Suburbia: the American dream far from heaven


If we had to put an image of the “American dream” it is likely that many of us would think of a house with a garden, swimming pool and a garage that could fit a couple of vehicles (perhaps the pool hid a corpse, if you ask a car enthusiast). Billy Wilder; or it was a path to expulsion from paradise, for Cheever readers). It is an ideal of life that has achieved enormous dissemination through literature, cinema or advertising, but that, in its projection to become an urban model on the outskirts of many cities, not only American, can give rise to controversial debates; “Suburbia” delves into them, an exhibition that we can visit from today at the CCCB in Barcelona and which has been curated by the journalist Philipp Engel.

Going back to the origins of residential neighborhoods of this type, in the 19th century, the exhibition then recalls how they proliferated in the 1950s in the United States and reviews the historical, social and economic context that accompanied this expansion, which in the 1990s, As we said, it went beyond the borders of that country; In fact, it continues to be very common to understand residing in this type of areas on the urban peripheries as a vital goal. Faced with its advantages (calm away from the bustle of the city center, proximity to green areas), this exhibition reviews the less friendly side of these developments: the one that, in the beginning, had to do with social and ethnic segregation and today with a continuous need to use the car for basic trips.

On the tour, historical materials, photographs, paintings, audiovisuals, literature, works of art or everyday objects will come our way; Among the authors represented, there will be no shortage of those who have most contemporaneously highlighted the questionable comfort of those neighborhoods that were idealized in A place at the top: Jessica Chou, Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Doyle, Gerard Freixes, Gabriele Galimberti, Weronika Gesicka, Benjamin Grant, Todd Hido, Joel Meyerowitz, Matthias Müller, Blanca Munt (recently selected in the KBr Flama program of the MAPFRE Foundation), Alberto Ortega , Bill Owens, Sheila Pree Bright, Todd Solondz, León Siminiani, Amy Stein, Greg Stimac, Angela Strassheim, Deborah Stratman, Ed & Deanna Templeton, Kate Wagner and Christopher Willan.

Suburbia.  The construction of the American dream.  CCCB, Barcelona
Suburbia.  The construction of the American dream.  CCCB, Barcelona

A first section of the exhibition takes us to what was the planning period of the “dream”: to the first half of the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution turned American cities into engines of the country's progress, but also into dangerous places in terms of to safety and increasingly further away from the field; The appearance of trams, railways and automobiles favored the concentration of inhabitants and the transformation of the natural environment of these towns into new housing areas. Once the conquest of the West was completed at the end of that century, the middle classes accessed these peripheries, in a gridlike growth, while the old roads became highways on which the increasingly numerous Ford Ts traveled, then almost a symbol of freedom.

A view of New York in a lithography by John William Hill will bring us closer to that stage; The American Women's Home by Catherine Beecher, considered the Bible of domestic feminism; a 1923 Ford T Touring and clips from classic films by Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

General Electric advertising: It's a promise, 1945. Private collection, Barcelona
Federal Housing Administration, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota Courtesy Minnesota Streetcar Museum, Minneapolis

The biggest explosion of the suburbs occurred when the American soldiers who had fought in World War II returned to their country and it was necessary to find housing for their newly founded families: eleven million single-family buildings were built, loans were granted to these veterans generous and there was a clear growth in the birth rate in the fifties. Racial minorities did not, in general, access these residential areas until the sixties, when their arrival led to the departure of a percentage of their previous residents, a phenomenon that was called white flight (white exodus). Some of them portray that moment at the CCCB sitcoms dated between the forties and the present, the famous illustration New Kids in the Neighborhood by Norman Rockwell, dedicated to the arrival of a group of black children to Park Forest in 1967, and photographs belonging to the series Suburbia by Bill Owens, dated in the seventies.

Norman Rockwell.  New Kids in the Neighborhood, 1967. Norman Rockwell Museum Collection

When insecurity reached these places (not massively) in the seventies and eighties, confidence in the street as an appropriate space for children's walks and games was contaminated by fears, more or less justified, which led to the installation, this one massive for a time, of alarms and new locks. In literature and cinema, this environment gave rise to the so-called suburban gothic; If this style was initially inspired by New England, it would no longer refer to specific settings, simply to green gardens behind white fences.

In photography, they captured visions of those threats to the former shining tranquility of Amy Stein, Todd Hido, Gregory Crewdson, Angela Strassheim and Gabriele Galimberti; We will also see the installation McMansionHell by Kate Wagner and two unpublished paintings by Alberto Ortega, a Sevillian artist who comes to portray these areas at night.

Alberto Ortega.  Alberto Ortega Annunciation, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
Greg Stimac.  Chandler, Arizona from Mowing the Lawn portfolio, 2006. Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago
Bill Owens.  I don't feel that Richie playing with guns will have a negative effect on his personality.  (He already wants to be a policeman.), 1972. Bill Owens Archive, Milan

Despite their expected decline following the oil crisis, these types of suburbs have not stopped increasing and transforming: 80% of Americans live in dispersed housing spaces and new generations continue to yearn to live in them. Today they are more open, and populated by diverse communities, as proven by the works in this exhibition by Sheila Pree Bright, who has photographed African Americans living on the outskirts of Atlanta; Jessica Chou, who has done the same with the Asian community of Monterrey Park, in California; or Ed Templeton, who has catered to the new lifestyles emerging in Huntington Beach, a mecca for surf fans.

Thomas Doyle.  Proxy (Haven Ln.), 2012. Courtesy of the artist

A final section of this project focuses on the Catalan context, and emphasizes that much attention has been paid to the ideological differences between rural and urban populations but not so much to the growth of dispersed urbanizations, especially in the second half of the last century and responding to a cultural discourse halfway between the idealization of american way of life and the exaltation of the advantages of life in the country (of the caseta i l'hortet). At this point we will contemplate a photographic report created specifically for the occasion by Christopher Willan, Blanca Munt's images about neighborhood mistrust and an audiovisual by León Siminiani.

With its lights and shadows – currently especially in terms of the standardization of architecture and the ways of moving and consuming, a depersonalization that brings these neighborhoods closer to the concept of no-place– “Suburbia” emphasizes that the American dream is still alive and perhaps revitalized, after the pandemic and its imposition of distances.

Ed Templeton.  Contemporary Suburbium, 2017. Courtesy of Roberts Projects, Los Angeles
Christopher Willan.  Els Trullols Parc-1, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

“Suburbia. “The construction of the American dream”


C/ Montalegre, 5


From March 20 to September 8, 2024

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