Atlas of Another America: An Architectural Fiction
By Keith Krumwiede with an afterward by
Park Books, $44.20
A set of recent new books takes on suburbia as a topic of serious inquiry. Alan Berger’s hefty “Infinite Suburbia” chronicles a yearlong examination by MIT’s Norman B. Leventhal’s Center for Advanced Urbanism. Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” though not explicitly architectural, uncovers the structural racism in the federal policies that initiated segregated suburbanization. Last year in this magazine, this writer reviewed “Mass Market Alternatives,” a proposal by John Szot Studio that harnessed algorithmic design to generate aesthetic diversity in Houston’s suburban environment. Keith Krumwiede’s “Atlas of Another America” is closest to this last example, in that it uses architectural design as a vehicle for speculation. But this new Atlas takes an entirely different approach.
Published a year ago by Park Books, Krumwiede’s Atlas lays out a vision for a new suburbia called Freedomland. The book is appropriately atlas-sized, and the volume is voiced in a satirical tone that borrows the baroque language of 18th-century political declaration. Freedomland, we learn early on, is a place “in which the object in view is to unite, in a better manner than has hitherto been done and with a taste founded in our very nature with economy and utility, American Homes so as to combine architectural fitness with picturesque effect in the service of building communities connected to our noble past and prepared for an uncertain future.” On the verso page, a Photoshopped 17th-century classical painting shows a variety of birds inspecting the plans of this very book.
Freedomland is based on the Jeffersonian grid. First established with the Land Ordinance of 1785, this Cartesian overlay unfurled west to allow the easy division of land into property (for a deeper architectural dive into the geometric history of the American domain, see Bill Hubbard’s great 2008 book “American Boundaries”). Within a single township of 36 square miles, quartered squares of nine square miles each make up a town, itself divided down into 128 40-acre parcels. Four civic functions occupy the center of the town: a water square, a waste square, an energy square, and a market square — a Kaaba-like big box superstore with cruciform parking lots. Outside of this core, each outlying parcel supports one large house.
But then things get weird. The house plans are themselves sprawling arrangements for communal living, fashioned from aggregations of builder floor plans and therefore replete with their curious articulations: the diagonal cut corners of rooms, endless master closets, elliptical foyers, and funky kitchen islands. The plans are mirrored, rotated, and translated into shapes that create courtyards, water features, or lawns, all encircled by wide driveway aprons for easy vehicular access. Rather than towers in the park, Krumwiede’s acres are megastructures in the field, created for agricultural laborers who rise early to work the land. Agriculture, a Benjamin Franklin quote informs the reader, is the only honest way for a nation to acquire wealth; the other two are war, which is “robbery,” and commerce, which is “generally cheating.”
The Atlas’s clean plans are supported by images that deftly integrate the Frankensteined homes into 18th-century landscape paintings. These are surrealistic and pack an uncanny jolt. This is the pastoral imagery referenced by most suburban versions of Ye Olde House, but when the estates are actually seen in this context, albeit in an extended and altered format, the effect is unsettling. It’s a joke, but a serious one. If we took the imagery of our suburban wonderland literally, Freedomland is one possible future. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is another.
Essays and other studies are filed at the rear. This material is secondary to the fascinating main pages of the Atlas, but it works as an intellectual companion to the preceding imagery. “[A]Typical Plan[s]” is an imaginative edit of a Rem Koolhaas essay from “S,M,L,XL” formatted as a document with tracked changes that refocuses the text on the American house. The format parallels how Krumwiede generates images through cannibalistic means, using existing plans, images, and texts to refashion new architecture. “Six Typical Plans,” a study in text and diagrams, organizes a taxonomy of the different floor plan species that populate the American suburban expanse.
Krumwiede’s Texas connection shows. His essay “Super Model Homes” begins in a David Weekley model home northwest of Houston on Highway 290 and goes on to study the suburbanity of the Ephemeral City. The essay’s powerful observations come as no surprise, as Krumwiede is a suburban specialist. He was a Wortham Fellow and later Assistant Professor at Rice from 1996 to 2003, and is now a professor at UC Berkeley. No doubt these years provided a close study of suburbia in its natural habitat, marking him as another academic whose time at Rice has borne fruit in work that engages the sprawl in all its deregulated splendor. To that end, the afterword by Rice architecture professor Albert Pope completes a book that shows us an adjacent American reality, offered for inspection such that we can better understand our own messed up version. Of course, the tome is a self-described work of “architectural fiction,” but what architecture, on paper, isn’t fictional? What architecture doesn’t aim to change the world, or at least how we live upon its crust?
In its ambitious and elaborate fantasy, “The Atlas of Another America” is the latest in a long chain of suburban visions that date back to Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. Of these precedents, it is most indebted to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City. Using the same Jeffersonian grid, Wright’s vision, first proposed in 1932, imagined an array of program types scattered among agricultural fields. The concept, though dotted with towers or apartment blocks, explodes the density of early 20th-century American cities into a spread-out civilization called Usonia, a democratic model that prefaced but was largely ignored by the forthcoming postwar sprawl. Self-reliance was rooted in independent food production, but residents would rely on the automobile for transit, like in Krumwiede’s scheme.
After a couple of false starts, Wright realized his first Usonian structure with the Jacobs House in 1936. The small residence, made of solid 2-by-4 construction, was originally specified to be left untreated; if it had been, it might only have lasted for one familial generation before collapsing into the fertile earth, an aspect addressed by Michael Cadwell in his collection of essays, “Strange Details.” Here “the life of the house [is] mated with the life of the family,” and, as such, only the land remains when master and manor are wiped away.
Krumwiede picks this idea up in his proposal with an explanation of crop rotation. He writes that Freedomland estates would be demolished and rebuilt every 20 years, migrating radially around the four quadrants of the gridded cells. The life of the home, in its redundant wood frame construction, matches the life of the soil, though today’s industrial assemblies, with their plastics, foams, glues, and sealants, will remain in landfills for centuries. Still, it’s a nice thought. If Freedomland was founded with Wright’s Usonian vision 80 years ago, then last year would mark the arrival of estate construction — back at the site where the cycle started. Excavators would dig for new foundations, only to uncover old slabs beneath the tired topsoil, the ruins of a now-historic alt-suburbia. The homecoming might feel distinctly weird and totally patriotic at the same time, much like the sentiments stirred up by this excellent “Atlas of Another America.”
Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is a regular contributor to Texas Architect and a master of architecture candidate at Rice University.