• Wednesday , 13 November 2019

Suburbia as an incubator of arts and culture

Cupertino, California. Photo by Roger Keil

As the birthplace of David Bowie, Apple, and Garage Rock, to inspiring George Orwell, Roddy Doyle, and J.G. Ballard, suburbia has had a profound impact on arts and culture. However, this fact is rarely discussed. Suburbia is often considered to be a mundane sprawl of repetitive ‘cookie-cutter’ houses, inhabited by shallow, social-climbing, white middle-class inhabitants. Since its rapid growth in the mid-twentieth century, the suburbs have gained a negative reputation. However, suburbia is a complex landscape with multiple variations depending on location and social and economic factors. Despite popular opinion, suburbia is an incubator of arts and culture in its own right. All too often, the suburbs are dismissed as unworthy of architectural interest, with its ability to encourage and sustain creativity rarely discussed by academics.

The extreme growth of suburbia began most noticeably in the United States, correlating with the growth of car sales and mortgages in the boom years following the 1930s Depression and World War II (Huq, 2013a, p.6). The growing emphasis on home ownership resulted in mainly white middle-class families moving to live within commuting distance of a city, yet with all the benefits of country living (Thorn, 2019, p. 47). This mass exodus found dislocated families living in close proximity to each other, within identical houses, hoping to forge a better life for themselves. Thus, competition between neighbours to acquire all the newest mod cons developed, and suburbia gradually became associated with ‘spiritual emptiness, the absence of community, the decline of working-class political consciousness, [and] the promotion of consumerism and middle-class values’ (Gibson et al., 2017, p. 351). Consequently, the ‘deeply rooted cultural assumption that suburbs are geographies of consumption rather than production’ (Gibson et al., 2017, p. 357) led to the belief that suburbia stifled arts and culture – creativity could not possibly be fostered in an environment so intrinsically linked to mass consumption and social climbing.

However, suburbia is ‘a complex and richly textured physical and social fabric’ (Archer et al., 2015, p. vii). Common stereotypes of suburbia ‘overlook the multiplicity of suburban forms and ignore the lives of suburbia’s inhabitants’ (Archer et al., 2015, p. vii). Rupa Huq’s studies in the United Kingdom highlight that the ‘associations of suburban privilege and squalid inner-cities are blurring and merging if not completely reversing’ (Huq, 2013b). Suburbia is increasingly housing those who can no longer afford to live in gentrified city centres, often causing the outskirts to become more multicultural and diverse.

Suburban Dublin. Photo by Aoibheann Ní Mhearáin

Throughout suburbia’s history, there are examples of creative and cultural developments. Steve Waksman writes about suburbia’s role in the growth of the ‘garage rock’ music genre, predominantly in the USA, in the 1960s and 1970s. The ‘combined impact of British Invasion rock and the resulting mass consumption of electric guitars and other musical instruments’ (Waksman, 2015, p. 331) enabled music production to occur in the suburban home. Garages, designed to house suburbanites’ all-important motorcar, became both private and public spaces, allowing teenage bands to both rehearse and publicly perform to their neighbours. Waksman writes that ‘not individual suburbs but suburbia in general has been deemed one of the preconditions for garage rock to flourish’ (Waksman, 2015, p. 331). Therefore, ‘garage rock might … be perceived as one of suburbia’s most significant indigenous cultural forms’ (Waksman, 2015, p. 338).

Simultaneously, 1960s Britain saw the beginnings of a ‘very English genre’ of ‘suburban social realism’ (Harris, 2010) in both music and literature, with writers and musicians portraying the joys and pains of their suburban lives. Beginning with bands such as The Kinks and The Jam, and continuing on to 2000s indie bands such as the Arctic Monkeys (Harris, 2010), this was the birth of ‘rock music [which was] uprooted from the glamour and dazzle of the city, and recast as the soundtrack to life in [the] suburbs’ (Harris, 2010). David Bowie, famous for his fantastical music and style, grew up in the London suburb of Bromley and it was ‘from that suburban setting [that] sprang his iconoclasm [and] his rule-breaking’ (Thorn, 2019, p. 26). Thorn believes this is proof that ‘growing up in a conservative environment is inspiring, giving the artistic type something to kick against, a reason to rebel’ (Thorn, 2019, p. 26). Characteristics of suburbia which appear stifling to some, prove inspirational to others.

Ticket for a Ramones concert at Quarry Road, Cabra, Dublin

Many influential writers, including Philip Larkin, J.G. Ballard and George Orwell were inspired by their lives in suburbia, viewing its rapid growth as a modern and dramatic change to the quintessential English rural landscape – a fact which both frightened and enthralled them. Furthermore, in McManus’s writing on the suburbs of Dublin, she highlights the ‘work of a new generation of poets, playwrights and authors – born in the late 1950s and raised in suburban Dublin [who] began to directly address the suburbs and did so in new and different ways’ (McManus, 2018, p. 6). These writers, such as Roddy Doyle, Paul Mercier, Paula Meehan and Dermot Bolger, ‘challenged the status quo by documenting their socially and physically marginalised suburban experiences’ (McManus, 2018, p.6). McManus notes that these writers’ success forced ‘the metropolitan core to recognise and value these previously ignored, invisible spaces’ of suburbia (McManus, 2018, p. 7).

Therefore, as more and more people relocate to the suburbs, we must begin to consider ‘the role which suburbs […] play as locations for the creative industries’ (McManus, 2018, p. 1). It has become clear that many creatives are attracted to living and working in suburbia, describing it as ‘tranquil’ and ‘serene’ and associating the suburbs with a sense of ‘freedom’ (Gibson et al., 2017, p. 356). Inner cities’ ‘access to entertainment, cultural events, and social networks have their attractions, but also take time and energy that might otherwise be spent on developing one’s own creative practice’ (Gibson et al., 2017, p. 356). It is vital that architects and planners begin to gain a three-dimensional understanding of these complex areas. The potential of suburbia needs to be understood in order to ensure that it remains, or develops into, an attractive home for its many inhabitants.

Notes

Archer, J., Sandul, P.J.P., Solomonson, K. & Crawford, M. (eds.) (2015) Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Gibson, M., Flew, T., Collis, C. & Felton, E. (2017) ‘Creative Suburbia: Cultural Innovation in Outer Suburban Australia’. In: Berger, A.M., Kotkin, J. & Balderas Guizman, C. (eds.) (2017) Infinite Suburbia, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, pp. 351-358.

Harris, J. (2010) The Sound of the Suburbs and Literary Tradition, Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/apr/03/suburbia-pop-betjeman-john-harris (Accessed: 27th October 2018).

Huq, R. (2013a) Making Sense of Suburbia through Popular Culture, London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Huq, R. (2013b) Viewpoint: Why are Suburbs Seen as Boring?, Available at:https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23313690 (Accessed: 30th September 2018).

McManus, R. (2018) ‘Exploring Creativity in Dublin’s Suburbs, 1900-2010’, paper presented to European Association for Urban History (EAUH) Conference, Rome, 29th August-1st September, Viewed 10th January 2019.

Thorn, T. (2019) Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia, 1st edn., Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd.

Waksman, S. (2015) ‘Suburban Noise: Getting Inside Garage Rock’. In: Archer, J., Sandul, P.J.P., Solomonson, K. & Crawford, M. (eds.) (2015) Making Suburbia: New Histories of Everyday America, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 329-343.

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