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In Support of Sprawl

A controversial architecture historian proposes that suburbia is a good thing

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Some day, in the not too distant future, architectural historians will sing the praises of stucco subdivisions and the garage doors that dominate them.

"Critics will say, 'That was the wonderful era of the garage. It was a social space, both semi-public and semi-private,'" Robert Bruegmann, an architectural historian of today, says in a telephone interview.

Bruegmann, who'll give a lecture tonight--Thursday, Feb. 9--at Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art, is well aware of the nearly universal disdain of critics for what he calls the "continuous line of garage fronts" in the Southwest's new neighborhoods. But he sees the good in garages.

"You go to a lot of these places, and the garage door is up. People are sitting in them in lawn chairs. They're a new social space like the porch."

He also sees the super in sprawl. A professor of art history, architecture and planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Bruegmann is the author of the incendiary new book Sprawl: A Compact History (University of Chicago Press, $27.50). It's a scholarly work that traces the history of cities--and their suburbs--from ancient Rome to contemporary Phoenix (suburb is from the Latin for "outside or below the city")--but it's full of contrarian ideas.

Sprawl, with its strip malls, far-flung suburbs and endless new roads, is elsewhere denounced as an engine of increased pollution, social isolation and environmental destruction. But to Bruegmann, it's a byproduct of "increasing wealth and the democratization of society."

In his book, he argues that sprawl has liberated huge populations from cramped cities and delivered them into healthier green spaces. Nowadays, "decanted" from New York and London and Bangalore, working-class and middle-class people in numbers unprecedented in history have attained the prized single-family-house-with-yard.

"(In) the industrial cities of 100 years ago ... millions of urban dwellers ... were obliged to endure cramped and unsanitary tenements, traffic and pollution-choked streets and deadly factories," Bruegmann writes. "Today, by comparison, most residents of affluent metropolitan areas live in relatively low-density suburbs, areas that are much cleaner, greener and safer than the neighborhoods their great-grandparents inhabited."

Thus, the auto worker who fled crowded Detroit for the 'burbs in the '50s, the schoolteacher who traded the Tucson barrio for Oro Valley in the '90s, or the IBM middle manager who embraced Vail in 2005 all taste the pleasures of privacy and property once known only to the ruling class.

"Stucco boxes are housing people who couldn't ever have had that kind of privacy and space before," Bruegmann maintains. "They have a really palatial living style that used to be something only the wealthiest, most powerful people could have. It's a great, heroic story."

Further, he argues that a city would be better off giving cars outright to the poor than investing in expensive public transportation systems, and providing a super-shuttle system of taxis to those who can't drive.

"That would be infinitely cheaper than trying to build a subway ... or paying for large numbers of buses."

Nor does sprawl necessarily create traffic congestion, he says. Kansas City is a low-density city with "quick commuting times," and Los Angeles, which he counts as a high-density city, has much longer commuting times.

Not surprisingly, Bruegmann's unconventional ideas make his critics apoplectic. Anne-Marie Russell, director of MOCA, wanting to ensure a lively debate, lined up a panel of speakers to deliver alternate views after the talk. The moderator is Christopher Domin, architect, UA professor and MOCA curator of architecture; speakers are Laura Hollengreen, UA prof of architectural history; Ignacio San Martin, Arizona State University prof of urban history and design; and architect Rene Davids.

The book has already created a stir in Tucson. After Arizona Daily Star columnist Jim Kiser favorably reviewed it, local public transportation activist Steve Farley denounced Bruegmann in a letter to the editor. Farley says Bruegmann is associated with the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that favors, among other things, less government regulation of private enterprise.

Bruegmann, who lectures regularly around the country--last week, he was at Grinnell College in Iowa--says he gave a lecture for Heartland "five or six years ago" and "apparently remain(s) on its speakers list," but he has no financial relationship to the group.

Still, Farley challenges the numbers that led Bruegmann to conclude that L.A. is high-density, and he argues that the professor doesn't chart the hidden costs of sprawl.

"People bragging that their Sahuarita house cost $20,000 less than the same house in Tucson don't count the added 70-mile-a-day commute," Farley says. Nor do they add in the pocketbook costs of the extra gas or the social costs of lost family time. Or, for that matter, the additional pollution spewed out by the commuting car.

Bruegmann counters that the social critiques of today's sprawling suburbs mirror the now-quaint arguments of previous eras. In the 19th century, for instance, critics denounced the London row houses that are today held up as models of urbanism.

"They're now considered a treasure of central London," he says. "In history, anything in the mass market is always despised initially. ... Elite academics, planners and architects find my book contrarian, but builders in Dubuque say, 'Duh!'"

Every period, with its varying house styles, goes through the same transition, he says. In the U.S., the bungalows of the 1920s and the ranch houses of the 1950s were originally reviled. But bungalows came back into favor a decade or two ago, and now the ranch house is enjoying its day.

"I don't know Tucson well, but the last time I was there, three or four years ago, there was great excitement there about 1950s ranch houses," he says. And in fact, just last week, Winterhaven, Tucson's ranch-house neighborhood par excellence, made it to the National Register of Historic Places.

Trained as an art historian at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Bruegmann grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs. He started his career as a reporter in the old industrial city of Homestead, Pa., and when he found himself writing primarily about architecture, he went on to grad school at Penn to study architectural history. But he found himself required to study art history as well, learning the paintings of Raphael, and so on. He's glad now, he says, because he also learned the history of changing tastes.

"Some things are inherently more beautiful than others, but in architecture, we just don't know. The anti-sprawl arguments are often disguised as economic arguments, but what really gets people's goat is the aesthetics--what they perceive as the degradation of the landscape. But every generation changes its mind. Someday, people will nominate Target (stores) and garden apartments to the National Register."

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