Revisioning the suburbs

Egret Street
Ethiopian immigrant Okuni and his family in front of their Coon Rapids home. Photographer Laura Migliorino documented growing diversity in Twin Cities suburbs.
Photo by Laura Migliorino, courtesy of the Walker Art Center

Minneapolis architect Shane Coen wants suburban design to be more responsive and deferential to nature. His firm, Coen+Partners, creates planned communities where open space and connection to neighbors are more important than three-car garages and curving cul-de-sacs.

Coen's Mayo Woodland project near Rochester is featured in "Worlds Away." Coen says he's continually struck by how much time people spend in their homes.

The Edge
Manicured lawns meet Mother Nature in Edina.
Image courtesy of the Walker Art Center

"And how little most people think about how amazing of a place they could make that, without any more money," Coen says. "It's really about thought. And that's the most intriguing thing to me about the suburbs and just the way that people live today."

The Walker is billing "Worlds Away" as the first major museum exhibition examining art and architecture in the contemporary American suburb.

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More than 30 artists, architects and designers supply a critique and an appreciation of suburbs, while trying to imagine their future. Despite its overwelming presence, Walker curator Andrew Blauvelt says suburbia is a cultural blindspot, especially when it comes to academic inspection.

"On one hand, it's everywhere and seemingly all over," Blauvelt says. "But from an intellectual standpoint, there's very little engagement. It's mostly very biased notions, intellectual notions against the suburbs that kept academics from researching it."

Architect Shane Coen
Minneapolis architect Shane Coen wants suburban design to be more deferential to nature.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Even co-curator Tracy Myers from Carnegie Mellon's Heinz Architectural Center, someone who grew up in a New York suburb, admits to being affected by that bias.

"I had never thought about the suburbs before, really, except that I knew after leaving I never wanted to live in another one," Myers says.

Which is why, says Myers, they worked hard to present suburbia as a place with qualities to be celebrated and exploited, as opposed to problems that need to be corrected.

There are pictures of big box retail outlets transformed into churches and Head Start facilities, along with architectural studies of dying and abandoned malls.

Mayo Woodlands Project
An overhead view of Mayo Woodlands project, an unfinished development designed by Coen+Partners architectural firm in Minneapolis.
Image courtesy of the Walker Art Center

One designer analyzes the suburban trash can as an instrument of consumption and waste. Another photographer finds haunting beauty in a nighttime shot of a parking lot berm. Tracy Myers wants visitors to question their assumptions about suburbs.

"Is what I thought I knew really what that place is about?" asks Myers. "I think a lot in the show will cause people to stop in their tracks and say 'Oh!'"

Minneapolis photographer Laura Migliorino started having such moments during her daily commute to Anoka Ramsey Community College, where she's an art professor.

"We're going to get lost," she says while driving through a neighborhood in Blaine. "I'm going to try my best not to. We're approaching a roundabout."

Club West
Club West is a mixed development of town homes and houses in Blaine.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Migliorino winds her way through Club West in Blaine, a sprawling complex of townhomes and houses planted on a former sod farm.

Everywhere you look there are rows of dwellings stretching to the end of the horizon, broken up occasionally by a clubhouse or a kids park, a manmade pond or a gazebo.

A few years ago, Migliorino started taking pictures of the buildings because of their incredibly clean lines and symmetry. As someone who used to dismiss suburban subdivisions as cultural dead zones, Migliorino gradually woke up to their allure.

"To me it's alternately frightening and seductive, Migliorino says. "It's so elegant, and it's so balanced, and it's so clean and pure and inviting, that I find myself driving through these places just sort of wanting more. And then, of course, thinking about the carbon footprint."

Photographer Laura Migliorino
Minneapolis photographer Laura Migliorino's pictures of diverse families in Twin Cities suburbs are part of the Walker Art Center's "Worlds Away" exhibit.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

During her travels through the northern suburbs, Migliorino discovered they were no longer the monolithically Caucasian enclaves she assumed they were. She began to document their growing diversity.

Three of her pictures are in "Worlds Away." She remembers meeting an Ethiopian refugee named Okuni who had just bought a house in Coon Rapids.

"And he walked around the house, the grounds, the corner lot, like he was the lord of the manor," she says. "I could just feel the pride oozing."

Migliorino says she gained a new appreciation for suburbs as places where the American dream is realized.

In a way, her evolving, increasingly nuanced view of suburbia is what the Walker hopes to inspire in its visitors when "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes" opens this weekend.