Allison Arieff on Shifting the Suburban Paradigm

levittown suburb

Allison Arieff just kills with her latest article in the New York Times on suburban housing. This is a different world than the modern prefabs she used to write about, or the solar decathlon houses that every blog is talking about; this is where most Americans live. She describes how regional vernacular forms that worked so well have disappeared:

Today, it's essentially the same floor plan, sheetrock and construction that's used coast to coast. Glossy brochures with stock images of smiling families advertise "Spanish Gothic" or "Tuscan Villa," but what's really on offer is the same dumb box with a stage set of a façade tacked onto the front. The reasons behind the advertised vernacular styles have long since disappeared, their function surrendered to ornament.

She quotes Aron Chang on the essential suburbia:

"The disconnection between the rising diversity of housing needs and the monotony of housing production speaks to the tenacity of the postwar American dream -- the enduring allure of the detached house with front lawn and backyard patio -- as well as to the profitability of catering to these aspirations."

But I think it is deeper than that, expressed in a comment:

There's no "we" and that's what you don't seem to understand.... Leave me alone and I'll leave you alone: that is the truest, deepest and most beautiful formulation of what is rightly called the American Dream.

It is an appalling statement, and the problem is, that it is so true; the suburbs are all about "Leave me alone and I'll leave you alone." Let me go from my air conditioned house to my air conditioned car without even going outside and let me drive to my air conditioned office with underground parking without ever having to interact with anyone else, ever. Why should I?

Allison and I have been covering this ground for a decade and keep dancing around the same questions:

I don't care if we're talking Le Corbusier, Cape Cods or Corinthian columns, we can't make any progress in housing until we stop thinking about the home as decorative object and begin considering it as part of a larger whole. How does it work on the street? In the neighborhood? How is it served by transit? Is it adaptable, allowing for the housing of extended families or the hosting of an entrepreneurial endeavor? Can the owner build an accessory dwelling (a.k.a. granny flat) to do so?....What needs to happen to zoning, to financing, to our very notions of resale value to change the suburban condition -- and by extension, the American Dream as we know it?

All this talk about the American Dream; perhaps we should take a moment and go back to what James Truslow Adams meant when he coined the term in 1931, writing in The Epic of America that the American Dream was:

that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement....It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.

How that got subverted into suburbia and into a dream of motor cars, patios and libertarian "leave me alone and I'll leave you alone" would be story in itself.


Allison found a nicer looking KB Homes ZeroHouse than I did, but it still has only one window facing the street, a tunnel to the front door and a double garage, albeit with a Franke James driveway. But we can't keep doing this, there isn't the water for those plants and there isn't the gasoline for the cars that would go in the garage, there isn't the electricity for the air conditioning. We have to design to operate and live without them.

Allison's article should be a book; What she puts into a sentence here, I see paragraphs and chapters. Read it in the Opinionator of the New York Times.
More Allison Arieff:
Allison Arieff on Prefab, Going Local, and Why the Suburbs Aren't So Bad (Podcast)
Allison Arieff On The Future Of The Office

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