Refuting suburban myths Changing Suburbs: Foundation, Form, and Function Edited by Richard Harris and Peter J Larkham. E. & FN Spon, 1999. 280pp. £47.50
Coming hard on the heels of the recent English Heritage book on the London suburbs (aj 9.2.99), this new volume of 12 scholarly essays usefully extends the consideration beyond the metropolitan fringe to the provinces and 'three ex-British, white settler, colonies' - Canada, the United States and 'the first true suburban nation', Australia.
Taking this comparative approach allows not only the ubiquity (was there ever any doubt?) of suburbia to be examined in more detail, but also its diversity. It is for this recognition of the multifarious forms that the suburbs assume in layout, house form and decoration, class composition, gendering etc that the editors should be thanked.
From the packaged pioneer homes in Sears and Roebuck catalogues, through the 1919 Housing Manual and Parker Morris standards, to the Essex Design Guide, the overriding assumption concerning the appearance of suburbia has been that it is dull, monotonous and lacking in individuality. The related assumption has been that in this aesthetic of the 'anonymous familiar' the hand of the architect is absent.
Editors Richard Harris and Peter Larkham consider myths such as these in their opening essay, which is both an excellent state-of-the-art review and a useful precis of the subsequent essays.
They single out for attack the idea that the suburbs are recent and that they are everywhere the same. If numerous readers may already know the first myth to be untrue, we all need to be told about diversity of form and function of suburbia. 'We are both children of English suburbs,' they say - one of the few instances where anything approaching subjectivity (normally a means of dismissing the suburbs) is encountered. It has a touchingly elegiac character to it, which is otherwise displaced by the more usual language of academic discourse.
The essays are split into two sections - early twentieth-century suburbs and later twentieth-century suburbs - with the Second World War taken as the watershed. They range from an analysis of British suburban taste in interior decoration, and the development and decline of what (in his description of Liverpool's Norris Green estate) Richard Turkington calls 'corporation suburbia', to Southern Californian 'edge cities', attempts to reverse suburbia in Australia through 'urban consolidation', and the differing attitudes to conservation of the suburbs by national agencies in Britain and the United States. Many of the essays break new ground.
Beyond the more persistent myths which are attacked, the editors seek to close the gap between historical accounts of the suburbs and more contemporary analyses and critiques. While that is a laudable ideal, one must admit that (based on this work) a considerable gap remains.
Judging from the bibliographies at the end of each essay, some important works have been neglected. The filmic and literary construction of suburbia, for instance, is all but ignored (save for a mention in David Ames' essay on the American suburbs). Much could have been gleaned from John Carey's book The Masses and the Intellectuals, which considers the works of authors such as D H Lawrence. Carey's is a brilliant, if controversial, delineation of class attitudes to the suburb-dwelling 'masses'. And while amenities are commented on, the church, the pub, the cinema, the shops, the 'rec', and local suburban transport are still glaring gaps in a consideration of this country alone.
According to the editors, the collection is meant to be interdisciplinary. In reality it seems largely informed by geography or the insights of cultural and historical geographers. This is no bad thing. Much of the best recent work on the built environment has come from these disciplines, as this volume so ably and rewardingly makes clear.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian