This week marked the beginning of a timely and potentially provocative lecture series, "The Future of the Design of Suburbs in America," sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program in collaboration with the Urban Design division of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission.
The Smithsonian began its discourse on the built environment with its "Livable Cities" series last fall and continues by examining "the promises and predictions of suburbia as the last chance for the American Dream."
Six Monday night lectures between Feb. 1 and March 14 feature guest speakers from across the United States discussing both design and social science issues. If nothing else, the program is diverse:
Robert A.M. Stern, a New York City architect, author and professor at Columbia University, opened the series Monday with "The History of American Suburbs -- Whatever Happened to Garden City?" Stern was the host of "Pride of Place: Building the American Dream," a 1986 eight-part PBS documentary in which Stern traced the evolution of suburbia. Stern has written that "the suburb is an attainable ... Arcadia in the form of a village, only a short ride from the city, where the American family can dwell in its individual house-temple." While extolling the architectural glories of planned suburbs of the past, he laments that "our newer suburbs seem cut off from their original meanings" and are "no longer an identifiably distinct form of urbanism."
"Suburb-City Relations: When Suburb Becomes City" is the subject of Monday's presentation by Sam Bass Warner Jr., professor of history at Boston University. Warner argues that we have not yet expanded our traditional definition of "urban" to include, or even properly label, the sprawling suburban metropolises, the new cities, created since World War II. On Feb. 22, architect Steve Izenour, a principal in the Philadelphia firm of Venturi, Rauch, Scott Brown, will consider "Suburban Design as American Vernacular Architecture: Learning from Levittown." Izenour undoubtedly will suggest that what we see is what we get because it's what we really want. Robert Davis, developer of the new and widely praised resort town of Seaside, Fla., will be part of a panel discussion on Feb. 29, "Real Estate Investment and Zoning Law: He Who Laughs Last...?" Davis will be joined by National Association of Home Builders' lawyer Gus Bauman and Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Norman Christeller. Susan Saegert, professor of environmental psychology at City University of New York, will talk about "Masculine Cities, Feminine Suburbs" on March 7. Her premise is that traditional cities are "identified primarily with masculine pursuits and imagery -- aggressive, energetic, dangerous, full of powerful forces, reckless of human life." She notes that, historically, city development policies "segregated stereotypically feminine activities and concerns related to domestic and private life from places of political and economic power. More and more," she asserts, "the official place for female activities, the home, has become isolated in suburban repose and homogeneous residential areas." Instead, Saegert suggests, we should be making "androgynous" cities.
Saegert will be accompanied by Miami architect Andres Duany who helped plan Seaside. That Florida resort town attempts to resurrect many familiar, American small town design traditions. Duany will reveal "How We Manage to Make It Look So Good." The series ends on March 14 when Jack Lessinger, professor emeritus of real estate and urban development at the University of Washington in Seattle, delivers keynote remarks for a concluding panel discussion. Lessinger's talk, "Suburbia is Dying -- Long Live Penturbia," will probably describe how the next round of human settlement (and with it new development opportunities) will be in outlying towns and counties, well away from cities. Other panelists include: Peter Blake, architect, author and professor at Catholic University, explaining "Suburbs: Why I Would Never Live There;" Adele Chatfield Taylor, director of the Design Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, on "Cutting Edge Issues in Suburbia;" Richard Tustian, Montgomery County Planning Director, considering "Suburbia: Heaven's Secular Substitute;" and Lee Ryder, contributing editor for Architecture magazine.
What makes this series especially intriguing is the implication that many design professionals and social scientists are out of touch with reality. Some are only recently beginning to recognize the sustained strength, both culturally and economically, of suburbanization and exurbanization trends. People in every region of the country continue to disconnect themselves almost totally from city life.
A recent article in The Washington Post reported on a survey conducted by Professional Builder magazine that confirms these trends. According to the survey, 41 percent of all prospective 1988 buyers of detached homes prefer "exurbs" to city or suburbs. Rural areas are the choice of 27 percent, the same percentage that prefers close-in suburbs. Less than 5 percent want to live in cities.
Can we question that the dream of Arcadia -- the home as castle in the country (or, at most, in a small town) -- still persists as the ideal for many Americans? Coupling this with economic forces -- much cheaper land in outlying areas, skyrocketing land and housing costs within existing cities and suburbs, increased employment opportunities away from cities -- reinforces the percentages.
At a time when some of us still romantically long for dense, vital inner-city environments based on our favorite European prototypes, complete with sidewalk cafes and public mass transportation, developers and consumers often are out building and buying just the opposite. Unless we run out of land, their utopia will prevail.
The challenge to speakers for the Smithsonian program points out that, despite the rapid growth of suburbs and population decline within cities, most published social science and design research is directed at cities and not suburbs, where 40 percent of the American population lives.
Where will it all end, and what will it all look like? The Smithsonian program is an attempt to answer these questions. As the speakers' challenge points out, "there has yet to emerge ... a well-tested theory of the ultimate suburban model: its image, economics, politics, growth, traffic and culture." Of course, builders, buyers and sellers of land will continue their timeless ritual, with or without a theory.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.