At times, the cry of “Texas Forever!” is heard across the state. The phrase, lifted from “Friday Night Lights,” also describes the endless fabric of Texan cities. After World War II, our major urban areas ballooned, with suburbs marching out along the fresh highways, resulting in a supposedly homogeneous space with all sorts of associations. This is sprawl, the doughy ring around the downtown void that came to define late-mid-century American urbanism. But now it is 2017, and the sprawl goes on. How can architects engage with this economic model of real estate development in progressive ways?
One commendable effort is Mass Market Alternatives (MMA), a proposal by Brooklyn-based John Szot Studio (JSS) that connects algorithmic architectural assemblies to the realities of tract home construction. It is an exercise that aims to bring “diversity to the suburbs through design.” In short, it delivers an alternative vision of sprawl aesthetics.
Szot, pronounced “zot,” grew up outside the loop in Houston. For him, “living in a suburban subdivision in Texas meant having access to country and city environments,” though his experience was more rural than urban. He earned his bachelor’s degree in architecture at The University of Texas at Austin in 1998, and since then has periodically returned to lead studios at the school. He also currently teaches at the Pratt Institute. Teaching a graduate studio at UT Austin in 2001 stimulated Szot’s interest in suburban housing. Over the following decade, he kept photos in his studio that documented residential construction in the outlying areas of Houston and Dallas, looking for “signs of life.” “We ruminated on the serialist quality of the homes’ side and rear elevations,” Szot says. “Despite the lack of care in composing them (or perhaps as a result), they showed such daring and wit that they ultimately inspired us to take action. That’s when we made the connection between the economics of suburban home construction and the true aesthetic nature of designing for the suburbs: Variety is more important than coherence.” The importance of perceptual uniqueness within a larger uniformity suggested that a computational approach might be a way to investigate these structures.
The MMA residences are conceptually sited in Houston, somewhere between the 610 and 99 beltways. Each subdivided lot in the imagined development is one acre in size (large, for many of today’s subdivisions) so that “windows might be more generous and inhabitants would be less inclined to keep them covered around the clock.” Each home is oriented inward around a courtyard, as “a foil to the infamous formality of the suburban lawn, and to reduce the need for a backyard perimeter fence.” This means that, instead of the front/back dichotomy of typical tract homes — which leads to an elaborate street facade that takes priority over the side and rear elevations — there is only the split between “inside” and “outside.” Shared garages located along property lines reduce the number of cars parked on the street. The rest of the land behind the residences is preserved by means of generous easements, so as to leave undeveloped areas accessible for exploration by neighborhood children. Though MMA emerges from suburban economics, these three initial conditions — one-acre lot with easement, courtyard typology, and shared garage — set the stage for a development that looks radically different from what the market currently provides.
To begin, JSS started with the “s” word: style. They isolated four housing “lines” to develop: precast, patio, loft, and ranch. They aimed to “produce sets of homes that were a clear aesthetic break from the vernacular pastiches that dominate the market. Each style was distilled into a collection of wall sections that became the construction vocabulary for the homes belonging to that line.” JSS has made films about architecture, and the “Shibuya algorithm,” an operation borrowed from its recent work “Architecture and the Unspeakable,” provided the generative mechanism to produce the ring-shaped patterns. Each colored division represents elevational expression, and 30 patterns were created for each line (120 unique houses in total). Then, each pattern was translated into a floor plan by matching the different bands with the corresponding wall section for that pattern. “Through careful tuning of the math driving the proportions of the patterns’ components, the algorithm’s output translates quickly to a set of occupiable spaces,” Szot says. “With the algorithm dictating the home’s general arrangement, a basic floor plan can be produced in under an hour.”
Renderings of buildings isolated on lawns beneath pine canopies showcase the genetic language of each stylistic line. Unlike the frontal expressions of many McMansions, the cut-up parts don’t stand out as superfluous or poorly detailed in their transitions, as the problem of joining different building components was resolved early in the process. Seen together, the pieces of architecture relate to each other with pleasing coherence, but each individual home is unique in plan, resulting in a different living experience for each resident. The overall read — maybe seen from a car that would cruise the cul-de-sacs, windows down — is one of individuality. But a higher level of consistency emerges, a result of the formal palette at work. “Bringing the kind of architectural integrity and diversity one finds in Houston’s central districts to its suburbs without disrupting its underlying economics seems like it would hold a lot of value for Houston,” Szot says. He also believes that “there is an underserved market of potential buyers who would seriously consider suburban life if they could find a home that reflects their values.” MMA, then, is a provocation that explores how to invite more citizens to the suburbs to find a place that suits their tastes without aesthetic judgment. The proposal is “intended to provide a foothold for those willing to start a new conversation about what kind of community the suburbs could be if they supported some deviation from the majority mindset.”
Sprawl began with certain values that shaped its unfurling. While some suburban enclaves were progressive in nature, others were exclusionary (or outright racist). But values can change over time, adjusting to the complexities of the American Dream in the 21st century. Today’s suburbia, for instance, can be poverty-stricken or can offer footholds into the middle class for growing segments of the population, all while still maintaining its historic image as home to the idealized nuclear family — it accepts many narratives. “For better or worse,” Szot says, “suburbia has provided us with an extraordinary example of how industrialization and economics shape cultural values through architecture and urban planning.” He explains: “This is because large collections of similar homes ultimately become political blocs, making a suburban subdivision a powerful means for testing the relationship between aesthetics and politics at a civic scale. Because protecting one’s return on investment means catering to the largest demographic, suburban communities will become increasingly homogeneous through these practices without willfully intervening on behalf of those with alternative tastes and values.” The effort is progressive but not revolutionary; for Szot, the key question is “How can the suburbs be made more diverse without demanding a sea change in the economic system that supports them?”
Sprawl also arrives with environmental impacts that should not be understated or ignored. For Szot, “it seems like the solution lies in sensitive land management practices so that the footprints of our suburban communities don’t strangle natural ecosystems.” He adds that it also lies in “implementing a clean energy infrastructure that can support the added burden of sustaining commerce and social bonds over greater distances without adverse environmental effects.” Hence, in Szot’s proposal, large swaths of land are preserved for ecosystemic and recreational purposes (the clean energy issue is an infrastructure problem bigger than the scope of one architectural proposition). “Unfortunately,” he says, “architects are not in a position to reverse the political and economic mechanisms of real estate development, but they do have an obligation to voice their objections about how land use practices and construction techniques threaten our environment.” Still, he believes architects can address these issues “without dismantling one of the few places where America’s faith in capitalist economics became a cultural precedent in which architecture plays a critical role.” In this sense, MMA plays by the rules, but, through design, bends them to deliver a new vision of how the suburbs could look — with attractive results.
This spring, MMA was shown as an installation at the Pinkcomma Gallery in Boston, and future exhibitions are being planned. So far, there have been no bites to develop land in this manner, but there’s still time, as Houston’s housing boom continues apace. Szot said the proposal is a work in progress, and that “future improvements are sure to bring changes.”
The same optimistic outlook could be applied to the suburbs themselves, and with MMA, it seems possible.
Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer currently based in Austin.