words by Michele D’Aurizio

Scenes from the Suburbs, film still, 2011
© Merge

The cul-de-sac became part of the design of American suburbs in the second decade of the twentieth century. A feature in Arab cities since the nineteenth century, its use was legally codified in the United Kingdom with the Hampstead Garden Suburb Act of 1906, which recognized the difference between cul-de-sac and other roads.[1] It was precisely with the fashion of the Garden City that the cul-de-sac landed overseas. City planner Clarence Stein, a great proponent of the Garden City in the United States, must have loved the indolence of driving through a cul-de-sac as opposed to the tension of hitting a dogleg, and its smoothness as opposed to the imperativeness of a dead-end. Radburn, the small New Jersey town Stein founded in 1929, had the first cul-de-sacs in American history. During its construction, the community was hailed as “a town for the motor age.”

In the suburbs I, I learned to drive.” These are the first words sung by Win Butler, frontman of the Canadian band Arcade Fire, in the title track from The Suburbs, the band’s third album, which was released in August 2010 and won the Grammy for “Album of the Year.” In a purely non-fictional vein, The Suburbs is an apology for suburban life through the tales of those who, struck by the financial crisis, have returned to the places they resolutely abandoned in late adolescence in pursuit of those dreams (“pretentious things”) suffocated by the tedium of life in suburbia. Bitterly, Butler recounts that those places now have a new structure and that his old friends don’t know him any more; that the war he idly imagined between two factions of the same neighborhood has actualized in the constant alarm sounded by the Bush-era Department of Homeland Security; that the time wasted by adults does not have the same flavor as wasted youth. The suburbs, however, remain a bridge to Arcadia, a place where fantasies materialize like mirages, intangible but extremely vivid, in the endless parking lots of shopping malls. The suburbs are, after all, a nice place to grow up.

So can you understand

Why I want a daughter

while I am still young?

I want to hold her hand,

and show her some beauty,

before all this damage is done.

But if it’s too much to ask,

if it’s too much to ask

then send me a son.[2]

Wars in the suburbs are fought to deal with the boredom. In the suburbs, no one would ever dream of saying that the community lacks space and time, the two primary qualities of a good life. They are actually the best place to learn to drive, because in the suburbs, there is no notion of a “destination.” The residents of these places are no strategists; rocking on their porches, they have learned to wait patiently. The American on-the-road myth has its antithesis in the cyclical pattern of suburban life and the concatenation of cul-de-sacs typical of its design. In the introduction to Manifest Destiny: A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing, recently published by AA Publications, Jason Griffiths writes, “The gentle loops and arcs of today’s suburban roads stand in contrast to the unyielding grid of the city road network. Unsurprisingly, our attempts to drive each and every road within a development often resulted in complete disorientation. But rather than fighting this process of perpetually getting lost, we discovered it to be a prime way to experience the sense of abandonment that pervades these suburbs. Accordingly, our journeys became deliberately labyrinthine misadventures of slow and directionless movement.”[3]


Jason Griffiths, Bump Outs, from "Manifest Destiny", AA Publication, London, 2011
© Architectural Association and Jason Griffiths

One could say that Suburbia’s literary reference is the minimalism of Raymond Carver: the story of a sad everyday life, punctuated by the expectation that something, only God knows what, will eventually happen. As he states in his poem “Drinking While Driving”, “Nevertheless, I am happy / riding in a car with my brother / and drinking from a pint of Old Crow. / We do not have any place in mind to go, / we are just driving.”[4]

Before Arcade Fire, American music rarely paid mind to these places, yet the suburbs are the real essence of the American landscape. Since World War II, the inhabitants of large cities, often incentivized by tax facilities, have gradually left the center to build aspirationally homogeneous communities in the suburbs. Touted by brochures and television ads, the fairy-tale scenario of unending greenery, amenities, community life and safety promised by suburban settlements, has fostered the American dream. Much more than interludes between the city and the countryside, or destinations for an exodus from necrotic urban centers, the suburbs can be seen as the result of an extraordinary marketing gimmick, winning the hearts of Americans even before their construction.

In “Utopia and Fear: The Endless Green-Leafed Psychotic Dream of the Suburbs,” Sam Jacobs writes that, “Suburbia was forced into existence by opposite parings: by technology and nostalgia, by desire and fear.”[5] Recently invited to make a long-form music video for the first two songs of The Suburbs, the American director Spike Jonze wrote and produced a 28-minute film in collaboration with Win and Will Butler, also a member of the band. The video was previewed at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival and is included in the freshly released anniversary edition of Arcade Fire’s record. Scenes from the Suburbs stoically embodies the ambivalence of these places: it is a summer of many years ago and a group of teenagers wanders around aimlessly; no one can leave the neighborhood because a war is going on outside and the military controls every avenue of escape, obstructing the course of everyday life.

Jason Griffiths, Better Hall 2, from "Manifest Destiny", AA Publication, London, 2011
© Architectural Association and Jason Griffiths

Scenes from the Suburbs has the horizons and the bicycle rides of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., the post-apocalyptic nonsense of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, the epical quality of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and the cynical violence of Stress, the music video shot in the Parisian banlieue by Romain Gravas for the Justice duo. Jonze depicts a dystopic scenario à la J.G. Ballard: surburban doom is to be abandoned and rebuilt elsewhere, its carcasses returned to Mother Nature. Chaotic, ugly and out of fashion, the suburbs seem to push their inhabitants toward a “new beginning.” And in spite of the war and the decline, here “love and longing and friendship still mean everything.”[6]

Oh this city’s changed so much

since I was a little child.

Pray to God I won’t live to see

the death of everything that’s wild.[7]

In suburbia, the picturesque is the only viable aesthetic ideal. Architectural culture is delivered into the hands of surveyors, whose role is to provide homes with a surfeit of comfort and to develop an appropriate filter between the interior and the exterior (verandas, patios, loggias). Decoration, intended in its more libertarian meaning of “personalization,” is the job of the user: in the best of cases, finishes and accessories are the latest arrivals from trusted hardware stores. The lawns grow rapidly, but the hedges take whole generations.

Dan Graham, Untitled, Jersey City, NJ, 2006
Courtesy of the artist and Lars Müller Publisher GmbH

Built between 1947 and 1951, Levittown was the first mass-produced suburban settlement, making its builder, William Levitt, the father of modern suburbs. In Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Robert Venturi lashed out against Levittown, writing, in a fit of pedantry, “It seems our fate now to be faced with either the endless inconsistencies of roadtown, which is chaos, or the infinite consistency of Levittown (or the ubiquitous Levittown-like scene), which is boredom.”[8] But one shouldn’t deduct that the “infinite consistency” embodied by the cliché aesthetic of suburban housing also applies to suburban lifestyle, as many have maintained, for example, with regard to the well-known photographic series Homes for America (1966–67) by Dan Graham.[9]

Venturi also writes, “I like elements which are hybrid rather than ‘pure,’ compromising rather than ‘clean,’ distorted rather than ‘straightforward,’ ambiguous rather than ‘articulated,’ perverse as well as impersonal, boring as well as ‘interesting.’”[10] Clearly, he did not live to know the true potential of suburbia, derived from the eclecticism, syncretism, hedonism, sarcasm and tenderness of its inhabitants; to see how in spite of what seems on the surface, here “complexity and contradiction” reign supreme. To use Griffiths’s words, “In our experience, the suburban compulsion to constantly refine its own idyllic image frequently leads to design that conflicts with everyday use. Nothing illustrates this fact more emphatically than the variety of decorative, processional front doors that are consistently undermined by a side entrance though the garage: one door symbolizes the suburban ideal and the other becomes the real point of entry. This, like many other examples, places the ideal at loggerheads with its daily use.”[11]

First they built the road,

then they built the town.

That’s why we’re still driving around,

and around and around.[12]

Life in suburbia is like life itself. We find ourselves in a cul-de-sac again and again, but it doesn’t mean that we are at a dead end. Rather, a cul-de-sac is an untroubled point to take wide turns, guided by centripetal force. The turns are rarely sudden, but then they are rarely true turns.

The Tree of Life, film still, 2011
© Fox Searchlight Pictures EuropaCorp

Win and his wife Régine (also a member of the band) believe in family. Starting with Funeral, Arcade Fire’s first album released in 2004, their songs obsessively dwell on their future babies. When trying to name them, they find that they have forgotten all the names that they used to know. Sometimes, they remember their bedrooms, and their parents’ bedrooms, and the bedrooms of their friends. Then they think of their parents, wondering what the hell ever happened to them.

In the 1980 novella Fantasticheria, which appeared in the Vita dei campi (Life of the Fields) collection, the Italian writer Giovanni Verga first formulates one of his recurring themes, the so-called “ideal of the oyster”: according to Verga, those individuals who are by nature weak, hardly able to improve their existential condition, should remain rooted to the values of family, work and tradition, thus preventing the “voracious fish,” Verga’s metaphor for the world, from swallowing them. The oyster is safe when it is anchored to its rock, in the same way that Verga’s protagonists can hope for a peaceful life only on the condition that, having stifled any spirit of enterprise, they let themselves be soothed by the cycles of the seasons. Win and Régine would like their children to be born and raised in the same neighborhood where they were born and raised. One day,they imagine, their children will leave that neighborhood, but they will always return because their sense of belonging to the suburbs is shared by their fathers and their fathers’ fathers.

After all, there will always be fathers to kill, so the neighbors can dance in the police disco lights.

They say a watched pot won’t ever boil,

you can’t raise a baby on motor oil,

just like a seed down in the soil

you gotta give it time.[13]

The Tree of Life, film still, 2011
© Fox Searchlight Pictures EuropaCorp

1. “Any road not exceeding 500 feet in length constructed primarily for the purpose of giving access to a group of houses in the Garden Suburb and not designed for the purposes of through traffic (known as an accommodation road), may with the consent of the local authority be exempted from any operation of any byelaws of the local authority relating to the width of new streets and footways.” The Hampstead Garden Suburb Act, Section 5, 1906.

2. Arcade Fire, “The Suburbs,” in The Suburbs, Merge, 2010.

3. Jason Griffiths, Manifest Destiny. A Guide to the Essential Indifference of American Suburban Housing, Architectural Association, London, 2011, p. 3.

4. Raymond Carver, “Drinking While Driving”, in Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories, Capra Press, 1983.

5. Sam Jacob, “Utopia of Fear. The Endless Green-Leafed Psychotic Dream of the Suburbs”, in Igmade (edited by), 5 Codes. Architecture, Paranoia and Risk in Times of Terror, Birkhäuser, Basilea/Berlino/Boston, 2006, p. 113.

6. From the trailer for Scenes from the Suburbs, 2011

7. Arcade Fire, “Half Lights II(No Celebration)”, in The Suburbs, Merge, 2010.

8. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1966, p. 54.

9. It is worth mentioning that Graham himself seems to have a new and less static vision of the suburbs than he used to. His recent update of the series in the newly published Lars Müller book Dan Graham’s New Jersey (2011) includes photos where he grasps the suburb’s kaleidoscopic and colorful scenarios, resonating with both tackiness and naivité.

10. Venturi, op. cit., p. 16.

11. Griffiths, op. cit., p. 4.

12. Arcade Fire, “Month of May”, in The Suburbs, Merge, 2010.

13. Arcade Fire, “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)”, in Funeral, Merge, 2004.