When the garment and restaurant industries in Lower Manhattan downsized after 9/11, many Chinese immigrants flocked to Connecticut and parts of New Jersey, seeking employment in the region’s expanding casinos, including the second largest in North America, Mohegan Sun. Upon finding jobs, the workers settled down and began transforming single-family homes in places such as Norwich and Montville into multifamily communities. Currently on view at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), SubUrbanisms: Casino Urbanization, Chinatowns, and the Contested American Landscape, is a fascinating look at the evolution of the American suburbs beyond the archetype of the Anglo-Saxon, nuclear, single family and binary notions of home. Curated by architectural designer Stephen Fan, the traveling exhibition combines photographs, infographics, interviews, speculative housing designs, and modern and contemporary art references. Resetting MOCA’s contemporary gallery as the interior of a New England suburban ranch house, the project presents an amalgam of visual encounters, from architectural models to domestic signifiers (a newspaper-covered window, an open doorway with symbolic Chinese décor), where each “room” invites visitors to examine the complexity of values and regulations that shape contemporary living.
As the show points out, many of today’s occupancy laws and crowding standards originated from the first housing policies shaped by Anti-Coolie Association influences in San Francisco during the late 19th century. Yet increasing diversity and changing demographics are now challenging conventional assumptions of suburbia and its place within the American Dream. How can and should we rethink physical infrastructure, social values, and public housing policies for the 21st century? Fan’s case study proposes one of a multiplicity of alternatives. In teaching us how other people occupy, inhabit, and appropriate a built environment, SubUrbanisms illustrates how we can begin to question our own norms and beliefs.
I sat down with Fan via Skype to discuss the dynamics of both American suburbia and suburbs across the world, touching on changing Chinatowns, the New York housing crisis, community gardening, architectural hybrids, a nation of casinos, and more.
* * *
Danni Shen: For those unfamiliar with it, can you explain the concept of SubUrbanisms?
Stephen Fan: SubUrbanisms is trying to differentiate itself from “suburban,” challenging conventional American assumptions of suburbia, which is often tied to low-density, single-use, car-oriented development. The project refers to multiple forms of marginal or subliminal urbanization that occur in SubUrban areas, broadly defined as the urban periphery. That includes suburbs, exurbs, and beyond, such as second-tier cities or marginal centers that lie outside of metropolitan areas. This particular case study on casino urbanization describes the proliferation of the culturally and geographically marginalized gaming industry, and the concentrated flows of people, capital, and goods — the basic definitions of a city — that these casinos bring into SubUrban areas. Additionally, it’s looking at several casinos, such as Mohegan Sun, that draw in Chinese patrons and workers, who introduce urban notions of density, diversity, and dynamism into the seemingly suburban fabric surrounding the casino.
But this is also about the production and appropriation of new urban experiences. As casinos seek to differentiate themselves in an increasingly saturated market with urban experiences like farmers’ markets and professional basketball games, many patrons are going not necessarily to gamble, but to socialize, people watch, even walk around for exercise. It’s a safe, sanitized environment which is often critiqued as manipulative. While this critique may be valid, casinos also provide an alternative public as well as private space in which non-gambling patrons can game the system.
DS: As the viewer travels through the exhibition, which seems to emulate the interior of a suburban ranch home, the recurring imagery of a hulking, metallic casino tower is quite eerie. Framing and the juxtaposition of photo documentation and art historical references seem to be key devices in the curatorial process.
SF: Exactly, which really challenge what we conceive of as suburbia. One of the untitled photos, for example, is essentially the shadow of the Mohegan Sun tower over a wooded landscape. It’s like this black, menacing patch. The reason I didn’t include titles is because I want people to look closely, not only at this casino urban landscape, but also at their own homes and communities. Placing what many perceive to be substandard housing or blight within the context of a museum reframes, elevates, and potentially legitimates these practices. In reference to Magritte’s “La trahison des images” (The Treachery of Images), conventions of representation are undermined to reveal the artifice of representation and the artifice of the lawn, represented in the exhibition by plastic turf. As a cultural construct, the grassy front lawn and often the grass seeds themselves are historic imports that have be repackaged and rebranded as “American.” So, can cultivating produce or drying fish in the front lawns of these Chinese residences be coded as “American” in the future?
DS: Appropriation also seems to be critical throughout the exhibit, on multiple levels.
SF: Definitely, both in terms of content, as in Chinese immigrants appropriating an American housing type, and in terms of representation, such as appropriating critical or commercial art practices. The diptychs that juxtapose text and image, which I developed with the graphic designer Shane Keaney, reference Barbara Kruger as well as an HSBC advertisement campaign. Appropriating a commercial ad campaign helps draw visitors in with simple messaging strategies to unpack more complex ideas about cultural perspectives and built environments.
DS: As an example, you point to density as an objective qualifier and crowding as something that’s subjectively understood. Some people see a populous community as vital with signs of life, some see it as detracting from the quality of life.
SF: Right, and that’s one of the detractions of living in Connecticut, according to some of these Chinese workers — that it’s too quiet or feels too lonely or too scary. It’s vitality by sense of security, almost like the Jane Jacobs idea of “eyes on the street,” that if you know people are in the other houses or are out and about, you feel more secure, rather than walking alone along the suburban stretch.
DS: But then another side of the argument is that too many people in one space deteriorates mental health and increases stress or anxiety levels, or there’s a lack of privacy. But if there are cons, why not just address the cons?
SF: There are certainly inconveniences associated with higher density, communal living, but for many of these casino workers, it’s a choice, whether to save money or to live with those who share a language and culture. The problem with regulating is then those regulations can be used to police specific types of people. This idea of SubUrbanisms breaks down the very strict binaries between urban and suburban. The exhibit tries to be somewhat provocative and speculative with housing models, but I think potential pragmatic solutions would be to allow for things such as accessory dwellings — where you’re not really tearing down the existing development, you’re just allowing for additional or mixed uses. Or simply changing regulations of overcrowding standards; in many other cultures, sharing space is quite common in order to foster good values of deference and cooperation. So, while my proposals are speculative, other hybrid models such as cohousing are gaining traction. By freeing us from norms and assumptions, they can open up new possibilities for living and community, which I think is a much more productive use of architectural discourse that isn’t relegated to just formalism.
DS: Your own models seem critical to addressing some of these problems via their proposal of multifunctional spaces.
SF: One of the designs hybridizes suburban and urban types, as well as the benefits of single and multifamily homes. The idea was to take the planar logic of raised ranch houses and flip it vertically in sections. So you have these open plans of communal spaces and then these segmented private towers for single occupancy units (SROs). In the communal levels, you have space that is very ambiguously defined, creating different perceptions of what’s interior or exterior, public or private. It takes the model of commercial/residential towers set on a retail podium — think of Boston’s Prudential Center — but scales it down to incorporate a big box store, transportation center, communal living, productive gardens, and SRO towers, emphasizing quality of design and community amenities. The design also is a wink and nod to Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid project in Beijing.
The idea was to take hybrid models, not only in building types but also cultural hybrids, inspired by the kaiping diaolou in Guangdong, China. These single-family, multistory homes were built in the 1920s by overseas Chinese who lived in America or abroad and then returned to China. In many Western architect eyes, these appear almost like urban towers, yet they’re set within a rural landscape, conflating urban and rural types.
DS: The creation of rooftop gardens to address sustainability and reduce the ecological footprint really caught my eye. Can you talk about this in relation to the exhibition segment dedicated to front lawn gardening in the Connecticut communities?
SF: Rooftop gardens can also serve as a type of social sustainability, as evidenced by these front lawns, which oftentimes in American suburbia are not occupied: not to be used, only to be seen. In Montville and Norwich, however, front lawns are seen as the public sphere. I’m a huge proponent of community gardening, because it’s one of the few activities that spans different socioeconomic and even cultural backgrounds — for example, Chinese immigrants who don’t speak English have been able to forge ties to their neighbors by sharing some of their extra produce as a nice gesture. In many communities in this country, front lawn gardens are banned. Yet backyard gardens are OK, which is tied to this suburban social code of maintenance, upkeep, and order, but also tying productive uses to poverty. Why can’t people have the choice of using their front lawn as a productive garden? Or why not just plant more urbanistically? Why not plant fruit trees that you can actually harvest on the street? I think it’s also a cultural difference tied to resourcefulness in how one lives.
DS: What should viewers take away from this exhibition?
SF: As a traveling exhibition, SubUrbanisms tries to address issues relevant to its host communities. In New York, I hope it engages ongoing conversations about overcrowding, multiculturalism, and affordable housing. Having legitimate alternatives is crucial and vital, especially in a city like New York, which faces a crisis in affordable housing, largely due to the lack of stock. Historically, many areas that used to have mainly single-family row houses have now been cut up into individual condos or apartments. This association of dynamism and density with urbanism is seen as a normal development. Yet when it comes to the suburbs, there’s still this mythology of stasis, partly due to suburbia’s promise of social and financial stability and homogenous communities through home ownership. Suburbs, like any other community, are always changing, developing, and transforming. By bringing these issues to light, the SubUrban can inform the urban and vice versa.
SubUrbanisms: Casino Urbanization, Chinatowns, and the Contested American Landscape continues at the Museum of the Chinese in America (215 Centre Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through March 27.