How to Build a Suburb

By Rybczynski, Witold | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

How to Build a Suburb


Rybczynski, Witold, The Wilson Quarterly


Even its defenders concede that the modern American suburb had many shortcomings. An antidote may be found in the ideas of the nation's earliest suburban pioneers.

When the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier visited New York City in 1935, he found it strange that many of the academics, professionals, and businesspeople he met did not live in the city but in the suburbs. This was unheard of in Paris, where most people who worked in the city lived in the city. There were outlying towns such as Auteuil, Boulogne-sur-Seine, and Neuilly where some rich Parisians built villas, including a few designed by Le Corbusier himself, but in the 1930s not many middle-class people owned the cars needed to commute to such distant locations. To most Parisians, les banlieues (the suburbs) referred chiefly to the dreary industrial districts that ringed the city like a sooty pall. Only workers who manned the factories lived there.

Suburbs in the New World were different--not industrial but residential, and not proletarian but professional and managerial--and one senses grudging admiration as Le Corbusier describes the American suburban landscape with its generous, unfenced lots and its green amplitude. Always attracted to technology, he was impressed by the comfortable trains that linked Connecticut to Manhattan and made the leisurely suburban way of life possible. But there is an underlying sarcasm in his description of the suburban commute: "After a stimulating cocktail they [the commuters] pass through the golden portals of Grand Central Terminal into a Pullman which takes them to their car; after a ride along charming country roads they enter the quiet and delightful living rooms of their colonial style houses."

The notion of a decentralized city ran counter to all of Le Corbusier's urban theories, and he would have none of it. In When the Cathedrals Were White (1935), the chronicle of his American visit, he roundly condemned the concept of suburban living, convinced that the city of tomorrow would be a concentrated vertical city, not exactly Manhattan, but a version of Manhattan nevertheless.

He was wrong. The historian Fernand Braudel once observed that the French visitors to 19th-century northern England, horrified at the ugly, jerrybuilt factories and crowded mill towns, could not have dreamed that it was precisely Manchester and Glasgow, not London, that were the harbingers of the new industrial-age cities soon to spring up in France and all over Europe. In 1935, when Le Corbusier saw the houses of the American suburbs, he could not imagine that it was they, and not the towers of Manhattan, that were the precursor of the postindustrial urban future.

Le Corbusier was too caught up in his own urban theories to stop and ask, Why are their cities like that? Had he asked, he might have found that the different form of American cities represented a long-standing desire on the part of their inhabitants for a different way of life.

Unlike Parisian workers, Americans lived in suburbs by choice and had been doing so for more than 100 years. The architectural historians Christopher Tunnard and Henry Hope Reed date the earliest New York suburbs to 1814, when a ferry service for commuters was started between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and New Yorkers who could not afford a house in the good parts of Manhattan settled in suburban Brooklyn Heights. Soon, the commuters ventured farther. Landscape historian John Stilgoe quotes the editor and writer Nathaniel Parker Willis, who complained in 1840 that "there is a suburban look and character about all the villages on the Hudson which seem out of place among such scenery. They are suburbs; in fact, steam [Willis was referring to the steamboats that linked the villages to Manhattan] has destroyed the distance between them and the city." Similar patterns were unfolding in other cities. Henry Binford of Northwestern University traces the origin of the first suburban communities around Boston to 1820, and Rutgers University historian Robert Fishman dates the first West Philadelphia suburbs, which were reached by horsedrawn omnibus, to the 1840s. …

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