Review: Suburban Transformations

I'll start this review off with an apology to PA Press, since they sent me a review copy of architect Paul Lukez' new book Suburban Transformations back in early November and I'm just getting around to actually reading and reviewing it more than two months later. There was NaNoWriMo, then there were holidays...it has been a crazy winter. And so, without further ado...

There is a lot of discussion these days, at least in architecture and planning circles, about what will happen to today's sprawling suburbs as people wake up to the fact that the current suburban model is unsustainable. There have been calls for a complete return to cities, though I think most everyone knows that this would be extremely difficult if not outright impossible. Cities have physical limits, and density becomes unhealthy after a certain point. Compare Paris to the infamous Kowloon Walled City for an exemplary contrast.

Still, it is widely assumed that the suburbs of tomorrow will look quite different from the beige, cul-de-sac draped landscapes that currently surround central cities throughout much of the developed world. While the speculation about the external changes that will force suburbs to shape-shift is frequent and varied, ideas (not to mention actual visualizations) of what these nouveau suburbs might look like are surprisingly few and far between. Suburban Transformations fills a unique gap in that regard, and the pragmatic novelty of author Paul Lukez's descriptions and images of prospective suburban densification and evolution is what makes them so very impressive.

Stylistically, Suburban Transformations is something of a hybrid; it is too colorful to be called an academic text, and yet a bit too dry to be read purely for entertainment. Still, the mix works well, with the text augmented generously with drawings and photos. The bulk of the book is spent discussing the methods Lukez envisions for changing the shape of traditional auto-centric suburbs as painlessly as possible; his process -- deemed the "Adaptive Design Process" -- is appropriately simple. It offers ways to examine and reshape suburban spaces characterized (ironically?) by their lack of character. If suburbs are to be criticized for their generic appearances, Lukez' process should conversely be commended for its ability to take these incredibly generic places and not only make sense of them, but also to make valid suggestions about how to take supposedly hollow, meaningless places and re-think the context to provide opportunities for site-specific design.

The bulk of the book focuses on a single hypothetical case study of the area around a mall in the Boston suburb of Burlington. Here, the author puts his theories into action, using everything from the topography to the noise levels to the freeway interchange -- yes, the freeway interchange -- to give texture and meaning to the site. The book suggests that Burlington's history as an important transportation route -- established first by Route 128 in the early 1900s and reinforced by the freeway in the 60s, can and should be used as a contextual element to guide the design process for transforming the site. The massive roadway is thoroughly and thoughtfully integrated into all of the adaptive designs that are envisioned during the second half of the book. In the end, the freeway itself becomes more closely related to the site; at the same time that it gives the site meaning, the reconfiguration of that site transfers increased significance to the road itself.

Further exploration of the Adaptive Design Process is helpful to understanding its versatility. As a result, Lukez also takes time at the end of the book for three shorter case studies of Amsterdam, Dedham (another Boston suburb), and Shenzhen. Illustrations are plenty and the ideas presented exciting. In fact, this is perhaps the book's greatest strength: its ability to turn a seemingly dire problem (the proliferation of soulless suburbs) into a golden opportunity. Suburban Transformations envisions the dramatic altering of the suburban landscape. And whether or not the process described in the book is ever widely used, the true value of this book is how effective it is in dramatically altering the reader's perspective.

Suburban Transformation (Powells.com)

Paul Lukez Architecture

1 comment:

Electronic Goose said...

FYI, Lukez is speaking in Boston at a free lecture in March through the BSA: www.architects.org/lectureseries.