You have to admire Bob Stern’s fidelity. Way back in 1981, when postmodernism was still hot, he co-edited a special issue of Architectural Design on “The Anglo-American Suburb.” Now, three decades later, he has brought out a colossus of a book that claims to offer the definitive history of the subject.
It is among the biggest books you will have ever seen, and makes S,M,L,XL feel like a paperback. With well over 1,000 pages, Stern’s book is too heavy for my kitchen scales to weigh. The reader becomes like Gulliver in Brobdingnag, shrunken by comparison. Much of the work has been done by Stern’s impressive research team, thus emulating the multi-author technique he used to great effect for the successive volumes on New York since 1880.
In essence, the historical case is that which Stern put forward thirty years ago. What we know as the garden suburb begins in London in the late 18th century as a result of the growth in size and wealth of that city, allowing the well-to-do to escape from living alongside lesser mortals. The Paragon developments in Old Kent Road and Blackheath are identified as the first inklings, with Regent’s Park as the first flowering of the dream of bringing the country into the city, and 1870s Bedford Park as where “the planned garden village comes into its full maturity.”
Courtesy CIA City Archive
Meanwhile, the idea had spread to America, where it was soon being done even better. The apogee of the US garden suburb is the truly sublime Riverside in west Chicago, begun in 1869, and it is also that scheme’s designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, who is quoted for the book’s cri-de-coeur: “No great town can long exist without great suburbs.” Stern and colleagues also cite Robert Fishman’s vivid summation of Riverside as the ultimate “bourgeois utopia.”
There are many other side-stories—which creates perhaps too much complexity in the chapter structure—and these include the resort suburbs (such as Miami’s Coral Gables) built in the USA as holiday homes rather than for daily commuting, the garden cities (from Letchworth onwards) that acted as entirely new centers of population of their own, and the industrial garden villages (like Saltaire) erected apart from existing cities by factory owners and other capitalists.
There are hundreds of examples in this book, and many are already well known, yet nonetheless the reader feels they are finding out afresh about garden suburbs—whether in lesser-spotted U.S. towns or in Europe, Latin America, Middle East, Asia, and Australasia. The most substantial element of new research, as opposed to simply the collation of existing material, comes in a fascinating account of the munitions housing built by the U.S. Housing Corporation in the latter years of World War One. These small estates, often in the Colonial style, adorn more locations across America than hitherto realized.
With the 1981 AD issue by Stern, many of us in Britain regarded it as a condescending piece of cultural propaganda that was trying to convince us that we too were part of the postmodern family. Like a missionary who can never quite give up their cause, a similar proselytizing spirit animates Stern’s new book. The only differences now are that New Urbanism is presented as the savior and the message is intended for the whole world. Or, as the very last sentence reads, “The garden suburb may well hold the key to the future of our cities.”
Courtesy Denenchofu Association
But can such a claim hold water? Not at all, in my view. The weight of all the historical examples on show, as combed from across the world, merely reinforces the nostalgia of Stern’s vision. By ending the survey of suburbs in 1940, it misses out the unplanned post-war explosion in the U.S. It also misses out on very recent analyses of suburbs which portray the multiple activities and intra-suburb connections as offering their real sense of dynamism and innovation.
Instead, Stern leaves us with a traditional vision of the garden suburb as a place that commuters return home to at night, and where issues of gender equality, racial exclusion, and sexual difference barely register—and where the rich luckily get to live in the choicest places just because they can pay more. As such, this giant book serves as a perfect tombstone for the once-great hope of marrying nature and culture within a planned suburban paradise.