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Where the sidewalk ends: Walker show explores suburbia

Paho Mann's "Re-inhabited Circle K's (Phoenix), 2004-2006.
Photo courtesy of artist
Paho Mann's "Re-inhabited Circle K's (Phoenix), 2004-2006.

Architecture and design experts love to look down on suburbia. The curators of "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes," opening Saturday at the Walker Art Center, set out to cast away stereotypes and take a broader look at America's most ubiquitous landscape.

"I think most people would say they know what suburbia is. But we really don't know what suburbia is," said Tracy Myers of the Heinz Architectural Center in Pittsburgh, who co-curated the exhibit with Walker design director Andrew Blauvelt.

Myers pointed to the growing diversity of population and family types as one example of suburban reality that counters the preconceptions. "It calls for a closer look," she said.

Combining art and architecture, the show juxtaposes Brian Ulrich's photographs of shoppers in suburban Schaumburg, Ill., with Estudio Teddy Cruz's architectural models of housing for a Latino exurb of San Diego. A pink and blue painting called "The Mandela of Trash" hangs near another cartoon-colored drawing of a real project: a new "hobby park" designed to meet the needs of an immigrant suburb of Rotterdam, Netherlands, by the London firm FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste).

Jessica Smith used fabric for her "Trash Day," 2007.
Art courtesy of artist
Jessica Smith used fabric for her "Trash Day," 2007.

Three themes
"Worlds Away" revolves around three themes: the residential tract house — and alternatives to it; the retail zone of the big-box store; and roadways and car culture. But the curatorial approach is more impressionistic than didactic.

Many of the photographs and paintings can't avoid the sense of irony that the suburbs often inspire. In Angela Strassheim's "Untitled (McDonald's), 2004," a classic family seems to pray to the Golden Arches before chomping down their Big Macs. Minnesota photographer Chris Faust explores the exurban edge in his large-format black-and-white photos. Chicago-based Greg Stimac captures suburbanites mowing their lawns.

"Some are more pointed, some more neutral," Blauvelt noted. Two series of photos particularly caught my eye. Paho Mann photographed former Circle K convenience stores in Arizona that have been refashioned for new uses. The once-stamped out buildings have been individualized in a consistently down-market way. In the other series, the Los Angeles-based Center for Land Use Interpretation took aerial photos of auto test tracks in the desert that recall ancient earthworks.

Interventions and visions
The architectural entries — models, drawings and videos — all have a pragmatic bent. Rather than envisioning grand master plans on the scale of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City, these mostly young firms suggest opportunistic interventions, said Blauvelt.

Lateral Architecture of Toronto shows three ways to enliven the large swaths of asphalt between stores in regional power centers. (One idea is a new-fangled drive-in movie theater.) Minneapolis landscape architect Shane Coen proposed transforming a traditional cul-de-sac development outside Rochester, Minn., into a prairie landscape.

Videos — of retail showrooms designed by SITE in the 1970s and of a dead mall and ways it could be revived — add another dimension.

"I like to look at architecture where it is really more marginal, and that would be suburbia," Blauvelt said. "It's the most challenging frontier."

Note: An ambitious catalog titled "Worlds Away" documents the exhibit and enlarges it with essays by scholars and critics plus a dictionary of suburban terminology. ($34.95)

What: "Worlds Away"
When: Feb. 16-Aug. 17
Where: Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis.
Information: 612-375-7600
Online
Related events
7 p.m. Feb. 21: Curator-led tour of the exhibit.
7 p.m. Feb. 28: San Diego architect Teddy Cruz of Estudio Teddy Cruz speaks.
7 p.m. March 6: Sean Griffiths of London-based FAT speaks.
7 p.m. April 24: Panel discussion on suburbia's shifting landscape.

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