News
06.07.2012
Review> On Hissing Lawns
Jason Griffiths' book explores formulas and ad hoc solutions in the suburbs.
A partially built house outside Phoenix, AZ.
Jason Griffiths

Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing
Jason Griffiths
Architectural Association Publications, $35.00

Jason Griffiths’ Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Housing reveals in bold detail the formulaic nomenclatures, kit of parts, and ad hoc solutions that have come to produce some of the most viral forms of contemporary housing on the North American continent. These new suburbs are not anything like the ones from a generation ago: today’s track houses are subliminally mass marketed, cleverly customizable, and (barring bubble bursts) profitably cost effective. The “essential indifference” that Griffiths speaks about is in effect the most critical aspect of his fascinating study: what dominates today’s suburbs resembles a new development in human science—lab-coat-engineered home technologies for the ultimate in customer satisfaction.

Griffiths’ prose is written bereft of flourish and his photographic images are relatively modest, but what does come across most effectively is his tenacious and forensic attention to details. As a husband-and-wife traveling duet, Jason Griffiths and Alex Gino crisscrossed the country, photographing with deadpan accuracy concrete curb breaks, customized house parts, carpeted stairs with oddly paired banisters, and almost anything else deemed part of the American suburbs’ “infrastructural picturesque.”

If Griffiths’ perspective stays focused on the house and its immediate surroundings, it is because he has clearly understood that the house is the totemic element behind a much larger suburban weltanschauung. Lars Lerup, in his latest book One Million Acres & No Zoning, acknowledges Sigmund Freud when he observes that the “city itself hides behind the facade of a house.” It would be as true to say the suburb equally hides behind the facade of the house, but increasingly there is less and less distinction between what is certifiably a city and what is a suburb. Most of today’s cities in the United States, if you take a closer look, are really suburbs. In absolute terms then, the suburban house is the primary element that codifies the entire environmental system.

 
A black glass security booth (left). Typical mixed-metaphor balustrades (right).
 

Arguably, one should view this apparently crude object of form making—the manufactured house—with much more respect. This is precisely what Griffiths’ brilliantly unadorned essay, unfiltered photos, and crafted minimalist captions set out to accomplish. Griffiths demonstrates how each aspect about the suburban house formula is conceived to match the client's every whim and fancy. Or, to look at the flip side of his argument, nothing would be more superfluous than the hand of the architect, whose notion of proper design could not seem more irrelevant to this highly efficient industrialized process. “In short,” writes Griffiths, “suburbia views architecture as the antithesis of its daily ritual.”

So it should be no surprise that in the process we find ourselves admiring, thanks to Griffiths’ observant prose, all the quirky aspects of suburban house-life that make up this incredible panorama of decentralization. Take, for example, his observations on the real estate practice of displaying model homes that are not meant to function as normal houses. Of the missing driveway to a home in Scottsdale, Arizona, rendered as a garage door fronted by a graveled garden with a tree, some shrubs, and a cactus, Griffiths observes: “It suggests a dystopian vision of the resurgent desert landscape invading suburbia after the cars have gone—a seemingly normal suburban house turned, with Piranesian caprice, into a deteriorated edifice of suburban perfection.”

Indeed, the allusions and illusions are par for the course. Griffiths’ Guide is all about how to recognize the subtle signs of its extraordinary success.  In the same breath, however, Griffiths also takes pains to demonstrate its evident failures. He observes the condition of a single suburban house surrounded by stalled or as of yet unbuilt plots, creating at least in the moment, a suspended state of anticipation. “Unwittingly, these vacant lots evoke the paradigmatic picturesque scenario of the Palladian villa set within the landscape—a strange connection, considering that suburbia’s chief inspiration is here evoked by the failure of the suburban project.”

Spec lots with shed.

 

For Griffiths these visions of expanse and abandonment recall even more chilling premonitions: “Standing among the incomplete developments on the edge of Phoenix, Arizona, we found ourselves in an endless landscape of unobstructed terrain entirely compliant and serviced for consumption. Strangely, the imagery of Superstudio's Fundamental Acts appeared entirely in accordance with the interests of suburban developers—an über-rationalized setting for an ever more efficient production of romanticism. Despite its best intentions, Superstudio appears to have unwittingly master planned the desert suburb.”

Yet if this is a tried-and-true form of romanticism, it comes with heaps of irony, like the camouflaging of the common outdoor electric power socket. Here the two images supplied by Griffiths evoke nothing less than unrestrained astonishment: in the one, we see a brick wall with a surface-mounted electric socket rendered almost invisible, covered in matching brick pattern, while in the second, a stucco wall surface hides a rather badly disguised socket under wrinkled matching-color paper. There is no question that Superstudio understood the infinite potential of infrastructural networks spreading across the globe’s surface, and it is true that whether virtually or physically, we are now part of its inevitable realization, but who could have foretold the manner in which the very circuitry of this megastructure would itself become so unremarkably banal?

Nothing, however, can detract from Griffiths amazingly frank indexing of the American suburban phenomenon. A lot is still left to the imagination. By that I mean the travelogue nature of the journey that made possible the book’s content. The whole enterprise seems entirely heroic and highly romantic, as this couple from England reenact with seemingly great aplomb the classic road trip of a destinationless drive up and down the North American continent. Surely there must be more to the story then Griffiths is letting on, especially since the journey itself would have meant scores of encounters with the very Kerouacian characters that make these kind of drives both wonderfully joyful and nervously edgy. Until that version of the road trip comes out, we should content ourselves with the found landscapes that make up Griffiths’ suburban “picturesque.”

Peter Lang

Architect and historian Peter Lang is an associate professor in the department of architecture at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.