- Indoor America: The Interior Landscape of Postwar Suburbia by Andrea Vesentini
Indoor America: The Interior Landscape of Postwar Suburbia appears at a poignant time in the United States. Only two years after its publication, much of the country is indeed largely indoors, sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Public life as we knew it almost disappeared for a time as we rallied to recreate some semblance of it in virtual space. As our computers became windows to the world beyond, we also realized this new public life was more accessible to some than others depending on financial and technological resources. In Indoor America, Andrea Vesentini takes us back to another period when Americans turned indoors in large numbers, this time by choice. In the mid-twentieth century, he argues, the United States relocated the better part of private and public life to protected interior, and largely suburban, spaces. The book chronicles Americans' increasing spatial and social "interiorization" in the early and mid-twentieth century in three stages: encapsulation with the automobile, introversion in domestic space, and finally, full interiorization in places such as shopping malls and designs for indoor cities. While not mutually exclusive categories, these stages were part of a larger process of "redesigning the urban landscape as one of interconnected interiors" (17).
The reasons Americans, and especially White Americans, turned inward and away from public life is not new in this analysis. Our cars, homes, bomb shelters, and shopping malls provided protection and distance from the social and environmental ills and racial frictions of the mid-twentieth-century city—one more example of Americans solving social problems with space. This new "indoor America" not only exacerbated existing racial inequities, Vesentini argues, but also reordered the way Americans related to "outdoor America." By the late 1960s, the concept of "outdoors" with its freedom, informality, and spaciousness became a lifestyle rather than a reality, something experienced visually from the interior rather than bodily on the exterior. Vesentini portrays the interiorization of suburbia as a form of pathology—an unnatural state of being—in opposition to an earlier more diversified and external urbanism. He argues that the process of suburbanization confused the notion of public space in the United States by substituting curated, [End Page 136] artificial alternatives to real, sometimes messy, and often challenging aspects of public life. When urbanism becomes a disassociated lifestyle for consumption, he asserts, nothing less than the survival of the urban model is at stake.
As a cultural historian, Vesentini draws on a wide range of sources, including advertising, novels, architectural design, exhibitions, social commentary, and films to expose the psychosocial dialogues that led Americans "inside." The book begins in the 1920s with the advent of the enclosed automobile and the personal "encapsulation" such vehicles allowed. Vesentini traces the portrayal of the enclosed car in period advertising and social commentary as a kind of "portable real estate" and a convenient "escape pod" from urban problems (21–22). The car became a way to avoid the social milieu of the street, racially mixed (for Whites) or segregated (for Blacks) public transportation, and ultimately, the city itself. The author positions the popularity of the car and its associated auto-centric urbanism as signs of society's failure to transcend difference and overcome discriminatory systems. The car, he asserts, is the ultimate example of "separate but equal." The car also acted as a filter between driver and landscape. Instead of direct experiences of people or place, the driver speeding along the freeway perceived the city as an abstract image through the "screen" of the windshield. The result of this encapsulation and alienation, Vesentini argues, can be seen in movies such as Falling Down (1993) and Crash (2004), where citizens who wander the streets exist outside functional society, and cars crashing into one another become a grim substitute for personal connection.
The book looks next at the postwar suburban home—or "house of anxiety"—as an exemplar of increasing...