Robert A.M. Stern on the Charms of Suburbia

A comprehensive history rescues the garden suburb from the periphery of urban design, and repositions it at the heart of the debate on cities.

Jardim América, 1911–29, Brazil.
Developed on 260 acres of land on São Paulo’s southern and western outskirts, the neighborhood remains highly desirable.

All images courtesy the Monacelli Press/Robert A.M. Stern Architects

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Robert A.M. Stern is nothing if not counterintuitive. How else do you explain—in an increasingly digital and urban-centric world—his recently released book, a 1,072-page tome, containing more than 3,000 images, on the history of  the garden suburb? Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City (the Monacelli Press, 2013) was written with longtime, in-house collaborators David Fishman and Jacob Tilove, who also worked with Stern on the fifth volume of  the architect’s epic New York series.

Paradise Planned is similarly expansive. “The book grew like Topsy,” Stern says. “We’d think we had all the examples down, and a new one would pop up. So it just got bigger and bigger. And I thought: if we’re going to do this book, we really ought to do it as the definitive text. Now, it’s not forever text. People will always be adding things. But this is a pretty comprehensive view.” I recently talked to Stern about his new book, the folly of “landscape urbanism,” and the lessons learned from the garden suburb.

At a time when everyone is talking about cities, urbanism, and landscape urbanism, you—an urbanist—wrote what is essentially a history
of  the suburb. Why now?

Maybe the book should have come out ten years ago! I felt like we had to do it, and this is when it got done. But I do think this discussion of landscape urbanism is a bit disturbing, and comes out of the influence of academia, particularly Harvard. Because I don’t think it’s a solution to the problem. It kind of blurs the identity of places, in a kind of green wash, burying everything in a salad. The garden suburb, as the book makes clear, had strong planning aesthetics and social principles behind it. It was calculated and calibrated in relation to the big city as a whole. It had clear borders and definitions, whereas this landscape urbanism seems to say: well, you just plop buildings around in a green matrix. This is not a way to make a good city or good suburban villages.

Why are garden suburbs relevant now? 

There are many issues. One is their historic importance. People are fighting the good battle to preserve them from mega-mansions, from roads being plowed through them, from open space being gobbled up for new development. So there’s the preservation issue. Second, they’re fantastic models. You can develop them at the edges of cities as a better solution for handling exurban development, which still exists in this country and in other countries around the world. But most importantly, they provide a fantastic example for redeveloping inner-city sites. Many of these early garden suburbs were virtually in the inner city.

Forest Hills Gardens 1909, U.S.
This was arguably America’s most fully realized urban garden village, in Queens, New York. Above: A birds-eye view from 1911.

They were the first-ring suburbs.       

Yes. In St. Louis they were very close to downtown. In other places, there were different patterns. As Detroit and other cities now struggle with vast amounts of uninhabited land, I’d ask: how can our development patterns be adapted so they will attract people of multiple income levels and ethnicities, who will all feel positive about their environment? The garden suburb is such a place. We know this because of the Hope VI program, which was implemented by Housing and Urban Development secretary Henry Cisneros during the Clinton administration, when some of the worst-performing public housing projects from the postwar era were cleared of their sites and replaced with very successful garden suburb–inspired developments. People had their own homes, and there were communal green spaces that were clearly bounded. They worked well. The housing development in New Haven called Elm Haven was a disaster, and its replacement is extremely successful.

In the sprawl suburbs of  the post–World War II era, you have houses, but they’re on large properties. There is no sense of community because of the lack of proximity from house to house, and they have very little in the way of shared spaces: no common parks, no village centers. Schools are marooned in remote locations, so most children cannot even contemplate walking or biking to them.

The weighty tome hopes (in the words of its authors) to “satisfy the hunger of the very many who wish to be Hamiltonian by day and Jeffersonian by night; that is to say, to combine the material and cultural advantages of city life with the restorative powers of dwelling amidst nature.”

I’m in Bronxville, New York, a lot, and it’s a classic garden suburb. When I’m there, I’m always struck by how urban it is, despite its suburban location. This speaks to the subtitle of your book, The Garden Suburb and the Modern City. What is the connection between the two?

Bronxville is a choice exemplar of what I’m talking about. It’s forty minutes by commuter train to Grand Central. It has a very defined and active downtown village, right at the train station. It has apartment houses and little enclaves of attached houses. Then, as you move further from the center, it becomes single-family houses, which are often on relatively small lots, but placed to take advantage of  the topography and to provide maximum privacy. The streets are beautifully laid out.

But there are so many other examples that you could cite that are much more complex than Bronxville, with more textbook lessons for everyone. There’s Forest Hills Gardens, in Queens, which was developed in 1910 when the Long Island Railroad was electrified going into Penn Station. At Forest Hills Gardens, you get off the train—you can now get there by subway as well—and you’re in Station Square, which is laid out like a quadrangle. There’s an old hotel that’s now apartments. There are shops. There are bridges over the streets that connect to various buildings, which provide a sense of enclosure, like an Oxbridge courtyard. The development of the streets has a clear pattern, radiating out from Station Square, which has special paving. There are lovely graphics and signage throughout the village. One road leads to the West Side Tennis Club, which for a long time was home of the U.S. Open. After trying to tear down the tennis stadium, they’re now preserving it and thinking of new uses. Forest Hills Gardens has wonderful, coordinated architecture; a common vocabulary of roofs, with massings punctuating a variety of buildings so they don’t get monotonous. The planning was done by the Olmsted brothers. The architectural coordination was by Grosvenor Atterbury, who had an amazingly advanced idea of how to use the relatively new material of reinforced concrete. He developed nail-crete, which was a kind of  prefabrication system.

There’s also a school in the middle of Forest Hills Gardens. The development then extends away from the railroad, toward the southeast, where it abuts Forest Park. So you have a sense of going from the central city of  Penn Station, to a village ten or twelve minutes away, then you walk through the village and you’re in the countryside, or at least the captured countryside in the form of Forest Park. It was intended to be for the working class as well; the Russell Sage Foundation sponsored it. Unfortunately, it’s upper middle class now. It’s great for them, but the idea of it being workers’ housing is gone. In the book, we do show many examples of garden suburbs that were built by industrialists for their workers and continue to be inhabited by working-class people, and treasured by them.

Blaise Hamlet,1811, U.K.
The first fully realized garden suburb, this little hamlet consists of ten medieval-style cottages (above and right) around a green area with a village pump, a sundial, and other nostalgic “countrified” features.

I always thought of  the suburb as a particularly American invention, but your book proves otherwise. Talk about the origins of  this movement. 

The garden suburb grew out of English planning. An early example is Blaise Hamlet by John Nash, which was built by an estate owner outside of  Bristol to give his retired employees a dignified place to live. Nash grouped the houses in a picturesque way around a central common, a green space.

This idea got picked up by other people—including Nash himself, who developed what is now Regent Street and Regent’s Park in London. What you see in Regent Street now is a 1910 rebuild of the Nash from 1810. Along the edges of  Regent’s Park, you have these big, long terraces designed like palaces, so the wealthy people in the row houses could feel like they were living in a wing of  Versailles. Then, behind that, there are tiny curving streets with modest houses for those days, which were intended for middle-class people. There is the canal, which was industrialized, and a hospital. It was a comprehensive view of planning. The architecture and landscape was used to express the need to create community life in an expanding, industrializing urban core, which was attracting people from the country—just as cities are doing today in China for people who want to live there for the job opportunities, but don’t want to lose the sense of  connection to the earth and to community.

Are these historic models really valid today for a country like China?

In our own work, we’re developing a project that’s under construction in Xiamen, where we incorporate these principles at a much higher density. The big issue in China, because it’s urbanizing so rapidly, is density. It’s fantastic. Our development puts thousands of cars underground, so that you don’t see them. We’re creating streets and everything from tower apartment houses to seven-and twelve-story buildings, to attached villas and freestanding houses. We’ve been designing this with Laurie Olin, the landscape architect. We have great open spaces and around this whole development, which is gated, there is a public right-of-way. This is a waterfront site on a peninsula, facing a lake, but the wide landscaped edge is public.

Would you characterize the Chinese development as automobile-centric or pedestrian-oriented?

I think the best Chinese developers and planners are beginning to realize that, while they welcome the car, they’re losing an awful lot in the way of positive environments for people, so they’re taking a second look. Our client for Xiamen, Vanke, one of the major developers in China, is trying to incorporate some principles of the garden suburb, where appropriate.

What’s interesting about garden suburbs is, if you scrape away the layers, they’re urban ideas.

As Olmsted said, when he laid out and planned Riverside, Illinois, nine miles from the loop in Chicago, “… no great town can long exist without great suburbs.” There’s no better commentator about modern urban development than Olmsted. He was an amazing thinker on the problem of the modern city.

What’s the future of  the American suburb as you see it?

Before the mortgage meltdown, the traditional town-planning movement and its related organizations, such as the Congress for the New Urbanism, were having a major impact on suburban development at the edges. While I applaud that, I remain hopeful that the focus could change more, and I believe it is leaning more toward implementing the garden suburb as a model in the inner city. But right now, with the mess we have in Washington, I have no idea what will happen. I hope people will look at this book and say, “You know, these are some pretty damn good ideas we’ve lost sight of. Why don’t we take another look?”

A History of the Suburb

Port Sunlight 1888, U.K.
This English town integrated social reform with picturesque urban design—and broke down the distinctions between housing for workers and housing for others. Above: The town’s post office, ca. 1905.

Park Güell, 1900–14, Spain
Planned by Antoni Gaudí, who designed the fantastic gate houses, Park Güell was a failure as a private residential development, but became popular as a public park after the city of Barcelona took it over in 1925.

Hellerau, 1906, Germany
Located four miles outside Dresden, Hellerau included buildings by noted architects such as Richard Riemerschmid and Hermann Muthesius. Above: A view along Am Grünen Zipfel Street, from 2008.

Wyomissing Park, 1917–21, U.S.A.
Planned by Hegemann and Peets outside Reading, Pennsylvania, and reenvisioned by John Nolen, this garden village retained much of the beautiful landscape. Above: John Nolen’s plan.

Denenchofu, 1918–23, Japan
Based on a plan by Kintaro Yabe, this suburb outside Tokyo quickly shed its middle-class roots to become an affluent neighborhood of independently built homes.

Charlotte Gardens, 1978, U.S.
The success of this “In-City Suburb” in the Bronx, New York, led to the Hope VI program of the 1990s, where inner-city housing was developed in village-scale urban neighborhoods. Above: Elevations of the Urban Suburb.

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