It is so often the case that while driving through the countryside and on the periphery of cities, we find ourselves struck by the brash expansion of ill-conceived suburban developments. Our sense of confusion is further exacerbated by the sudden appearance of large architectural interventions that seem to pop up out of nowhere, bringing to mind the wholesale reinvention of both agricultural land and an established way of living.
When Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders lamented the loss of her Ohio town, it was not without sympathy that we all sang along and recalled how when we returned home our "city was gone," and that here too "there was no train station, there was no downtown." Worse still, we realized that the houses and shopping centers that had displaced them seemed to be more the stuff of cardboard layering and less the sturdy framework of lasting constructions. In the face of so much inexplicable sprawl, we can't help but relegate the blame back to greed and the artless pursuits of developers. Which may be true, but as Dana Cuff tells us in her Provisional City (MIT Press), the story is not so flat and heartless as that.
Set in Los Angeles between the Depression years of the 1930s and the era shortly after World War II, The Provisional City explores the political and economic scenarios under which such upheavals became necessary and indeed inevitable. Turf battles between private and public interests became much more commonplace during this period, and public involvement was either stopped or manipulated, tipping the balance in favor of those who were trying to get ahead in the housing market. We learn, for instance, that private developers did not start to think big for no reason, but instead out of a desire to capitalize on the federal government's anxiety over meeting housing shortages. During the Depression, when low-income residences were paramount and then again in the years after WWII, when starter homes were needed for returning veterans, housing was a significant, immediate and lucrative priority.
Of all the names that appear in The Provisional City, that of Fritz Burns lingers long after the book is finished. Fritz was a shrewd developer and politician who almost single-handedly resisted the continuing influence of the government in the housing market, and by the early '50s was able to halt it completely. It was fine for the government to take drastic measures to accommodate housing needs during war activities, but now that that era was over, it was time to let the market take its own course.
And he did not just wait and hope for the economic wind to turn in his favor; he made sure he was in charge and looking ahead. He was clever, for instance, to realize that the new consumer was looking to hang onto the past while wanting all the conveniences of the future. On the one hand, Fritz knew home consumers were looking for the kind of technology that would make work less burdensome; on the other, he realized they were searching for that lost and familiar time when home represented comfort and security. Fritz also captured the optimistic imagination of a post war nation by designing homes for the "family of the future," complete with a helipad for the businessman father (who, of course, would use a chopper to get to work) and a brand-new washing machine and under-counter refrigerators for his wife.
At this point in the book, Cuff makes an assertion that is repeatedly suggested throughout the 400 pages of text. One of the biggest reasons that architects are ultimately impotent in their efforts to change the world, she says, is due to the fact that they have remained outside the area of political activism. What made Fritz so successful was his ability to see how Americans wanted to "enter into the future," not by rupturing with the past, but "in bits and pieces, from automatic dishwashers to built-in bedside phones and armrests." Fritz, furthermore, took this knowledge and found ways to make such previously luxurious homes affordable to young families and the widening middle class.
While The Provisional City does not unearth new ground, it is a must-read for those seeking additional insight into why America's urban spaces are particularly prone to upheaval and why those upheavals are rife with emotional and psychological repercussions. If the book suffers at all, it does so from being too narrowly focused on housing projects. At times it reads like a timid thesis project unable to release itself from the pursuit of names, numbers and dates. That's unfortunate, because it could have focused more on the larger debate about how the culture itself -- in terms of the arts, sociology, history and even pop culture -- influenced the growth of suburbia during these years. But this is a small criticism; The Provisional City is a valuable addition to the subject of city planning and architecture.
Ayad Rahmani is a professor of architecture
at Washington State University in Pullman.