School of Architecture Exhibits Art Inspired by Suburbia

“Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes,” an exhibition examining the suburb as a catalyst for new work by artists and architects, will be on view March 2–May 10 at the Yale Architecture Gallery, Paul Rudolph Hall, 180 York St.

“Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes,” an exhibition examining the suburb as a catalyst for new work by artists and architects, will be on view March 2–May 10 at the Yale Architecture Gallery, Paul Rudolph Hall, 180 York St.

The American suburbs have been both extolled as middle-class utopias and reviled as worlds of homogeneity and conformity, note the exhibition’s organizers. “Challenging preconceived ideas and expectations about suburbia (either pro or con), ‘Worlds Away’ hopes to impart a better understanding of how those ideas were formed and how they are challenged by contemporary realities,” write the exhibition curators.

The exhibition is arranged according to the three “R’s” of the American suburb: residential homes, retail developments and roads.

The “Residential” section of the show looks at how the detached single-family tract home as a symbol of the two-parent nuclear family is belied by a new reality: In 2000, the number of suburban households composed of young singles and older people living alone exceeded that of two-generational families living under one roof. Architectural works for this section focus on this shifting demographic composition of suburban households. The ethnic diversity of the “new” suburbs is captured in the photographic montages of people and places by Minneapolis-based photographer Laura Migliorino. Larry Sultan’s series “The Valley” depicts the Southern California-based adult entertainment industry that thrives in suburban home film sets.

The “Retail” component of the show looks at the three most common commercial developments in suburban America: the shopping strip mall, the enclosed mall and the “big box” store.

The ubiquitous shopping strip mall of post-War suburbia was a byproduct of zoning codes that encouraged businesses to cluster along busy thoroughfares, many of them evolving from small town main streets and business districts. Fostered by financial incentives such as favorable tax codes, strip malls began expanding in the 1950s and 1960s, evolving into fully enclosed climate-controlled environments and carefully planned circulation routes. The widespread introduction of “big box” stores soon followed. In the 1990s a new category, the mega mall (as epitomized by the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota) was an inevitable extension of the growing scale of retail business.

The tremendous growth of newer and larger shopping malls has led to the proliferation of abandoned and dying malls—so-called “grayfields.” The exhibition spotlights an array of creative strategies to adapt and reuse these sites. Artist Julia Christensen has been documenting the conversion of former “big box” stores to alternative uses, ranging from flea markets to churches to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. Other projects explored include artist Stefanie Nagorka’s conversion of a Home Depot into a studio and gallery by creating sculptures in the store aisles from parts found on its warehouse shelves, and LTL Architects’ “New Suburbanism” (2000/2004), which combines a “big box” store with living and recreational spaces above.

It is impossible to conceive of suburbia without the network of transportation systems and the automobile culture it promotes, note the show’s organizers, adding that while the road has been a persistent symbol of escape and freedom, as a circulation system for suburban life the road has taken on a different meaning. The show features works by artists such as Catherine Opie, who has documented the beauty of the Los Angeles freeway system itself, as well as that of Andrew Bush, who has used the roadway to capture portraits of passing drivers.

Several design firms have produced new works for the exhibition. One by the San Diego-based Estudio Teddy Cruz explores the reciprocal influence of American suburbanization and Latin American immigration on suburban San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. The London-based FAT (Fashion.Architecture.Taste) presents a work on a multiethnic suburban park in the Netherlands, while that of Lateral Architecture, based in Toronto, explores the spaces between and around big box power centers, the successor to suburbia’s regional mall. The contribution by the New York-based Interboro examines life at a so-called “dead mall” in New York; Minneapolis-based Coen+Partners revises a traditional cul-de-sac development; the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), based in Culver City, CA, documents the major automotive test tracks located in various urban peripheries of the United States; and Jeffrey Inaba of Los Angeles-based INABA/C-Lab recasts the humble suburban trash container and the society of consumption and waste it represents.

A selection of short videos and a fully illustrated accompanying catalogue complement the exhibition

“Worlds Away” originated at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in association with the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. Curators of the exhibition are Andrew Blauvelt, Design Director and Curator, Walker Art Center, and Tracy Myers, Curator of Architecture and Design, Heinz Architectural Center.

The Architecture Gallery of Rudolph Hall is open to the public free of charge Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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