In this column, I will once again be looking beyond the verdant, rain-soaked parklands of Notre Dame. Besides avoiding running out of buildings to cover, I feel that this column can and ought to address larger trends in architecture. In support of this mission, I intend to spend the next few installments discussing the suburb. It has long been a subject of great fascination to me, and it is my hope that these articles will serve as an opportunity to condense, refine, and express logically my own opinions on the matter.
My studio class recently took a field trip to Chicago, eschewing the main attractions of the city center for the environs of suburbia, from Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park to the new town center on the site of the former Glenview Naval Air Station. Our intent was to examine sites in terms of their physical, aesthetic, and sociological attributes to determine what contributes to a successful development. We made an effort to leave all ideological or stylistic baggage behind, focusing, like a pragmatic developer, on the “mere facts” of what works.
The lessons learned then, and further explored throughout our studio discussions, challenged several of my own assumptions about the way we live. In some cases, the issues in question were so deeply and subconsciously held from years of growing up in suburbia that I had not previously realized I operated by them. I suspect many of my readers are the products of suburbs and share in these cultural biases.
Perhaps the most fundamental conceptual ideal undergirding the suburban experiment is the glorification of home ownership. A conflated understanding of home ownership is at the root of most of our contemporary housing policy orthodoxies. No one disputes the tremendous role that ownership plays in the relationship between people and their homes. The uncertainty arises over whether title possession of a property is a necessary precondition for “ownership.” The legal ownership of a property, contrary to common belief, is socially inconsequential except as a status symbol. It is far more important that a resident holds an attitude of personal responsibility for his home.
Today my parents would not dream of selling their house, because while paying down the mortgage, they were simultaneously saving up an emotional attachment to the place they raised a family. Even if, hypothetically, they were to sell, it would remain, in conversation, “our house.” Ironically, an elderly neighbor still refers to our house, in speaking to us, as the property of its original occupant, despite 6 subsequent owners and our own 20-year tenancy. From several long chats on the front porch I have, unbeknownst to her, determined that her methodology for assigning “ownership” of a given house is based upon which occupant’s children grew up with her own. And that, I believe, is a very crucial insight into how we construct our society to reflect the narratives of our lives.
Likewise, with each successive return to my parent’s house at breaks and holidays, I become increasingly aware that their home is not my home. I think it is quite possibly my greatest phobia that I will graduate and move back in with them. They are, of course, doing nothing to dispel this fear. As a firstborn male, I would regard not owning a home in my own right as failure of the first degreeAt the same time that I began noticing this distinction between “their” and “my” home, I also felt a sort of pre-partum anxiety from Dillon Hall. Though I no longer reside there, it is still “my [old] dorm.” That realization has emphasized the gap between economic and emotional ownership: There are ways of “buying-in,” of being a contributing part of something, that do not require a deed in the bank.
A similar transition in thinking on social responsibility has been underway in the corporate world for several decades now. As my management textbook puts it, “There are two perspectives concerning whom organizations are socially responsible to: the shareholder model and the stakeholder model.” Eminent economist Milton Friedman, advocating for the shareholder model, argued, among other things, that a company “cannot act effectively as a moral agent for all of its shareholders,” and that assets “diverted to social causes undermine market efficiency.” In my next column, I will explore how these two points have been wrongly extrapolated to our national housing policy.
Matthew Balkey is a fifth-year architecture student. When not touring Europe and Asia with his fellow arkies, he can be reached at email@example.com.