Walker Art Center's Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes Examines the Art and Architecture of the Contemporary American Suburb
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Walker Art Center's Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes Examines the Art and Architecture of the Contemporary American Suburb

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes

, the first major museum exhibition to examine both the art and architecture of the contemporary American suburb and its catalytic role in the creation of new art, premieres at the Walker Art Center from February 16–August 17. Organized by the Walker in association with the Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Worlds Away features more than 75 works—paintings, photographs, prints, architectural models, sculptures, and videos—addressing commonly held assumptions about the origins, demographic composition, persistence, and sustainability of the suburban landscape. Some 30 artists and architects draw inspiration from, provoke discussion about, or cast either an appreciative or critical eye on today’s suburbs. The exhibition co-curators are Andrew Blauvelt, Walker design director and curator, and Tracy Myers, curator of architecture at Carnegie’s Heinz Architectural Center.

The exhibition’s opening-weekend celebration features a Walker After Hours preview party on Friday, February 15, with DJ Glen Leslie Powell and music by Alpha Consumer. (A complete listing of related programs follows.)


The suburbs have always been a fertile space for imagining both the best and the worst of modern social life. On the one hand, the suburbs are portrayed as a middle-class domestic utopia and on the other as a dystopic world of homogeneity and conformity. Both of these stereotypes belie a more realistic understanding of contemporary suburbia and its dynamic transformations, and how these representations and realities shape our society, influence our culture, and impact our lives. Challenging preconceived ideas and expectations about suburbia (either pro or con), Worlds Away hopes to impart a better understanding of how those ideas were formed and how they are challenged by contemporary realities.

By 2000 more Americans lived in suburbs than in central cities and rural areas combined. As Americans have drifted ever farther from the urban core that historically was the site of the country’s economic, social, and cultural dynamism and evolution, the nation’s landscape, economy, and demography have been radically altered. Despite its sheer ubiquity and influence, the American suburb remains a critically under-examined force in shaping American cultural life.

Suburbs have been in a state of perpetual change: from early streetcar suburbs and postwar, sitcom-style “bedroom communities” to the more self-contained citylike suburbs of the late 20th century, such as the postindustrial “technoburb” with its new office parks and high-tech research campuses or “boomburbs,” whose explosive growth rivals the size of adjacent cities. As the suburban landscape evolved over the last century, its demographic composition has also changed. The mid-20th-century image of largely white, middle-class, two-parent families as the predominant household of suburbia has been transformed as contemporary statistics reveal that an increasing number of ethnic minorities and new immigrants make their homes in the suburbs and that households without children now comprise a plurality of suburbia.

The Exhibition

The exhibition is arranged in three sections: the residential tract home; the retail zone, comprised of the strip mall, shopping center, and big box store; and the infrastructure for automobiles and the culture it has engendered. Several design firms are producing new works for the exhibition. Estudio Teddy Cruz explores the reciprocal influence of American suburbanization and Latin American immigration on suburban San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico; FAT (Fashion.Architecture.Taste) presents its work on a multiethnic suburban park in the Netherlands; Lateral Architecture explores the spaces between and around big box power centers, the successor to suburbia’s regional mall; Interboro examines life at a so-called “dead mall” in New York; Minneapolis-based Coen+Partners revises a traditional cul-de-sac development; the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) documents the major automotive test tracks located in various urban peripheries of the United States; and Jeffrey Inaba of INABA/C-Lab recasts the humble suburban trash container and the society of consumption and waste it represents.

The residential tract home
Today’s suburban family can no longer be prescribed with the precision of nuclear-family stereotypes. Not only has the incidence of single head of households increased, but also the composition of residents now embodies multigenerational families living under one roof, multifamily housing, gay and lesbian households and families, and so-called “empty-nesters” and retirees without families. In fact, by 2000 the largest household type in suburbia was non-families (29%)—young singles and elderly persons living alone—followed closely by conventional married couples with children. In popular culture, the single-family detached home epitomizes the suburban ideal of the nuclear family and embodies the promise of the American dream.

Architectural works for this section of the exhibition will focus on emergent forms of residential suburban settlement with an eye toward redefining the detached single-family house in terms more closely aligned with the new demographics of suburbia. The ethnic diversity of contemporary suburbia is captured in the photographic montages of people and places by Minneapolis-based photographer Laura Migliorino. Larry Sultan’s series The Valley depicts the adult entertainment industry based in southern California, whose suburban-home film sets lift the veil on bucolic suburban life.

The strip, shopping mall, and big box

The strip mall is a byproduct of zoning codes that encourage businesses to cluster along busy thoroughfares and an evolution of small town main streets and business districts. Fostered by favorable changes to tax codes and other financial incentives, shopping malls began accelerating in the 1950s and 1960s with the introduction of fully enclosed climate-controlled environments and carefully planned circulation routes. The widespread introduction of “big box” stores soon followed. In the 1990s a new category, the mega mall—epitomized by the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota—was an inevitable extension of the growing scale of retail business.

Contemporary suburban retail has experienced both tremendous growth and new challenges. A major issue is the proliferation of abandoned and dying malls. “Greyfield Regional Mall Study,” a 2001 report, concluded that 7% of the regional malls in the United States were abandoned sites (“greyfields”) and another 12% were in decline, approaching closure. The same situation now faces communities with defunct big box stores. The adaptive reuse of such derelict sites has become an important ameliorative strategy. Artist Julia Christensen has been documenting the conversion of former big box stores to alternative uses, ranging from flea markets to churches to the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota. Artist Stefanie Nagorka adopts the big box store, in this case Home Depot, as both studio and gallery by creating sculptures in the store aisles from parts found on its warehouse shelves. The integration and coexistence of both residential and retail space can be seen in such works as LTL Architects’ New Suburbanism (2000/2004), a speculative work that investigates the possibility of a more vertical and integrated suburban space by combining a big box store with living and recreational spaces above. These more recent projects will be combined with some retail strategies of the past, such as the work of the architectural group SITE (Sculpture in the Environment), which in the 1970s and 1980s realized a series of surrealistic facades for the now-defunct retailer Best Showrooms, a predecessor to the experiential retail environments of today such as Niketown.

Roadways and Car Culture

The advent of suburbia was dependent on the expansion of transportation networks. In the 19th century, the extension of railway and streetcar lines fueled growth outside the urban core. The modern suburb’s development has been intimately connected to the expansion of the federal interstate system and the introduction of highways in and around major cities. It is impossible to conceive of suburbia without this network of transportation systems and the automobile culture it serves and encourages. The location of suburban development has always been in close proximity to transportation networks, whether housing developments, office parks, or shopping centers. Not only has transportation defined the patterns of growth, but it has also contributed to some of the most vexing problems confronting suburbia, including traffic congestion and increased commuting times not to mention the ecological impact of roadway construction and the consumption of fossil fuels. While the road as a symbol of escape and freedom has been a persistent theme in 20th-century culture, its specific context as the circulation system for suburban life engenders a different symbolism. Artists such as Catherine Opie have documented the infrastructural beauty of the Los Angeles freeway system itself, while others such as Andrew Bush have used the roadway to capture portraits of passing drivers.

Exhibition Web Site

walkerart.org/worlds away

A Suburban Lexicon Database

An online text-and-image database around the lexicon of suburbia, a cross between a photo-sharing site like Flickr and an online encyclopedia such as Wikipedia, is publicly editable and expandable. Users can upload their own images and entries to the site.

Videos tell stories about the suburbs.

A selection of short videos expressing the thoughts and experiences of people who live, work, or go to school in the suburbs will be featured as part of the exhibition. Entries can be viewed on the Walker’s YouTube page: youtube.com/user/walkerartcenter.

Exhibition Catalogue

A fully illustrated 336-page catalogue with 178 color plates exploring issues raised by the exhibition presents a revisionist and contrarian take on the conventional wisdom surrounding American suburban life.

Distributed by D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., 155 Sixth Avenue, Second Floor, New York, NY 10013, 800.338.2665 (phone), 800.478.3128 (fax), artbook.com, and available at the Walker Art Center Shop, 612.375.7633 (phone), 612.375.7565 (fax). ISBN 978-0-935640-90-8
$34.95 ($31.45 Walker members).

Catalogue Contributors

John Archer, professor of cultural studies at the University of Minnesota and author of Architecture and Suburbia, explores the issues of taste and suburban culture in his essay “Suburban Aesthetics Is Not an Oxymoron.”

Robert Beuka, author of SuburbiaNation: Reading Suburban Landscapes in Twentieth-Century American Fiction and Film, discusses representations of the American suburb, in particular themes of surveillance and entrapment, in American cinema.

Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History, arguably the first counter-thesis to the anti-sprawl movement, examines the aesthetics of suburban sprawl.

David Brooks, noted political journalist and op-ed columnist for the New York Times, contributes “Our Sprawling, Super-Sized Utopia,” adapted from his best-selling book On Paradise Drive.

Julia Christensen, an artist whose ongoing project documents the diversity of adaptive re-use of abandoned big box stores that populate the suburban landscape, discusses her work and practice.

Beatriz Colomina, noted architectural historian and author of Domesticity at War, presents an interview with architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown exploring their pioneering 1970s studio project, Learning from Levittown.

Ellen Dunham-Jones, director of the architecture program at Georgia Institute of Technology, proposes a union of the typically oppositional forces of elite contemporary architectural theory with the populist operational realities of suburban development in her essay “New Urbanism’s Subversive Marketing.”

Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author of such books as Blink and The Tipping Point, juxtaposes the visions of mall designer Victor Gruen and retail developer Alfred Taubman in his essay “The Terazzo Jungle.”

Louise Mozingo, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, looks at the evolution of the corporate landscape in postwar America in her seminal essay “Campus, Estate, and Park: Lawn Culture Comes to the Corporation.”

Tracy Myers and Andrew Blauvelt discuss ways that architects and artists have grappled with their engagement of suburbia.

Virginia Postrel, columnist for the Atlantic and author of The Substance of Style, writes “In Praise of Chain Stores.”

Holley Wlodarczyk explores how photographic depictions—both construction documentation and artistic portrayals—of 20th-century suburbia have altered and reinforced our understanding of this cultural space.

Jayme Yen and Rachel Hooper, former fellows in the Walker Art Center design and visual arts departments, contribute an extensive lexicon devoted to the ever-growing nomenclature surrounding suburbia, from “anchor store” to “Zillow.com.”

Exhibition Curators

Andrew Blauvelt is design director and curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. During his tenure he has organized traveling exhibitions such as Strangely Familiar: Design and Everyday Life (2003) and Some Assembly Required: Contemporary Prefabricated Houses (2005).

Tracy Myers is curator of architecture at the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, where she has organized such exhibitions as Lebbeus Woods: Experimental Architecture (2004).

Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes is organized by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in association with the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.

The exhibition is made possible by generous support from John Taft. Media partner Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

Tour Schedule

Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota
February 16–August 17, 2008

Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
October 4, 2008–January 18, 2009

Other venues to be announced.


Opening Weekend

Walker After Hours Preview Party

Friday, February 15, 9 pm–12 midnight
$35 ($25 Walker members)
Save $2 per ticket when ordering online at walkerart.org/tickets.
New members can choose one free ticket for joining.

Walker After Hours celebrates the opening of Worlds Away with complimentary Wolfgang Puck appetizers, cash bars, an art lab activity, music by Alpha Consumer, DJ Glen Leslie Powell, a film screening of Over the Edge, and the always popular Party People Pictures.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call 612.375.7600 or visit walkerart.org/tickets.

Walker After Hours sponsored by Target.

Target Free Thursday Nights

Thursday, February 21

Curator-led Tour: Worlds Away, 7 pm

Meet in the Bazinet Garden Lobby

Join exhibition curator and Walker design director Andrew Blauvelt for a look at the many ways artists and architects respond to America’s suburban condition. The works on view explore the landscape as a fertile place for imagining the best and the worst of modern social life. See if your own impressions of suburbia shift as you learn how the American suburb has played a catalytic role in the creation of new art.

Thursday, February 28

Drawn Here: Teddy Cruz, Estudio Teddy Cruz, 7 pm

Free tickets available at the Bazinet Garden Lobby desk from 6 pm

In a society increasingly obsessed with policing borders and erecting boundaries, architect Teddy Cruz operates in the zone between countries, disciplines, and cultures. “We should be turning our attention away from the wall and toward the landscape, the ecology, and the communities,” says Cruz, whose work is featured in the exhibition. He has followed that admonition with projects of passion, gaining critical acclaim for engaging issues of community, sociability, and immigration, and for collaborating with community-based nonprofit organizations on affordable, sustainable housing and its potential to transform urban policy. A native of Guatemala, Cruz has won the prestigious Rome Prize in Architecture, has his own
longtime architecture practice (Estudio Teddy Cruz), and is a professor in the visual arts department of the University of California, San Diego.

Thursday, March 6

Drawn Here: Contemporary Design in Conversation
Sean Griffiths of FAT (Fashion.Architecture.Taste), 7 pm

Free tickets are available at the Bazinet Garden Lobby desk from 6 pm

FAT pushes for a broad approach to architecture—one that incorporates interior and exhibition design, fashion, urban design and art projects. Its quirky, allusive, and decorative work questions the social bases of taste and the nature of communication in architecture. Established in 1995, FAT has won acclaim and awards for innovative building and urban design for projects such as The Blue House, a live-work space in East London, and Islington Square, a development of social housing in Manchester, and the Saint Lucas art academy in the Netherlands.

Sean Griffiths, a director and co-founder of Fashion.Architecture.Taste Ltd., has written and researched extensively on housing, and teaches a graduate design program looking at contemporary housing design and master-planning. Join him for a discussion about FAT’s vision, including his plans for redeveloping and regenerating a former industrial docklands in Middlesbrough, England.

Thursday, April 24

Panel Discussion: Next Exit: The Shifting Landscape of Suburbia, 7 pm

Free tickets are available at the Bazinet Garden Lobby desk from 6 pm

In today’s expanding metropolitan areas, the lines between the urban and suburban are rapidly blurring. Population growth, immigration, and transportation are among the many factors city planners, designers, and developers confront as they prepare for the next million people to move into Minnesota’s suburbs. Join panelists Lance Nekar of the Metropolitan Design Center, Dan Bergin of Twin Cities Public Television, and others for a discussion about the challenges and successes of new suburban design, how suburbs are becoming destination environments, and the cultural implications of these shifts. Moderated by Todd Melby.

Co-presented by the Metropolitan Design Center.

Target Free Thursday Nights sponsored by Target

Raising Creative Kids

Studio Class: Shopping Stories

For ages 12–14
Saturday, March 22, 1–4 pm
$60 ($40 Walker members)
Location: Mall of America

What role does the mall play in your life? Choose an angle to take on shopping culture and document it with a Polaroid camera. Observe different social cliques, take portraits of the latest trends, and discover how the mall can be a place for discussion and creativity in this workshop led by documentary photographer Deborah Meyer. Class meets at Mall of America. Polaroid cameras are provided, but students are encouraged to bring a digital camera from home. Space is limited; early registration is encouraged. To register or for more information, call 612.375.7600 or visit walkerart.org/tickets.

Arty Pants: Your Tuesday Playdate

For kids ages 3–5 and adults
Tuesdays, 11 am–1 pm
Free with gallery admission, members and kids under 12 are always free

What do hip kids and their (possibly) cooler parents do to spark creativity? Attend Arty Pants: Your Tuesday Playdate, featuring activities for adults and youngsters ages 3–5. Join us each month on the second and fourth Tuesdays for art projects, films, gallery activities, and story time.

March 11 and 25
April 8 and 22
Help your toddler navigate their way through suburban architecture, landscape design, and much more during March and April. Inspired by the exhibition, you and your youngster will work with guest artists to create installations, watch films, and listen to stories that look at life outside the city.

The Walker Art Center’s Raising Creative Kids Initiative is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Free First Saturdays Are for Families!

Escape to the Suburbs!
Saturday, April 5, 10 am–3 pm, Free

Visit the exhibition and discover how a variety of media—architecture, photography, video, sculpture, print, and painting—explore a variety of suburban conditions.

Art-Making for the Entire Family: Knock-down Chair

10 am–3 pm
Create your very own functional, cardboard, kid-sized chair, the brainchild of Canadian architect and engineer Michael Gross. This great piece of modern furniture is easy to assemble, fun to customize with your own art, and completely recyclable once you’ve put it to good use (although we’re fairly confident you’ll want to hang on to it for a while).

The Walker Art Center’s Free First Saturdays are sponsored by Medtronic Foundation. Media sponsor WCCO-TV.

Gallery Tours

All tours free with gallery admission; Free First Saturday and Thursday night tours are free.

Saturday, February 23, 12 noon
Thursday, February 28, 1 and 6 pm
Sunday, March 2, 12 noon
Thursday, March 6, 6 pm
Saturday, March 8, 12 noon
Sunday, March 9, 12 noon
Friday, March 14, 1 and 6 pm
Thursday, March 20, 1 pm
Saturday, March 22, 12 noon
Friday, April 4, 1 pm
Friday, April 11, 6 pm
Saturday, April 19, 12 noon
Friday, April 25, 6 pm

Additional support for Free First Saturday, part of the Walker Art Center’s Raising Creative Kids Initiative, is made possible by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services

Gallery Admission

$10 adults; $8 seniors (65+); $6 students/teens (with ID)
Free to Walker members and children ages 12 and under.
Free with a paid ticket to a same-day Walker event.
Free to all every Thursday evening (5–9 pm) and on the first Saturday of each month (10 am–5 pm).