living alone — followed closely by conventional married couples with children. In popular culture, the single-family detached home epitomizes the suburban ideal of the nuclear family and embodies the promise of the American dream.

Architectural works for this section of the exhibition will focus on emergent forms of residential suburban settlement with an eye toward redefining the detached single-family house in terms more closely aligned with the new demographics of suburbia. The ethnic diversity of contemporary suburbia is captured in the photographic montages of people and places by Minneapolis-based photographer Laura Migliorino. Larry Sultan’s series The Valley depicts the adult entertainment industry based in southern California, whose suburban-home film sets lift the veil on bucolic suburban life.

The strip mall is a byproduct of zoning codes that encourage businesses to cluster along busy thoroughfares and an evolution of small town main streets and business districts. Fostered by favorable changes to tax codes and other financial incentives, shopping malls began accelerating in the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of fully enclosed climate-controlled environments and carefully planned circulation routes. The widespread introduction of “big box” stores soon followed. In the 1990s a new category, the mega mall — epitomized by the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota — was an inevitable extension of the growing scale of retail business.

Contemporary suburban retail has experienced both tremendous growth and new challenges. A major issue is the proliferation of abandoned and dying malls. “Greyfield Regional Mall Study,” a 2001 report, concluded that 7 percent of the regional malls in the United States were abandoned sites (“greyfields”) and another 12 per cent were in decline, approaching closure. The same situation now faces communities with defunct big box stores. The adaptive reuse of such derelict sites has become an important ameliorative strategy. Artist Julia Christensen has been documenting the conversion of former big box stores to alternative uses, ranging from flea markets to churches to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. Artist Stefanie Nagorka adopts the big box store, in this case Home Depot, as both studio and gallery by creating sculptures in the store aisles from parts found on its warehouse shelves. The integration and coexistence of both residential and retail space can be seen in such works as LTL Architects’ New Suburbanism (2000/2004), a speculative work that investigates the possibility of a more vertical and integrated suburban space by combining a big box store with living and recreational spaces above. These more recent projects will be combined with some retail strategies of the past, such as the work of the architectural group SITE (Sculpture in the Environment), which in the 1970s and 1980s realized a series of surrealistic facades for the now-defunct retailer Best Showrooms, a predecessor to the experiential retail environments of today such as Niketown.

The advent of suburbia was dependent on the expansion of transportation networks. In the 19th century, the extension of railway and streetcar lines fueled growth outside the urban core. The modern suburb’s development has been intimately connected to the expansion of the federal interstate system and the introduction of highways in and around major cities. It is impossible to conceive of suburbia without this network of transportation systems and the automobile culture it serves and encourages. The location of suburban development has always been in close proximity to transportation networks, whether housing developments, office parks, or shopping centers. Not only has transportation defined the patterns of growth, but it has also contributed to some of the most vexing problems confronting suburbia, including traffic congestion and increased commuting times not to mention the ecological impact of roadway construction and the consumption of fossil fuels.

Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Architects, New Suburbanism, 2000/2004, Digital rendering, Courtesy LTL Architects, New York.

Benjamin Edwards, Immersion, 2004, Acrylic, texture media and landscaping foam on canvas, 75 x 125", Collection Peter and Annie Remes, Wayzata, Minnesota, Courtesy Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York.