New SubUrbanisms

Suburb versus city? This new book argues they have more in common than you’d think

National Review Urbanism
Marina City is one of the earliest and most successful examples 
of a suburban-style space in an urban context. (Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)
Marina City is one of the earliest and most successful examples of a suburban-style space in an urban context. (Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)

Judith K. De Jong’s book New SubUrbanisms presents an American urban landscape that is at once all too familiar and yet full of exceptions and alternatives to the typical narrative. In her well-researched guide, she presents an argument for a new understanding of the relationship between urban and suburban space in the United States.

While touching on cities and suburbs across the country, the book uses Chicago, Houston, and their surrounding suburbs as case studies for what De Jong describes as a “flattening” of urban and suburban space. This flattening is characterized in its simplest terms as the urbanizing of suburban space, and the suburbanizing of the urban space. De Jong outlines three dichotomies of the flattening process—literal and conceptual, cultural and demographic, formal and spatial. Each of these are explored through four architectural typologies, found both in the urban and suburban context—car space, domestic space, public space, and retail space. As a whole, De Jong labels many recent trends in all of these typologies as being sub/urban, or possessing the qualities of both the urban and suburban.

(Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)

(Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)

Each of these typologies is given its own chapter. Fronted with vital histories, the chapters challenge the popular ideas of these specific typologies. In each case the socio-economic and cultural forces and implications of benchmark projects are tied to their roles in the development of suburban or urban spaces. De Jong continually reiterates, with evidence, the complex relationship between these seemingly opposing conditions, rather than setting them against each other. Often, surprising histories are revealed, questioning typical narratives. Examples of distinctly urban spaces in suburban settings and suburban ideals expressed in urban developments, build a more nuanced understanding of the gradient and overlap of the two.

Rather than just a historical account, the book is a call to action for designers to think and design more critically. While any historical text has an inherent bias, De Jong presents the histories in a matter of fact way, while offering thoughtful opinions in the second half of each chapter. In the assessment of innovative sub/urban projects, a general optimism arises throughout the writing. Yet the book is still sharply critical of many projects which fail to strive for the formal or spatial ambitions of those groundbreaking projects.


Bundled signage for big box stores at the Northgate North Retail Facility in Seattle, where suburban stores are stacked in an urban setting. (Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)

Bundled signage for big box stores at the Northgate North Retail Facility in Seattle, where suburban stores are stacked in an urban setting. (Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)

In the car-space chapter, the suburbs as the main domain of the automobile is rebutted with evidence of the car’s long role in urban planning, design, and architecture. The chapter primarily focuses on the space dedicated to parking, and the different forms that have developed out of the need to store mass numbers of cars. The example of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City is invoked more than once throughout the book. Its 900 parking spaces allow for the housing portion of the project to be lifted well above the din of the city streets, a technique that provides for a suburban sensibility of space and amenity, as well as an urban form. This arrangement has since become the prototype for many towers across the country, particularly in Chicago.

Along with Goldberg, the work of Victor Gruen is highlighted as proto-sub/urban in its ambitions to bring urban-like spaces and programs to the exploding post-war suburban landscape. Gruen, who is credited with formulating the contemporary suburban mall, envisioned a space which would function like an urban square or piazza, while serving contemporary American consumers. Once malls became what we generally know them as today, Gruen disowned the typology, upset with the lack of community focus. The retail space chapter brings the discussion of the mall up to today. Tracing the decline of the 1980s-style mall, and the rise of the lifestyle center, De Jong again criticizes current trends in retail architecture while outlining possible futures.

(Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)

(Courtesy Judith K. De Jong)

By the end of the book De Jong highlights some of the most recent critical investigations of the suburbs, and presents work that she and a team formulated as a rough guide to designing New SubUrbanisms. The schematic designs bring together many of the points made throughout the book, while proposing a more formally exuberant language for the typology. And though this final chapter brings the book together ideologically, it is De Jong’s writing that holds the book together. Without the clarity of writing, the thoroughly researched thesis could have easily fallen flat. Instead, the readers find themselves—either agreeing or disagreeing—quickly understanding a topic that seems to have escaped the general academic and professional discourse. New SubUrbanisms should give anyone interested in urbanism, city planning, or urban design something new to think about.

New SubUrbanisms
Judith K. De Jong, Routledge, $51.95

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