Living ugly in the suburbs

July 20, 1996|By ANDREW RATNER

AFTER A FAMILY outing this summer to Fallingwater, the exquisite home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright that's been rTC called the ''best American building of the last 125 years,'' I left with mixed emotions.

Perched atop a waterfall in southwest Pennsylvania, the structure is a masterpiece. It inspires awe, especially when one considers that Mr. Wright composed its modern lines back in the 1930s. The historic landmark is well worth the four-hour trip for Baltimoreans.

But Fallingwater wasn't built for living. The sandstone walls and floor make the place cold; the bare windows afford zero privacy. The rich Pittsburgh family for whom the house was built might have been more comfortable summering in a lakeside cottage.

Those conflicting impressions of Fallingwater reminded me of the debate swirling these days about the look of the suburbs.

Architects decry the 'burbs as sterile, banal, unfriendly. The so-called ''new urbanists'' can't say cul de sac without spitting. They praise new ''neo-traditional'' subdivisions, laid out with town greens and alleys as in the old days. And yet for 40 years, people have poured from the cities to the suburbs the architects loathe.

There can be but three conclusions: The public doesn't agree. The public doesn't notice. The public doesn't care.

Now I'm no architect. Like some of my journalistic brethren, I grew up thinking I might enjoy being one until I realized one needed some proficiency in math to keep a building from toppling. But while I think the criticisms of suburbia are overwrought, there is validity to the charge that Americans lack an eye for design.

Two originals fall

This summer, two of the more striking retail structures in the Baltimore suburbs are coming down -- the Timonium Crossing plaza with the ''Tinkertoy'' facade and the ''lopsided'' Best store in Towson. One can argue whether they were works of art, but they were certainly distinctive.

The same can't be said for most suburban shopping malls. Or worse, the ''big box'' stores now a-building; their very name mocks the fact that they are designed with the imagination of a shoe box, and yet shoppers love them.

Take Wal-Mart. Old Sam Walton sure knew how to sell socks and shampoo, but he threw up some garish buildings. With their frightful red, white and blue concrete exteriors, Wal-Mart stores obviously didn't get to be the nation's top seller on style points.

But they're not alone to blame. Try to name any distinctive post-war building in Baltimore's suburbs. It's tough. Baltimore County's Towson Commons, with its cylindrical glass front, comes to mind. But the list is brief. The American Institute of Architects' local awards the past two years included but one suburban project.

Part of the problem is the heavy reliance on the automobile that the ''new urbanists'' lament. When shoppers traveled more on foot, buildings were advertisements. The fancy stores on Baltimore's Howard Street with their lavish display windows vied for the attention of passers-by.

But retailers and developers no longer trust architecture to send a message. Only an actual sign will do, the bigger and brighter the better. Even in Howard County's Columbia, considered a mecca of suburban progressiveness, small businesses say they need bigger signs than founder Jim Rouse's original guidelines allowed. Mr. Rouse hated big signs so much that even the gas-station masts in Columbia are only waist-high.

Alas, suburban design seems headed backward, not forward. Perhaps the last bold architectural statement anyone made in the suburbs was 49 years ago, when William Levitt built the first one.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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