Think you know the 'burbs?
Love of lawn: Greg Stimac photographed this image in Chandler, Ariz.; it's part of his "Mowing the Lawn" series.
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For an instant, the title of the Carnegie's new exhibit, "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes," begs the question: Worlds away from what?
The city, of course. "Worlds Away," the title, assumes much of its audience will be city dwellers, so maybe you'd expect an exhibit that preaches to the urban-hipster, suburb-bashing chorus.
You'd be wrong, its curators say. "Worlds Away," opening tomorrow evening at Carnegie Museum of Art's Heinz Architectural Center, promises to offer up the 'burbs through fresh eyes, through the work of more than 30 painters, sculptors, architects, photographers and videographers.
"We were very careful from the outset to not adopt that [anti-suburb] attitude," said Heinz architecture curator Tracy Myers. "More than half the population of this country lives in suburbs and there's a reason for that."
The hope of the curators is that visitors, whether they hail from a Lawrenceville rowhouse or a five-bedroom, four-bather in Cranberry, will rethink their assumptions about suburbia, said Myers, who organized the exhibit with Andrew Blauvelt, design director and curator of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where the show debuted in February.
"Andrew and I had the same idea for an exhibition," Myers said. "We decided since we were presenting exhibits on suburbia at virtually the same time, it just made sense to pool our resources rather than compete."
From 10:30 a.m. until noon on Oct. 25 at Carnegie Museum of Art Theater, architect Teddy Cruz and photographer Laura Migliorino will discuss their work inspired by suburbia in a free panel discussion. Dick Hadley, chairman of the Cranberry Board of Supervisors, a community now committed to sustainable development, will share a local perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing contemporary suburbs.
Both grew up in the suburbs, Myers in a postwar community outside Lancaster and Blauvelt in a subdivision at the edge of Indianapolis. But when they began doing the research two and a half years ago, they were surprised by what they found.
"We are both steeped in that myth of the all-white nuclear family with two kids and a dog and a station wagon," Myers said. "Suburbia has evolved."
As David Brooks puts it in an essay in the exhibit's companion book: "When you move through suburbia ... you see the most unexpected things: lesbian dentists, Iranian McMansions, Korean megachurches, outlaw-biker subdevelopments, Orthodox shtetls with Hasidic families walking past strip malls on their way to shul ... in places that are as architecturally interesting as a piece of aluminum siding."
The other revelation, Myers said, was that most of the office job growth has been in the suburbs. They are no longer just bedroom communities of central cities.
"It's a complex place that has engaged artists and architects, and we wanted to look at how they were looking at suburbia. There's much more happening in the suburbs than most people realize."
Blauvelt's team at the Walker assembled the visual arts component and Myers organized the architecture; the intermingled show came together in three sections: The Residential Tract Home; Strip Mall, Shopping Center and Big Box; and Roadways and Car Culture.
"We wanted to reveal the complexities of suburbia that make it appealing" through the work of visual artists, Myers said, "and inject into the conversation some architectural ideas that offer remedies to the imbalances of development."
So this eclectic, wide-ranging exhibit, which continues through Jan. 18, includes Greg Stimac's photographs of people mowing their lawns and Sarah McKenzie's paintings of houses under construction as well as FAT's bold, colorful, whimsical designs for a community park in a post-industrial area transforming itself into a Rotterdam suburb.
In an outland where, as Blauvelt writes, fewer than 10 percent of houses are architect-designed, "architects are finally beginning to look at suburbia," Myers said.
"Suburbia is now a growth industry in academia," she added, citing a spate of recent exhibits, including "Flip a Strip," opening Saturday at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum staged an idea-generating competition to solicit ways to sustainably re-use strip malls.
In addition to Brooks, several scholars and other writers, including Malcolm Gladwell, contribute to the 333-page book that's also part of the "Worlds Away" package. No matter what side of the Blue Belt you're on, it's bound to be provocative.
First Published October 2, 2008 12:00 am