As suburbia becomes a global phenomenon, it's urgent to reconsider its profound limitations and speculative possibilities.
Imagine a city, a city that embodies our historical moment. A set of well-worn images, reproduced in popular media and contemporary art, likely informs this mental picture. Fantastic visions rise in Dubai, Shanghai, and Asia's other megacities—strange menageries of skyscrapers and clusters of man-made islands, suicide nets on the factories and dust masks on the smog-choked pedestrians. In Detroit and other shrinking cities, abandoned temples of industry loom over the urban prairie. In elite legacy cities like San Francisco and New York, hyper-gentrification and foreign real-estate speculation strangle middle-class aspirations. This mosaic of twenty-first century urban clichés provides a fragmentary view of the world—but a ubiquitous one. It suggests a narrative of widespread change, signaling the end of the Americanized world as we've known it and the rise of a brave new global regime in its wake.
This narrative draws its potency from an old tradition in Western thought, one that employs images of cities as symbols of profound social disruption. In the modern era, this tradition extends from Engels's Manchester to Dickens's London to Benjamin's Paris and beyond, with writers and thinkers grounding claims about a changing world in careful observations of a cityscape that seems to most starkly embody them. We have inherited this impulse, if not the rigor evident in the tradition's most influential examples. A city's paradigmatic weight today may stem primarily from the intensity of cultural responses it provokes. Voyeuristic, brooding images of declining Detroit are so widespread they've earned the neologism "ruin porn." Gentrifying Brooklyn and the hipster fait accompli of Portland anchor a whole genre of television shows, with adrift millennials seeking fulfillment through consumer lifestyles. BuzzFeed lists enumerating the trashy excesses of Abu Dhabi's nouveaux-riches compete with headlines about the human rights violations at the construction sites where elite Western cultural institutions like the Louvre and the Guggenheim will soon open prestigious Gulf franchises.
I am drawn to a blind spot in this global panorama of decline, gentrification, and foreign spectacle. Consider Phoenix, the reductio ad absurdum of the suburban city. The capital of Arizona holds the center of the state's sprawling Valley of the Sun, a galaxy of suburbs that is home to some 4.5 million people, itself just the northern terminus of the Arizona Sun Corridor, a vast megalopolitan agglomeration that also subsumes Tucson and the border cities of Nogales and Agua Prieta. Phoenix, in this extended sense, epitomizes the national exurban landscape—which is flourishing in vast rings around every American city, new and old, and growing despite its scant cultural clout. Indeed, as the emerging consumer classes in India and China begin to follow a suburban course of urban development, it seems Phoenix may offer a glimpse of future urban development around the globe.
From the Texas Triangle to the Tijuana-San Diego borderplex, there is a particular legibility to these patterns in the cities of the American West. This is what we might call America's "other West": all malls and cul-de-sacs rather than mesas and ghost towns, growing explosively in America's most extreme environments. It is the urban negative space framing the celebrated landscape of the postcard Southwest, where the newness of the built environment leaves the cityscapes feeling unmoored, like islands of fresh suburban contemporaneity floating on a sea of regional myth.
This urbanized—or, more accurately, suburbanized—West represents both an ascendant paradigm and an emerging crisis. For decades, the nation's embattled middle class has been retrenching in these Sunbelt meccas, though the severity of the subprime crisis in many of their growth machine economies has shown just how precarious things are even in "affordable" cities. Sprawling into delicate ecosystems, given over almost completely to car culture and strained by resource overuse, these places are built around the cardinal sins of the sustainability movement. As capitals of "gap states," with extreme racial disparities between the oldest generations (80 percent Anglo in Arizona) and youngest (40 percent), cities like Phoenix are home to both the Trump voter bloc and key members of the "Obama coalition." They have become the loci of intense political struggles between entrenched conservative interests and new, diverse groups of residents.1 Phoenix and its sister cities represent a North American particularization of urgent planetary crises: migration, sustainability, and rapid urbanization.
Phoenix is quintessentially suburban, and the American suburbs have long been subject to two intertwined critiques. One, what we might call the social critique, is technocratic—coming mostly from academics, planners, designers, and other specialists. It bloomed in the 1980s and '90s in the hands of historians of the suburbs like Kenneth T. Jackson and Dolores Hayden, who explored the environmental unsustainability of resource-intensive sprawl, challenged the mistaken assumption that suburban ubiquity signals consumer preference rather than systemic support of development interests, and enumerated the social costs of the public policies that subsidized freeways and built subdivisions on the backs—and through the exclusion—of urban communities of color.
This critique emphasizes the untenable nature of perpetual suburbanization. The most strident critics prophesize inevitable collapse. "When the suburban economic equation fails in America," writes James Howard Kunstler in his 1993 polemic The Geography of Nowhere, "the physical arrangement of life will fail with it, and many Americans will be stuck in places that no longer function."2 In rhetoric recalling that of the prepper movement, he holds up small, neglected mill communities as readymade alternatives that "will not have to be retrofitted to function as coherent towns in the future." Less reactionary versions of this critique adhere to the same basic narrative. Jackson's classic 1985 study of suburban development Crabgrass Frontier, architect Andres Duany's 2000 "New Urbanist" manifesto Suburban Nation, Hayden's seminal 2004 A Field Guide to Sprawl, and journalist Leigh Gallagher's 2013 The End of the Suburbs (published as America's rising suburbanization hit its first-ever plateau and evidence emerged of the millennial rejection of car culture) all predict, call for, or chart the failure of suburbanization and an attendant turn toward other, classically walkable forms of urbanism. Such models are gaining some ground, primarily in coastal American metropolitan areas, but they have hardly prevailed. As the demographer Joel Kotkin points out, the trumpeted "triumph of the city" is predominantly an elite phenomenon and may prove a challenge to sustain as white urban millennials face the financial calculus of raising children.3
To borrow a phrase from Hayden, the social critique emphasizes "the political and economic consequences of sprawl" over "the aesthetic failures of sprawl as a product," which have long been a target of a second strand of anti-suburban thought.4 Concerned more with the individual experience of the suburbs than with their systemic effects, this critique has a scholarly variant (often tangled up in the social critique) but also a more prevalent, less reliable pop-cultural expression: the image of white-bread suburbia. A caricature of white people and white picket fences, freeways and malls, homogeneity and home values, this image derides both the flat aesthetics of suburbia's built environment and the cultural patterns of conformity and isolation that have become synonymous with it.
Midcentury sociological studies of paradigmatic suburbs, such as Herbert Gans's participant-observation masterwork The Levittowners (1955), attempted to complicate this common association but were drowned out by more insistent works. In William Whyte's 1956 The Organization Man, urbanist Lewis Mumford's 1961 The City in History, and feminist Betty Friedan's 1963 The Feminine Mystique, public intellectuals produced influential images of a monotonous, stifling suburbia and its repressive sociality. Mass media and advertising, oriented toward emerging suburban consumer markets, inflated the perceived importance of these communities in lasting ways while also producing a distorted public image of their inhabitants—coldly aspirational, performing satisfaction while showcasing consumer goods. Pop cultural representations have echoed these patterns ever since, from Malvina Reynold's 1962 song "Little Boxes" to Peter Weir's 1998 film The Truman Show and beyond.
This critique is loaded with biases that reflect a lingering Romantic sensibility. The gridded, functional suburbs—home to gridded, functional conformists—represent an absurd reshaping of lived space according to the industrial capitalist logic that historic Romanticism reacted against. The manicured, repressive suburb represents the antithesis of wild Romantic desire, which today finds satisfaction not only in the conventional image of nature but also the dynamic, complex, sublime city.
Scholars such as James Chandler, Kevin Gilmartin, and Larry H. Peer have begun to trace Romanticism's urban aspects—showing how the movement's preoccupation with nature spoke to an urbanizing society's divorce from the land, and how its obsession with individual freedom was inconceivable without the novel division of labor that organized metropolitan life.5 Romanticism was a vision of a world in crisis rendered through the lens of the city, and contemporary ideas about both the city and crisis carry the imprint of the worldview that intertwined them so tightly. Shelley's "Ozymandias" prepares us for the industrial ruins of the struggling Midwest; glass-and-steel transmutations of Delacroix's orientalism rise out of the desert; the weary denizens of Blake's industrial "London" labor in iPad assembly plants. The prevalence of this old vocabulary, struggling to signify the new, reminds us that while Detroit or Dubai's outsize place in the public imagination testifies to the extraordinary urgency of crisis on the ground, it speaks just as much to the symbolic potency of a crisis rendered in the language of Romanticism.
If the social critique of suburbia cedes the future of the Sunbelt to the developers building it, the second, Romantic aesthetic critique encourages those invested in urban crises to ignore these landscapes in the first place. It is crucial to challenge these impulses to turn away from the suburbs, away from Phoenix. With a global suburban future coming, it is essential to construct a critical cultural imagination that can inhabit that future—not just better places built on its elite margins.
The Deadpan Suburb
The design world has been taking up this challenge in suburbs that no longer behave like suburbia. These are places like Ferguson, Missouri, or the Muslim enclave of Dearborn, Michigan, where the seemingly unassailable veneer of new real estate has given way to more complicated realities: to the accelerated dilapidation of cheap construction, to immigrants turning McMansions into apartment buildings and empty big box stores into places of worship. As the architect Ellen Dunham-Jones has said, "the big design and development project of the next fifty years is going to be retrofitting suburbia" and more and more designers have been attracted to the challenge.6
It may be equally important, however, to confront the cultural blind spot within which the suburbs continue to exist. There has been no commensurate "suburban turn" in the art world, but there have been influential projects that offer alternative strategies for engaging suburbia. Ed Ruscha's seminal photo books depicting Los Angeles architecture exemplify a deadpan aesthetic, projecting a nonjudgmental attitude toward the low-rise city. His 1966 Every Building on the Sunset Strip—the title offering a famously literal description of the book's contents—is a landmark in this tradition. It comes on the heels of the similar studies Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1963) and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965).
Ruscha's Pop sensibility has parallels in urban fields. His imagery directly inspired Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour's landmark Learning from Las Vegas (1972), a research report about architectural kitsch in its most exaggerated instance—the Vegas Strip. "We came to the automobile-oriented commercial architecture of urban sprawl as our source for a civic and residential architecture of meaning, viable now," the team wrote, "as the turn-of-the-century industrial vocabulary was viable for a Modern architecture of space and industrial technology 40 years ago."7 In the early 1970s, as the modernist utopian dream seemed to implode alongside the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis, there was an outpouring of similar discussions, all written from positions of sympathetic ambivalence. Brian O'Doherty's 1972 account of driving a "Highway to Las Vegas," published in this magazine, gave serious critical attention to the often maligned city.8 Perhaps the most substantial work in this vein is Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, a book-length study that looked closely at the city's maligned sprawl in order to differentiate distinctive urban ecosystems within it. "I share neither the optimism of those who see Los Angeles as the prototype of all future cities," he wrote, "nor the pessimism of those who see it as the harbinger of universal urban doom."9 Instead, he sought to make careful observations about urban features, which could be read as symptoms of world-historical forces—social, economic, and cultural.
This is precisely the project set forward by Los Angeles's Center for Land Use Interpretation, an organization of artists, researchers, and writers that produces reports and exhibitions seeking to illuminate "the nature and extent of human interaction with the surface of the earth."10 The group is perhaps best known for its research excursions into "the internal fringes of America"—military bases, kitsch tourist stops, abandoned towns, and mines, all documented in a flat, head-on photographic style. They often depict unassuming minutiae like entrance signage, guard kiosks, and fences—zooming in on details without asserting any grand import.
Many of their projects engage suburban sites—not because they are suburban, but as examples of wider land-use patterns. Their 2007 exhibition "Pavement Paradise: American Parking Space," held at the CLUI's venue in Culver City, featured more than a hundred photographs of different parking spots from across the country. The taxonomy emphasized the flip side of automotive mobility: the need for vast amounts of paved surface for static cars. The group's 2009 initiative "Urban Crude: The Oil Fields of the Los Angeles Basin" homed in on the under-recognized fact that one of the country's largest urban centers sits on significant crude reserves tapped by wells and pump jacks working away amid suburban tract housing. The project included a photographic study of a unique building typology: oil derricks in and around the city's upscale west side, disguised as bland, windowless, but strangely tall commercial buildings. CLUI brings attention to obscure phenomena with important social and environmental implications, but the tone of their projects remains resolutely neutral—they're not explicitly fighting a war on sprawl, and instead are quite content to dwell in it and drill down on the odd realities hidden there, revealing the contingency and potential malleability of otherwise naturalized quotidian environments.
Where CLUI's work is all about display and analysis, the artist Mary Ellen Carroll's suburban intervention prototype 180 (2011–) subtly alters a neighborhood's built texture. On the surface, it is an elegantly simple suburban extension of Land art. Carroll separated an aging ranch-style property in a first-ring Houston subdivision from its foundation and rotated the structure 180 degrees, inverting the pattern of adjacent lots: the building is set far back from the street, with the old front door opening toward the fenced perimeter of a public park backed up against the neighborhood.
In this modification of an archetypal example of suburban architecture, Carroll's work recalls that of Dan Graham. Another chronicler of suburban housing types of the 1960s, Graham's comparison of Minimalist art with tract homes in the photo-essay Homes for America (1966–67) is a canonical work of Conceptualism. In a lesser-known series of the 1970s, "Alteration of a Suburban House," Graham created models of ranch-style houses whose front facades have been replaced with glass curtain walls—both transparent and mirrored—an architectural feature more typical of corporate office buildings than domestic homes. Though Graham envisioned only a slight modification to each home, the change brought a kind of radical transparency to suburban living—inviting the Joneses to look in, all the time.
Carroll's rotated house is concerned less with inhabitants' behavior than with the public policy conditioning it. Interested in policy's capacity to shape everyday life, Carroll found her way to Houston, a city with one of the weakest planning regimes in the country, and her primary material is arguably Houston's zoning laws (or, more accurately, its complete and unusual lack of them) rather than the building itself.
The project does not attempt to produce overt transformations or contrasts in the neighborhood. Rather, it enacts the maximum (but notably very subtle) variation allowed by private covenants—the free market's answer to municipal zoning. These neighborhood-by-neighborhood agreements, many implemented by private developers, have produced restrictions on private property use just as constraining as any governmental zoning might have. Carroll's project reveals this system even as the physical work flirts with invisibility, a deadpan suburban artwork that does not depict its surroundings but fades into them.
Another strain of suburban aesthetics forgoes detached observation, instead deploying Romantic techniques to transform the way suburbs are seen. One night in 1951, while driving on the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike, Tony Smith famously had an epiphany that would lead him to develop his Minimalist aesthetic. As he later recounted, he found himself entranced by the limitless space around him, perceiving a "reality that had not had any expression in art."11
Robert Smithson, a New Jersey native like Smith and Graham, produced a strange and influential paean to his home state. In a famous 1967 essay, detailing a walk through suburban Passaic, his language turns hallucinatory and fantastic: at a construction site he imagines "ruins in reverse" and idle machines that resemble "mechanical dinosaurs stripped of their skin." Photos Smithson took on this journey share the blunt snapshot aesthetic typical of Ruscha's books, but Smithson imbued his images with a mythical stature: these were not storm drains and sandboxes, but sites of visionary wonder.12 Taking up a parallel approach more recently, Catherine Opie has likened her own mid-1990s series of grainy black-and-white photographs of California freeway interchanges devoid of cars to nineteenth-century depictions of pharaonic monuments. "The Freeways are the architecture that will be left behind like the pyramids in Egypt," she said in an interview with curators at New York's Guggenheim Museum.13 Evoking historical and geologic time, Smithson's and Opie's works emerge from the industrial and infrastructural edges of the suburbs, but can also feel oriented away from them, toward the sublime.
Other artists trade temporal distance for spatial distance. There is a preponderance of aerial photography of suburban sprawl—the most formally sophisticated of which is by Edward Burtynsky, Michael Light, and Alex MacLean. Their compositions figure suburban subdivisions radiating out into desert terrain or perched precariously on foothills. The panoramic view can obfuscate everyday experience in the manufactured landscape, with signs of inhabitation indistinct so far below. However, the shift in scale reveals patterns of land use and, further, lets the striking effects of Western landscape photography become entangled in the mathematical sublimity of cul-de-sacs stretching to the horizon. Burtynsky, in other photographs taken at ground level, has even applied the same compositional techniques that Ansel Adams used to convey the grandeur of national parks to elevate views of the gas stations and fast food restaurants clustered around highway off-ramps.
More recently, the foreclosure crisis has shaded suburban imagery. Amie Siegel's video Black Moon (2010) was shot in two nearly identical, nearly completed developments in California and Florida that had been abandoned after the housing bubble burst in 2008. The work follows a fictional band of armed female mercenaries who silently roam through the ruins of a past society, stalking empty streets and sleeping in empty swimming pools.
In all of these works, the ostensibly banal becomes monumental, strange, overwhelming. Operating at suburbia's fringes, zooming out from its signature spaces or misusing them, these images foreground suburbia but also recenter it and, by transforming it, partially retreat from it. They remind us, however, that suburbs have Romantic valences, that they can look very different when the prosaic and the fantastic are held in tension.
Phoenix has not enjoyed the enduring affection of cataclysmic fantasists the way Los Angeles and New York have, but it is becoming a focal point for narratives of collapse. Built atop a thousand miles of abandoned canals constructed by the Hohokam civilization, which ended in the fourteenth century in the face of resource scarcity, Phoenix has always had a lot to offer in the way of dusty apocalypse. In Cadillac Desert, his 1986 study of the history of water use in the Western US, historian Marc Reisner describes the city in terms that echo Smithson's Passaic narrative, calling Phoenix's largest modern canal—a waterway that sustains millions—"a man-made river flowing uphill" that would become a "ruin before it's time" on a "Sumerian scale."14 Last year saw the release of Paolo Bacigalupi's best seller The Water Knife, a thriller in the cli-fi genre-science fiction centered on climate change. The narrative moves between the city-states of Las Vegas and Phoenix in a near future where "Big Daddy Drought" has sparked a Colorado River water war.
These retooled Western boomtown-to-ghost-town narratives haunt the city from the margins, projected on it mostly by outsiders. Locally, a much louder strain of futurism dominates: faced with a mortgage crisis that hamstrung the city's primary industry and the mounting actuality of water scarcity so acute it can't be denied, Phoenix boosters have translated the native enthusiasm for unfettered growth into a program of techno-utopianism. In this narrative, the city's precarity—imagined so vividly by scholars and cli-fi authors alike—will provide a catalyst for new innovations. New infrastructure and technologies will sweep in just before the breaking point, enabling Phoenix's growth to continue unabated—"disruption" in the service of the status quo.
The humblest manifestation of this impulse may be the solar panels and xeriscaping blanketing Scottsdale and other affluent sections of the metroplex—sustainable ornamentation wrapping twentieth-century tract housing in twenty-first-century skins without challenging the formula of the single-family detached home. More ambitious plans have also been articulated. In 2009, Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon announced a seventeen-point plan to make the municipality the "greenest in the nation"—an astounding claim for a city whose "green" spaces (i.e., manicured lawns) are prime symbols of its unsustainability.15 Gordon projected an image of a carbon-neutral solar city devised by a bumper crop of local sustainability think tanks and research initiatives. It is a speculative vision no less fantastic or thought-provoking than a work of science fiction, further proof that, just below its surface, Phoenix harbors potent futurist potential. Apocalyptic and utopian, this potential is nascent, but when the light catches it, the city can seem to hover just a bit off the ground, hinting at the possibility of richer suburban futures.
The Global Suburb
Thousands of miles from Phoenix and the postwar housing typologies that dominate American thinking about the suburbs, the artist Sophia Al-Maria has assembled a body of work around suburbia's hallmark public space: the mall. To frame her work this way might conjure images of '80s LA, but Al-Maria, who grew up shuttling between Qatar and Tacoma, Washington, draws her material from the Arabian Gulf's urban complexes, especially Doha. The consumption is more conspicuous there than any San Fernando Valley mall rat could imagine. Her video installation Black Friday (2016), shown at New York's Whitney Museum, offers a hallucinatory depiction of an opulent, marble-clad shopping center. Much of the work, which is projected on a tall vertical screen, was shot by a drone flying through the mall's huge corridors. Elements of classic American suburbia have been abstracted, shipped abroad, and amplified. Al-Maria's work reveals an international langue of suburban consumer society rendered in Gulf parole.
The suburban has been migrating. In the US, if geographic suburbs often don't behave like they're supposed to, we increasingly see the suburbia caricature embodied in affluent country enclaves and urban developments. The writer Sarah Schulman has argued, in The Gentrification of the Mind (2012), that gentrification represents the transplantation of the classically suburban social cocktail ("gender conformity, compulsory heterosexuality, racial segregation, and homogenous cultural experience") into new spatial arrangements ("big buildings, attached residences, and apartments").16
Al-Maria's work suggests how extensive these kinds of displacements might be, evidence that we'd do well to dissociate the concept of the suburban from a single geographic zone (between city and not-city) or built typology (detached single-family homes). The suburban (if it remains a useful concept at all) either has to be understood as a historical phenomenon (now concluded) or as a principle—a modality within the capitalist production of space, a set of tendencies that produced a certain way of life in those geographic zones at a certain time, but that can operate elsewhere, evolving and even finding new physical forms but retaining a basic economic and cultural logic underneath.
Crucially, Al-Maria delivers her visions of present-day Gulf suburbia in a futuristic visual vocabulary. In Black Friday and other works, like Your Sister (2014), imagery has been filtered through layers of digital distortion and augmented by brooding cinematic sound design, all evocative of cyberpunk aesthetics. Ten years ago, Al-Maria coined the term "Gulf Futurism" to evoke the accelerating pace of development in the rapidly urbanizing region. The concept mines American traditions of ethno-futurism—her online video Sci-Fi Wahabi (2008), for example, loops the opening lines of Sun Ra's album Space Is the Place: "It's after the end of the world. Don't you know that yet?" Like much Afrofuturism, Al-Maria's work does not just project forward but claims the now as the future.
In today's Gulf, however, Al-Maria hardly has a monopoly on this move: the spectacular skyscrapers and islands of culture rising in new desert cities are at least partly performative, designed to reclaim the region from old, dominant Western stereotypes about the Arab world. In this context, Al-Maria's dystopian futurism is a contravening force, refusing the official boosterish image-making as much as it refuses the historical stereotypes. In Al-Maria's videos, the future is indeed now, but by turning from the skyline to the mall, letting spaces of everyday life perform this revelation, she deflates the claim and modulates it: the future is suburb.
When one traces this counterintuitive braid of futurism and suburbanism from Al-Maria's malls back to the subdivisions of Phoenix, the contours of another paradigmatic city begin to appear: a planetary web of spaces, a globally distributed suburbia. The suburban qualities of Dubai or Beijing become apparent if we look at them not as exotic counterpoints to the American landscape but as places where its patterns are being transformed in an encounter with new cultural and political forces. Reciprocally, the fantastic light cast by these growing cities might throw into relief the speculative aspects of Phoenix or Dallas.
In all these places, imagining a future, whether an apocalyptic or a utopian one, can risk offering a retreat from crisis. Narratives of inevitable disaster or the promise of technological solutions just over the horizon can absolve one of the responsibility to act in the present. The suburban white-bread caricature does the same by promising perpetual stasis. Still, somewhere between the banal and the sublime, there may be an image of a compelling suburban future. It is an image of a city worth living in.
Gavin Kroeber is an artist and urbanist based in St. Louis.