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The return of suburbia

A lavish collection of micro studies provides a careful and critical set of precedents for understanding the growth of the modern city’s ever-expanding periphery

Since the Second World War, the suburb has found little favour with architectural historians: the ‘Outrage’ of Ian Nairn over what he called ‘subtopia’ and the derision of John Keats as he viewed the sprawl through The Crack in the Picture Window, reinforced the view of urbanists and anti-urbanists alike that the suburb was neither city nor country and the society (and therefore the architecture) it fostered was equally undistinguished, if not downright alienating. Nineteenth-century efforts to combine the benefits of both, from reformist company towns to garden cities, were laudable, and worthy of consideration in urban planning histories, but their architecture was seen as at best eclectic and nostalgic, and at worst consigned to the waste-lands of bourgeois reaction. Hardly any serious survey of the architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries included the suburb as a topic.

The explosion of exurbia over the last decades, however, and especially in expanding urban regions from Phoenix to Los Angeles, has led to a reconsideration of the social and architectural worth of earlier settlements, and especially of those planned suburbs that, throughout the 20th century, with Howard and Unwin in Britain, Mumford and Clarence Stein in the US, Soria y Mata and Bénoit-Levy in Spain and France, attempted to set a high standard of design and social planning for environments that were invented to unite the cultural conveniences of the city with the environmental benefits of the country. Recently a few monographs have appeared that have managed to escape the negative vision of suburban architecture, but none has taken the field as a whole.

Now, with scholarly depth and extraordinary encyclopaedic range, Robert AM Stern and his co-authors David Fishman and Jacob Tilove have surveyed this now vast terrain in the aptly entitled Paradise Planned. Over twenty years in preparation, and weighing in at 1,072 pages, with thousands of beautifully reproduced illustrations, most in colour, this work examines the emergence of the planned garden suburb, from its origins in the English Classical-Picturesque developments of the late 18th century, its adoption in the paternalist industrial garden villages of Europe and America, through its iterations in the various garden city movements, to its more recent version in the New Urbanist traditionalist town plans of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Its geographical scope is equally encyclopaedic covering not only every type of garden suburb planned and built in the US and Europe, but also its ‘globalisation’, spreading in the first forty years of the 20th century to Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, India, Zambia, South Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Greece, Russia, China, Vietnam and Japan in all its colonial and post-colonial variants.

A massively comprehensive work of this kind might be assumed to provide little more than useful summaries, and ‘potted’ histories, together with partial illustrative material. The fundamental contribution of Paradise Planned is to eschew this traditional survey approach, and to provide, not only meticulous entries for every one of the identified garden suburbs - entries that uniformly display historical research, both contextual and analytic - but photographic essays with plans, documentary evidence, and period and contemporary views. Despite the inevitable constrictions of space, that constrain these images to small formats, often seven or eight to a page, the quality of reproduction is so high as to reveal a surprising level of detail in both line drawings and photographs. Indeed, the layout of the book as a whole is so generous in its mix of full-page and small images, its lavish use of colour and duo-tone, and range of font sizes, that browsing becomes as pleasurable as consulting. Each section, with its introduction and subsequent entries, reads as a small book in itself, each suburb receiving its own micro-history set within its economic, social, and aesthetic context.

The importance of Paradise Planned goes well beyond its own covers, however. Firstly, the implications of the subtitle are many: aided by plans for each and every suburb mentioned, their careful correlation with larger-scale urban development plans will permit a more general understanding of the growth of the modern city and its ever-expanding periphery. Further, as paradigmatic for the form of the city itself, it allows the analysis of the subtle formal and environmental characteristics of build fabric set in green space, so neglected in the tabula rasa projects for modern development. Secondly, while obviously itself reliant on hundreds of individual studies and doctoral dissertations (dutifully listed in the footnotes, although a comprehensive bibliography would have made a useful addition), it offers the potential for further global and local research — but even more importantly, the final integration of suburban architectural history into mainstream histories of architecture, and the eventual disappearance of the prohibition, implicit or explicit, of popular eclecticism effected Modernist anti-style ideology. Thirdly, organised according to a well-thought-out typology, the ‘type’ of the garden suburb now gains a prominence formerly assigned to the individual building or the iconic ideal city plan. Finally, and following from this, when considered in the context of today’s rapid expansion of old cities and construction of new cities far greater in size than even envisaged in the paradigms of the CIAM, the book offers a veritable primer, if carefully and critically read, of precedents to be usefully construed. Environmental movements may then shift their attention from ‘green buildings’ to literally green cities with an integration of architectural form and planned organisation as effective as the suburbs that preceded them.

Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City

Authors: Robert AM Stern, David Fishman and Jacom Tilove

Publisher: Movacelli Press

Price: £48

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