Why Suburbia Looks So Much the Same


Why suburbia looks so much the same

The split level, the picture window, the cul de sac, and the attached garage all seem like interchangeable components in houses across the US. Two new books explain how that happened.

The processes and ingredients that built suburbia—mortgage guarantees, the interstate highway system, the baby boomers, crime, white flight, and so on—are intensely familiar. But the processes that actually built suburban homes are not.

Seventy years after World War II, the suburban transformation of America is a set of statistics and demographic realities. It is a set of road maps and overhead photographs. But It is almost never anything as elementary as a floorplan, or an examination of the concerns that shaped the actual design and construction of 35.5 million homes between 1945 and 1980.

But now, within months of each other, two new books have appeared as rapidly as homes on a freshly paved cul de sac to fill this void: Barbara Miller Lane’s Houses for a New World: Builders and Buyers in America Suburbs 1945-1965 and James A. Jacobs’s Detached America: Building Houses in Postwar Suburbia.

Suburban building has long been reviled by sociologists and ignored by architects. As Lane comments, “scholarship has been delayed and disturbed by decades of neglect and dislike.” Some of that neglect and dislike is warranted: it’s hard to find all that much architectural distinction in the vast majority of suburban homes. […]