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The New American Village

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Bob Thall. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. 102pp. £19.50. (Distributed by Plymbridge 01752 202301)

The 'new American village' that figures in Bob Thall's photographs is actually a new type of suburb, writes Andrew Mead - an 'edge city' development of corporate headquarters, retail outlets, apartments and row houses intended as an alternative to the 'real'metropolis. 'Unlike a traditional suburb, most of the people living in these areas don't commute to work downtown.

The population of this new suburb increases at nine o'clock on Monday morning, ' writes Thall.

He focuses on the area of Schaumburg to the north-west of Chicago, in the vicinity of O'Hare International Airport; airports being typical generators of these new economic hubs. He was drawn by its apparent banality - 'To my downtown frame of mind, these new suburbs seemed functional, undifferentiated, ubiquitous, prosaic'- and in photographing it sought to challenge his preconceptions.

Thall doesn't try to be 'arty'; he does not aestheticise these developments by, for instance, making a detail into a pleasing nearabstraction.These black-and-white images are dispassionate.They attend especially to the areas between buildings - highways, car parks, sites earmarked for construction. The focal points in these new settlements are scattered, there is no obvious core.

In the course of his explorations, Thall claims to have found some 'significant new architecture in Schaumburg'- corporate headquarters built with 'great style, architectural integrity, and a real concern for the quality of life of the inhabitants.'

There is little sign of them in his photographs, though; such premises seem invariably to be slick, chill or otherwise dispiriting.

But it is the landscape of these suburbs that most gives pause for thought, where subOlmsted attempts at picturesqueness (silver birches beside a corporate lake) seem particularly forlorn amid acres of asphalt and tracts of waste ground. It is hard to dissent from Thall's conclusion. While the developers and residents of places like Schaumburg may have got exactly what they wanted, 'they are left to consider not the limits of their effort but the quality of their original vision'.

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