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Nostalgia for a declining suburbia

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Elizabeth Wilson's potted history of the suburbs at the Photographers Gallery on Saturday concluded that the classic concept of the suburb has become 'a folk memory', due to economic and social change, particularly in patterns of work.

Her talk, which was part of the programme running in conjunction with the gallery's exhibition 'Blue Suburban Skies', suggested that the viewpoint shared by the artists represented is essentially a nostalgic one, conjuring up a phenomenon which 'doesn't really exist any more.' The work on display (aj 14.10.99) - crossing the boundaries of photography, video installation and architecture - presents an image of identikit, crudely-detailed brick houses arranged around pointless culs-de-sacs, in which individuals labour over curious ventures in personal creativity behind net curtains.

This is indeed a familiar image throughout the western world, which Wilson traces back to its roots in a nineteenth century pursuit of the rural idyll, driven by unease and alienation in the wake of the industrial revolution. The flight of the Victorian middle classes out of the slum-ridden inner city marked the beginning of a process of clear social segregation expressed in architectural and spatial terms. London suburbs such as St John's Wood and Turnham Green provided safe havens for the family, while fathers travelled into the city to work. But at that time the fog of dreariness, monotony and conservatism which was subsequently to engulf the suburbs in the public perception had not descended. On the contrary, the suburbs provided homes for 'artistic and cultural leaders' amongst an upper-middle-class and cultural elite.

Wilson is careful to draw a distinction between these peripheral enclaves of the metropoli and company towns or Garden City concept developments. The classic suburb was based firmly on the village ideal, modified by modern standards of hygiene and domestic gadgetry. Later, architects voiced strong objections to the standardised and restrictive models thrown up.

The Urban Task Force report has highlighted the need for brownfield development of inner city sites, and an end to peripheral sprawl, but the disastrous impact on the countryside of suburban development has long been noted by its critics. Notwithstanding, the 1980s saw a surge of support for the suburbs, Wilson observes, as an expression of 'populist, rather Thatcherite values.' In the 1990s, that has changed again, as the possibility of commuting into the metropolis 'from anywhere' has become a reality, aided by home-working, and the suburbs have been forsaken for the dormitory villages of an increasingly suburbanised rural landscape - or for the rediscovered pleasures of inner-city living in an increasingly gentrified urban environment. Many suburbs, says Wilson, have as a result fallen into a decline fuelled by chronic lack of investment, and are emerging as ghettos for the old, infirm, and lonely.

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