- November 8, 2021
The American suburb can be described as many things: political project, carbon form, economic apparatus, cultural organism, etc. More generally though, we might understand the suburb as a landscape of idealism, a space shaped by—and shaping—an idea of a life that is to be desired. For many, the idealism of the suburb is wrapped up in desires for space, quiet, safety, ownership, and community (among many other things), though aspirations for a better, more ideal life are also present in characteristics of the suburb that are often considered negative, like uniformity, repetitiveness, and exclusivity. Understanding the suburb as a product of ideological goals and ambitions demands that we look beyond its stereotypical image (read: architecture) and contemplate the intentions that give rise to and permeate its constituent spaces and forms. Why the single-family home? Why a lawn? Why so many cars? And most pertinent to this issue, why not urban?
Crossing an ocean (or even just stepping into any number of living rooms within this sprawling suburbia) might bring us face-to-face with another landscape of idealism, where “muddy puddles”1 are far more of an idealised2 form than they might typically be in the American suburb. While the domiciles of cartoon British pigs may not immediately present themselves as worthwhile objects of serious intellectual inquiry, it is interesting to note that both the American suburb and, by and large, the urbanism of animated children’s television shows—Peppa Pig,3 for example—share an interest in a similar kind of idyllic idealism.4 I would argue that this is not merely coincidental; their common idealism of the pastoral landscape belies a deeper desire to give form to a “good” life, one that is bound up in an imagination of what landscape is, can be, or ought to be. In both, the image of the bucolic is employed as an ideal setting for the lives of humans and pigs alike.5
A further probe into the idea of idealised architectures within idealised settings might lead us to Joseph Rykwert’s On Adam’s House in Paradise, in which the concept of the primitive hut is followed through architectural history. Like the houses of American suburbia and Peppa Pig, the theorized dwelling of the first man also takes place in an ideal(ised) setting (i.e. Paradise). For Rykwert, the notion of a first house6 continues to hold sway because it suggests a kind of purity or honesty; it is a “reminder of the original and therefore essential meaning of all building for people.” 7 This is an architecture that perfectly mediates between man and landscape while both remain in an ideal, not-yet-corrupted state—it is a condition that is held up to be replicated, or at least to be worked towards. The idealism of the primitive hut carries a degree of weight across time because it suggests that there is a way in which we should build a fundamental architectural ethic that should govern our work. Although a slightly different kind of idealism, the pastoral ideal that underlies the production of much of suburbia and children’s television operates in a similar manner. It too is an ideal that suggests that there is a certain way in which we should build and live, a certain way in which we (as humans, and as cartoon pigs) should experience the world around us.
However, I don’t intend this brief article to be a condemnation of idealism—or, for that matter, the idea of the “primitive hut” (which of course too often finds itself wrapped up in thorny interpretations). Instead, I would suggest that idealism is inescapable, and that a certain critical cognizance of what our idealisms and “first houses” (to borrow Rykwert’s term) are is therefore necessary. In other words, it is incumbent upon us to be aware of what kinds of future(s) we think are worth designing because we will always, invariably work towards something. The pastoral ideal of the American suburb is not an inert ambition, and I would argue that its presence in Peppa Pig is not meaningless either; Rykwert’s essay suggests that idealised types and forms persist and re-emerge with force throughout time. As such, it would be irresponsible to not recognize the idealisms we ourselves hold—be they urban or rural, from our childhoods, or rooted deep within time. Whether we labour in pursuit of an urban or a not urban idealism, or perhaps even one that transcends this dichotomy, it is important that we are clear on the nature of our idealism. As Rykwert notes at the end of his own essay, “Paradise is a promise as well as a memory.” 8