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Suburbia gets neo-New Deal

An international architecture journal has devoted an entire issue to the results of an MIT urban design studio--results that were further developed by a team of architects, planners, publishers and MIT faculty--addressing how to rescue suburbia after the coming economic crash. Led by Alexander D'Hooghe, assistant professor in MIT's Department of Architecture, the studio took as its premise the possibility that, because of rising debt, the decline of the dollar, burgeoning oil prices and the burst of the real estate bubble, the United States may soon experience an economic setback on a par with the Great -Depression.

Such an event would surely impoverish the suburban lower middle-class that lives in what D'Hooghe refers to as "the Grey Goo"--the massive tarmac between our cities' centers and their leafier exurbs--and create "a new underclass eager to consume the rhetoric of fascist populism, thriving on anti-intellectualism, sectarianism, conquest abroad and repression at home."

If such a crisis were to occur, he asked his students, and if the government then stepped in to restart the economy artificially--as it did during FDR's New Deal--what buildings and infrastructures would represent the best investments? What should the nation do first to build a new suburban future?

The studio focused on New Jersey's Passaic County, an area emblematic of many American suburbs, as well as the focus of Robert Smithson's seminal 1967 article, "Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, NJ." The result was a set of building proposals for the sprawl around New York that would, among other things, curb dependence on the car and offer additional alternative modes of organization.

The results are presented as an "official report" to the fictional Federal Organization for the Reactivation and Modernization of Mankind as a set of program briefs, compiled by D'Hooghe and his students, for federal construction projects to "employ, educate, house and emancipate the proletariat." The report includes proposals for neighborhood development, shopping centers, logistics complexes, housing and education.

The 97-page "white paper" appears in Volume, a bimonthly publishing project of Archis, the national architecture magazine of the Netherlands. Previous issues of Volume have dealt with such topics as the architecture of power, ubiquitous China and broadcasting architecture.

In addition to MIT's proposals for suburbia after the crash, "Volume #9---Crisis! What Crisis?" includes editorials by D'Hooghe and by Ole Bouman, editor in chief of Volume, along with essays by Yung Ho Chang, head of MIT's Department of Architecture, and by Mark Jarzombek, professor of the history of architecture at MIT and director of the department's program in the history, theory and criticism of architecture and art.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 10, 2007 (download PDF).

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