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Suburban myths

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After the City by Lars Lerup.MIT Press, 2000. 200pp. £15.50

One of the stranger features of architectural academia is the surprising number of participants who seem to have little faith in architects. In the 1970s and 1980s, the typical ploy was to use the traditional values of suburbia as the stick with which to beat the profession. More recently, the chosen weapon has tended to be French Post-Structuralist theory. Lars Lerup, professor at Rice University, must deserve a special accolade for his new book, After the City, since he manages to use both suburbia and Post-Structuralism in one go.

Lerup's gripes are familiar enough. Architects work only for the social elite, and are too wedded to their love of old, dense European cities. Architectural schools place too much store on innovation, uniqueness and individual genius. And his proscription is equally familiar: schools and practitioners should immerse themselves in the values of teamwork, and in the design of the authorless objects of suburbia.

But is any of this sustainable? Lerup calls up Manfredo Tafuri as his first defence witness.

Back in the 1960s Tafuri scored a hit by pointing out the 'crisis'of the architectural object in face of the forces that were shaping advanced capitalist cities. Whether architects designed using exaggerated expressionism or reductive rationalism, neither strategy could conceal the fact that buildings had been emptied of urban meaning.

Lerup seems to accept this diagnosis, and introduces a third alternative, which bizarrely, he claims Tafuri hinted at - a strategy balancing hard-headed realism with understated utopianism. He allies this third approach to the new possibilities that were opened out by Thomas Jefferson in the design for the University of Virginia, and then extends the argument to claim that the sprawling American suburb offers the means to pass beyond Tafuri's crisis of urban form.

Lerup certainly synthesises a wide range of theoretical and literary sources. He pastes together snippets into verbal collages, in emulation of Walter Benjamin, but with the device of the pedestrianised urban flaneur replaced by the car-driving suburban commuter.

Lerup's descriptions of the westward expansion of American settlers are quite the best thing in the book.Lerup notes that the Western prairies were conceived almost immediately as an economic commodity, being gridded up by Jefferson and others as if they were parcelling out a vast utopian city for development. In his view, the economic principle of 'going west' still plays a key role in the modern American psyche.

But when Lerup starts to deal with specific places, his case falls apart. Underlying the book is a desire to offer an aesthetic and intellectual justification of Houston, Texas, much in the same way that 30 years ago Reyner Banham turned his headlights on to Los Angeles (a city four times denser). It is the wrong tactic, since Lerup, like others, fails hopelessly in comparison with Banham.

He switched seamlessly between descriptions of environments, urban forms, and individual buildings, in a way that did not negate any of these conditions. Lerup's main problem is that he just does not seem to like buildings enough. His most detailed architectural description is of Piano's Menil Foundation, but tellingly there is not a single photograph, drawing, plan, or anything else to engage or convince the reader.

So we are left with a clever but empty attempt to argue that dense centralised cities have now been transcended by suburbia.Lerup uses the comparison between ancient Sparta, diffuse and lacking in physical presence, and Athens, iconographic and obsessed with erecting monuments of power. The modern parallels in the US might, one supposes, be represented by Houston and Manhattan. But on what basis would someone say that they did not prefer the unique exhilaration of New York to what Lerup himself calls the 'middle landscape' of Houston - neither here nor there, a halfway aesthetic between development and squalor, a nirvana of guns and gas? We would need a lot more convincing before changing our vote.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes Un ivers ity

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