The Psychotic Utopia of the Suburbs and the Suburbanisation of War.

When I’m watching TV, I hear my daughters crying in the canned laughter track. It’s just one of the sublimated, mundane horrors that shadow our everyday lives. They are lucid, alternate versions of our everyday actions that begin as physic tremors deep within us. These wordless soliloquies mesh with the stories, myths and images of contemporary culture. The personal and the collective congeal into solid tangles of realism and imagination. If you unwound this tangle, it would fold out into a map that looked a lot like suburbia.

Suburbia has a reputation as a place of duality: of surface happiness with something darker lurking below the radar. This sensation isn’t just a convenient artistic device, or a left wing metropolitan smear. It is hardwired into the very foundations of suburbia. The history of urbanism since the mid 19th century has been caught in the ebb and flow of fear and hope. Suburban roots were fed by a rich compost of fear - fear that came from the dark heart of the Industrial city.

Suburbia, it is essential to note, is more than the space between city and county.
Unlike the city – which developed (or develops) out of circumstances – location, resources, and historical coincidence. Unlike the countryside – which we still like to believe represents at least some vestige of natural-ness. Unlike either, the suburbs had to be invented. City and country existed as phenomena before they became articulated as an idea. Suburbia, however, was an idea that coincided with, if not preceded its creation. Simultaneously a concept and a construction site. Suburbia was forced into existence by opposite pairings: by technology and nostalgia, by desire and fear. This process began when the industrial revolution took the city and blew it up to hideous proportion: stinking, riddled, and gross. It was out of this pestilence that suburbia was born.

By the 1880s, Victorian society had come to examine its festering urban underbelly. Pamphlets such as ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An enquiry into the condition of the abject poor’ – published in 1883 by Andrew Mearns – brought to public attention the slum conditions within industrialised cities. Newspapers began to campaign on the issue. The scenes of poverty these reports described created such pressure that action was inevitable. They lead to Queen Victoria appointing a Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes in 1884.

The outcry and the subsequent legislation were driven by fear. A fear that was threefold:

First, was the fear that such terrible conditions could exist within the heart of the Empire. Here, for example, is the introduction to ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast London’: “Few who read these pages have any conception of what these pestilential human rookeries are, where tens of thousands are crowded together amidst horrors which call to mind what we have heard of the middle passage of a slave ship”

The second kind of fear was of working class insurrection. This was the kind of fear that Le Corbusier was referring to in the phrase “architecture or revolution”. It was a fear that the physical fabric of the city itself was breeding revolutionary sentiment. In 1880s Britain, the atmosphere of revolt was growing. In February 1886, this became a clearer and more present danger. For weeks, unemployed workers and socialist intellectuals held meetings and rallies in Trafalgar Square. On February the 8th a huge meeting of 5-6000 was met by a force of around 600 police. This spilled over into a riot along Pall Mall then into St James’ and Mayfair. In 1887, a crowd that had gathered in the square headed down Whitehall and invaded Westminster Abbey. Later, the army were called in to control the crowd. The resulting battle saw one hundred people injured and two dead.

In Britain however, the strengthening of democracy meant revolutionary feeling took a different trajectory to other industrialising nations. Legislation took the steam out of revolutionary fervour. The Second Reform Act of 1867 enfranchised the majority of the male working class – doubling the British electorate. By 1885, and the Third Reform Act, 5 million could vote, though enfranchisement was denied to men in receipt of poor relief, there was a one year residence qualification and women were still voiceless.

The third kind of fear was one of morality– a disgust at the immoral way of life within the slums. This is Ruskin, in ‘Letters to the Clergy on the Lord’s Prayer and the Church’ (1880), describing the industrial city in biblical terms.

‘… the great cities of the earth … have become … loathsome centres of fornication and covetousness – the smoke of their sin going up into the face of heaven like the furnace of Sodom; and the pollution of it rotting and raging the bones and the souls of the peasant people round them, as if they were each a volcano whose ashes broke out in blains upon man and beast’

William Blakes ‘Jerusalem’ contrasts Christian morality with the urban industrial milieu: “And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?”. Unlike Ruskin though, Blakes vision provides hope – and in fact predicted the kind of utopian response, the suburbs that would come later.

Out of this context, through campaigns and legislation, came ideas about new ways of organizing society. Often, fundamental to these were new ways of making cities. At the same time, technology enable the city to be remade and reorganized. The railways opened up the possibility of a dispersed city. Liberated from traditional geographic proximity by the development of the railways. In London, between 1837 and 1863, King Cross, Paddington, Liverpool Street, Euston opened, as well as the Metropolitan line - the first Underground line. Amongst other things, the railways were desire turned into infrastructure, iron rails of escape from the city. And along these routes, suburban communities grew.

Suburbia as a concept was crystallised by Ebenezer Howard. Howard articulated the problem of the industrial city in diagrams such as ‘the three magnets’. It began to lay out an equation from which one could derive the ideology of the suburbs.

Howard’s vision of suburbia combined responses to the morality of the slum, as well as the progressive social policy of the Reform Acts, Christian Socialism and other Victorian. It was a synthesis of positivity in the face of urban trauma – a logical planning methodology intended to neatly cauterise and excise problems, It was a kind of practical utopia – explored as much through illustration, copyrighting, and advertising as through built form. Howards soap-box rallies were as much an argument as a place. They were rational, plausible, buildable, and liveable versions of the New Jerusalem of Blakes dreams. But like Blakes New Jerusalem, it needed to be built in our hearts before it could be built.


It is here in Edwardian England that suburban mythology is established: The traits of perfection, utopia, of greenery and community, of happiness and fulfilment. But allied to these a very real fear. This dichotomy is encoded into the very heart of suburbia. Theseunresolved impulses define the psychotic, schizophrenic nature of the suburb which only become more perverse as the twentieth century unfolded: more technology, more nostalgia. More hope and greater fears. The reach and influence of suburbia extended exponentially, until the ideology, if not the urban fabric, smothered the globe.

The argument here is that suburbia is as much a way of looking at the world, as it is a place. Suburbia allowed us to escape from the ties of circumstance: geography, place, community, class, and history. It also allowed us to invent where we were going. Ironically, these new places were and are often riddled with reworkings of old ideas: Letchworth Garden City was riddled with historical detailing, half timbering, and picturesque motifs. Perhaps this sentiment is in response to fear: a construction of a place of safety and comfort. A place that one might have the feeling of knowing already, even though it was brand new. There is an odd alliance of the new and progressive with the childishly nostalgic. This would be a natural response to people who felt their identity was under threat. For the late Victorian English middle classes, that meant a retreat into village-like dreams.

Despite its appearance of nostalgia, suburbia is constantly contemporary. Its all-encompassing nature engulfs all territory. It is centerless and edgeless. It absorbs narratives and identities, reconstituting and reformatting them. Suburbia is present as background noise throughout the twentieth and into the twenty first centuries.

The events of 9/11 illustrate this tendency. The most distant of places became connected in the most violent of clashes: the caves of the Torra Borra suddenly adjacent to the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center: For one hellish moment, the pinnacle of a dense metropolis next to a primitive cave. Spanning territory like this suggests that space is no longer organised in bands of urban/suburban/rural. Rather, that everywhere has some kind of equivalence, reorganised by communication and transport infrastructure: it is all extra-urban. Or trans-urban, or supra-urban. Like the suburbs, war reduces these traditional categories to equivalences: to topographies or terrains.

Historical battles took place in specific places, at specific times. They were played out as abstractions of power – using signs and symbols as ways of representing significance. The standards held high signified the territory. The actual occupation of the contested territory often came later.

This model of warfare changed significantly, but accidentally in the First World War. The war was set up to follow a traditional model, but its implementation with mechanised equipment meant it evolved into something vastly different. Troops were dug in to entrenched positions, fighting for years between positions sometimes less than 100 metres apart. The territory contested by the war, however, was mostly symbolic. The ground itself was a kind of cipher, akin to space on so kind of horrific sports field.


By the Second World War, the space of warfare was no longer abstract. It was no longer symbolic, it was actual. Invasion of a territory meant taking control of that territory – nothing more, and nothing less. The lines of battle represented the extents of the influence of power. These shifted through battle – through advances and retreats. WWII was total war. Countries used all their resources to destroy the ability of anothers to engage in war. Here is Churchill describing the difference between the 1st & 2nd world wars: "...There is another more obvious difference from 1914. The whole of the warring nations are engaged, not only soldiers, but the entire population, men, women and children. The fronts are everywhere. The trenches are dug in the towns and streets. Every village is fortified. Every road is barred. The front line runs through the factories. The workmen are soldiers with different weapons but the same courage...".

D Day demonstrated the new relationship between war and landscape. An invasionary force of unprecedented scale, a concentrated mechanical mechanism, rolled from sea to beach, then across the landscape of northern France: hedgerows, villages, towns engulfed in total war. WWII also developed an idea that was a fringe element of the First: War from the air. While a number of bombs were dropped on London from Zeppelins in the first war, the idea of aerial bombardment of cities only really became possible with the technological advances. This new technology allowed a new kind of war: one that ignored the temporal geography of battle. It turned war into an action that took place from point to point rather than linearly. Anything became a target – as long as it was within the range of bombers or rockets. The total war of WWII turned every kind of terrain into battlefield – from the sky to under the sea, from desert to mountain.

A significant response to this new threat was the camouflaging of landscape. It attempted to shift the perception of the bodies against environment, object against landscape, or even disguising landscape itself. Camouflage became an art of deception though artifice.

The full stop to the second world war were the atomic explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Compressing destruction of years into a matter of seconds rather, they signalled an end to warfare related to geography and the beginning of a nodal, networked idea of war.


Throughout the Cold War, the threat of nuclear war hung over the planet. Geography now meant little in terms of warfare. Devices fired over long range could pepper the globe, delivering destruction in concentric circular rings from epicentres, like horrific geometric patterns – action dislocated from event, and events cut loose from one another. This was a globalised notion of war – engulfing everything, everywhere and everyone simultaneously. It was war distributed rather than centralised.

During the Cold War, a different kind of distributed global war was fought – the grand conflict of West vs. East was fought through the covert actions of organisations such as the CIA. Like the delivery of an atomic weapon, the intention was fighting at distance – using armies or resistance groups as avatars or puppets. It was war by proxy: Governments forming secret alliances, delivering money, weapons or training to points around the world. This included the US funding of the Mujahadeen resistance against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Its legacy was the Taliban and Al’Qaeda.

There are, of course anomalies to this development of war. An example of one such conflict was the Falklands. It serves a purpose here to demonstrate that war is a cultural activity. The Falklands was an anachronistic war - an old-fashioned conflict. It was war as nostalgia - both for the invading Argentinean force, and for Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Jingoistic, and ultimalty pointless. It showed warfare as a media event: allowing the posturing of national identity, politicians waving flags acting out on a stage removed from ideology or real significance. This was a war of theatre, rather than a theatre of war. For the Argentinean Military dictatorship it represented the nostalgic idea of ‘conquest’. For the British memories of D Day were evoked by the sea based invasion of the liberating forces. The Falklands was more akin to a historical re-enactment – albeit with real death.

The nature of war reflects the cultures in conflict. The construction of war space invisibly changes the nature of all space. And the rise of terrorism and the war on terror significantly alter the idea of space across the globe. This kind of war is essentially suburban in its character. It shares the technologies which created suburbia: the technologies of distribution and transportation – of people, of things, and of information. It’s globalised and diffuse. It has no centre, little to significantly identify itself. It is what is known as Fourth Generation War. In this kind of war, the lines between war and politics, soldier and civilian, peace and conflict, battlefield and safety become blurred. It is not a war between states, but between a state (or grouping of states) and a violent ideological network.

Traditionally borders have been significant markers in conflicts – as in the case of the Berlin Wall or the Peace Line in Northern Ireland. Conflict in Fourth Generation warfare is remarkable in that it has no particular boundaries or barriers. In Al’Qaeda sponsored attacks on US embassies in Africa, Naval ships, the Twin Towers, The Pentagon, Madrid railways, London tubes and buses are seemingly connected as part of the same conflict, but happen sporadically, asynchronously, dislocated in time and space from one another.

War-space reflects ideas about urbanism: from the city of royalty to the vast industrial metropolis of the early 20th century, to the individualized, suburban twenty first century. War is designed. It involves the arrangement of objects and people in space and in relation to each other. War is an urban act.

If we are to believe the hype, we are all at war, all the time, everywhere. In fact, whether one wants to believe it is not really the question. Terrorists seek to spread fear, governments seek powers to gather intelligence and control the actions of its citizens. The result is that fear is atomised. People, events and places imagine themselves as targets (whether they are or not, again, isn’t the issue). Terror infiltrates all kinds of moments. Its significance is felt more through absence than presence – like some kind of phantom. Absence is the defining characteristic of this conflict - from the continuing absence of individuals, weapons of mass destruction, or any kind of resolution. This means that the ground for the conflict is as much within our own imagination as it is on the streets of our cities. Ordinary citizens – from New York, to Madrid, to London, to Baghdad to Kabul – are caught up in this conflict in a way civilians have never been before. The relationship of individuals to events is closer, more personal. They feed into nightmare visions of our own lives – shared visions of carnage and destruction, as though Hieronymus Bosh had redrawn the suburban railway map in invisible ink.

Global terrorism and the ‘war on terror’ mean that the entire surface of the planet is a potential battleground. Or, to be more precise, the idea of a battleground is no longer current; instead instances of conflict can potentially arise anywhere, at any time. The most obvious example of this is the difference between the invasion and the subsequent occupation of Iraq. The invasionary force was met with little military resistance. The insurrection that the occupying forces have met however has been relentless and consistent. Battle now is informal, ad hoc, and opportunist. It is fought in intimate spaces: amongst civilians, in homes, offices, tube trains, internet cafes, buses, airplane seats in economy class.

The public unwinding these terrorist attacks takes us from scenes of horror to mundane everyday life. Captured by CCTV, we see images of terrorists melting back into everyday life. Trails that lead from the extraordinary to the quotidian, to terrorist cells that are camouflaged not by artful patterning but by the society that surrounds them. And the most powerful camouflage is suburbia itself. Traditionally, violent conflict has significantly transformed landscape. Whether through the way it was understood – for example the axonometric drawing developed by the military in the Renaissance, or the way it looks: think of the military engineering which enabled the landscaping at Versailles, or the way it works – think of Houseman’s Parisian boulevards designed to facilitate control of street mobs. Post 9/11 landscapes however remain physically unchanged. The changes to the landscape relate to information gathering and surveillance. These changes are almost invisible, but transform the occupation of space significantly.

Suburbia fragmented urban mass into a distributed, scattered field. It broke the collective urban mob into individuals. It drifted from the city out across the landscape like bubbles of dreamworlds: Fantasy, nostalgia, escape, and utopia wrapped up in a semi-detached plot. However, since its genesis, suburbia has been an on going, inside out narrative. Its collective image is really a swarm of individual dreams. Its bright collective optimism hides dark individual pessimism. Its nostalgic air is only made possible by globalised technology. Suburban space is a cultural product. It is a system of organization, a manner of arranging of ideas and things. Its characteristics extend beyond Acacia Avenue, beyond the cul de sacs, to envelop the world.

Posted by sam at March 30, 2006 12:45 PM

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