- Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs
Prior to the start of the Great Recession, with housing a magnet for equally intangible dreams and capital, the edges of our metropolises exploded with new exurbanization, center cities sprouted fresh skyline-lifting high-rises, and in between downtowns and the fringes infill and redevelopment projects churned the suburban landscape. Retrofitting Suburbia, by the architects Ellen Dunham-Jones of Georgia Tech and June Williamson of The City College of New York, is a cross-continent compendium of new building typologies and host morphologies in that churning landscape. Labeling them “retrofits,” the authors’ overarching belief is that these projects collectively comprise a process of “incremental metropolitanism” whereby a “large-scale approach” can, and in their minds should, “systematically and sustainably transform suburban form” (xiii).
Winner of the Association of American Publishers 2009 PROSE Award for Architecture and Planning, this is a book with much to recommend it. Retrofitting Suburbia covers a wide array of typologies being replaced or changed: garden apartments, commercial strips, regional malls, edge cities, and office and industrial parks. The content is useful. Introductions to common suburban developments are provided. Case study backgrounds offer basic data on planners, architects, clients, and site size, among other subjects. Examples are drawn from a wide array of contexts, including Levittown, Cape Cod, Chicago, Atlanta, Denver, and Miami—with many of the delightful, but hideworn, usual suspects absent. Accompanying the text are helpful images, aerial photographs, site plans, and figure–ground diagrams, all of which are supplemented by a thirty-page color portfolio.
Morphological analyses throughout the work will be of particular interest to the readers of Buildings & Landscapes. This is because, first of all, intriguing comparisons are drawn, such as between Mizner Park in Florida, the Piazza Navonna in Rome, and the 1951 Shopper’s World outdoor mall in Massachusetts (125). But the book is most notably interesting because it contains separate comparative morphological analysis sections that usefully illustrate building footprints, roadbeds, and lot lines at multiple-decade intervals, and include descriptions of what Dunham-Jones and Williamson classify as static, campus, and elastic tissues (53).
It needs to be stated up front, however, that this work is not the “comprehensive guidebook for architects, planners, urban designers, developers, and elected officials” described on the back cover. Yet failing to match publisher puffery never renders a book hopelessly flawed—particularly when it comes to case-study collections. Instead, to genuinely appreciate the successes and challenges of Retrofitting Suburbia, one must consider it in terms of those works next to it on the shelf: namely, the genre of architecture books on the city, and, more problematically, the subgenre of New Urbanist writings.
When architects tackle the subject of the city, it provides them an opportunity to truly prove their intellectual mettle. But it also sets up the most brilliant of designers for their own literary Icarus moment. The difference between books at the heights and depths of this genre often has to do with whether the author mistakenly conflates, first, the physical form of a city with its underlying social, economic, and ecological processes, and, second, the shorter-term, individual artistic process of architectural creation with the longer-term, collective policy, financial, and cultural processes of city building and morphogenesis. Retrofitting Suburbia avoids the first mistake, but partially makes the second.
Dunham-Jones and Williamson are refreshingly honest about their focus on form. They clearly define suburb “primarily in terms of physical form rather than location of governmental boundaries,” and urban as “higher-density, mixed-use, walkable blocks of buildings supported by a continuous street network with well-defined public space” (viii). The authors acknowledge that cities are still decentralizing (10). They admit that what they investigate “are hybrids and reflect aspects of both centerness and decentralization” (13). Most impressively, they not only recognize, but even thoughtfully...