In the film Over the Edge (1979), the worst fears of a suburban planned community come true when the teenage residents of the fictional town of New Granada attack a town meeting being held to discuss just exactly what went wrong with the violent, angst-filled youth of their town. The film is based on true events that took place in Foster City, California. Throughout the film, only one character seems to point out the fact that the town, thought to be a refuge from the socio-economic ills of the city, relies heavily on ideology instead of a pragmatic living situation in a post-boom world.
The opposite side of this spectrum would be the Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition shows Wright’s desire to create a placeless density, “everywhere or nowhere,” in the layout of his Broadacre City (1934–35), which takes the form of agrarian suburban sprawl. This project meticulously worked out a sprawling utopia (in the Greek “no place” sense) without the disruptions of a world war or fuel shortages.
Somewhere in between these two poles lies Cutting Through the Suburbs, currently on view at the Carriage Trade gallery. The show examines the failures of suburban American life in the 1970s, and era when the sheen of post-war optimism wore itself thin and the ubiquity of “stagflation” furthered the dulling process to near oxidation. The effects of a rampant consumer culture did little to halt the nationwide economic downturn, which quickly became a cancer within suburban communities around the country.
The show’s three parts are composed of photos by Bill Owens, a collection of architectural drawings and one model by James Wines/SITE alongside a screen looping two films by Howard Silver about the Best Products showrooms, and a looped screening of Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Splitting” (1974). The exhibition walks the thin line between the demoralization of the era and the almost giddy energy of artistic creation in the face of impending despair.
The photos by Bill Owens, excerpted from his book Suburbia (1999), capture a first-hand, on the ground look at the attitudes and aesthetics of living in a declining suburban landscape. The photos are captioned with expressionless commentary from the subjects — Owens’ actual neighbors at the time he photographed them — and seem to project the duality of the normalcy of suburban life with the simmering tension of living on the surface of the distended housing bubble.
Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Splitting” (1974), the nearly 11-minute documentation of his cleaving an abandoned suburban New Jersey home in half, is a potent response to the lost safety of living in an American suburb during the 1970s. The film mixes action — it is perhaps the greatest advertisement for the reciprocating saw brand Sawzall ever — and the spatial effects created by the introduction of the exterior condition to the interior of the home. The rays of light penetrating this chasm contain more than electromagnetic radiation, they also contain the failures and the inability of architecture to truly protect the family unit.
Rounding out the show is the work of James Wines, who founded SITE (Sculpture in the Environment) in 1970, and his maverick approach to designing the facades for Best Products showrooms in the 1970s and 80s. The work gives the stores an anti-brand approach through removing the typical repetitive visual strategies and disrupting the blandness of the architecturally void strip malls and big box stores being built throughout the United States. Wines & SITE worked to break up the monotony of the average American’s shopping experience through, starting from the parking lot, by creating a distinct façade for each individual showroom.
The works here include drawings of the Richmond Showroom, the Hialeh Showroom, the Twist Showroom featuring two twisted rectangles as its form, and the Greenhouse Showroom, designed to merge the greenery of Florida with the exterior of the showroom. Stationed in the corner of Carriage Trade is a model for the Cutler Ridge Showroom, its brick façade seemingly pulled off and placed in the parking lot through shift in tectonic plates. The “alley” created between this folly wall and the actual entrance creates an exterior lobby and a brief pause before entering the store.
Halfway through the Howard Silver film “Grand Openings,” a woman touring the Cutler Ridge Best Showroom remarks “I think there’s a place for humor in architecture” and nicely sums up some of the playful attitude contained within the office’s output: the showroom facades are full of jest without being ludicrous antics. The architects were able to create out of the ordinary spaces that seemed to smirk in the faces of the stuffy architectural profession.
The felicity of the Best facades allowed for experimentation with landscape design, large sculptural gestures, and green technology — the façade of the Hialeh Showroom was like walking through a cross section of rain forest, with live palm trees and recycled water “raining” constantly. SITE’s work, juxtaposed with the work of Matta-Clark and Owens focusing on the collapse of American communities, created the joyous transition needed to reset not only the economy, but also the way people interact with architecture everyday. The Best Showrooms created a spectacle while housing a basic, everyday function.
Cutting Through the Suburbs is only a brief survey of the work produced during this tumultuous time, but the work displayed captures the atmosphere permeating this period. For every large failure or breakdown, there was an artistic opening available to anyone advantageous enough to push things further.
Cutting Through the Suburbs continues at Carriage Trade gallery (62 Walker Street, Tribeca, Manhattan) until May 18.
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