As AIANY Executive Director Rick Bell, FAIA, cited in his introduction during the 11.10.14 Oculus Book Talk at the Center for Architecture, for the casual reader there are many surprises to be found in the text Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City, by Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove. The premise of the book is to redefine the “Modern City” in light of the evolution of suburbs, and to make suburbs not such a “bad” word. Co-author David Fishman spoke about this epic project. Fishman’s talk was decidedly populist, and ardently comprehensive. He was able to engage the audience in the greatest hits of the book, show the evolution of the Garden Suburb ideal, and adeptly entertain with his rapid-fire delivery.

I came to appreciate the book as an entrée into perhaps an old fashioned method of interacting with information. The authors clearly believe, in a charming manner, that encyclopedic knowledge is the path to contemporary resolve. They proclaim the work as activism, to promote the garden suburb as a model for the future. The way that you interact with this vast construct (I am talking about the book) is in a calmer world, with the book on a very stable table and varying degrees of reading spectacles, in an institution that can purchase such a tome. Paradise Planned is more archive than “book.” I was unable to perform a linear reading. It did sit on my coffee table for a month, open, book marks flying, able to resolve any debate on urbanism and domesticity – the family dictionary of garden suburbs.

Fishman put forth in his lecture that the authors wanted to illustrate that the garden suburb was a global phenomenon developed for different economic constructs, not just the tidy middle-class stereotype. They set out to describe the garden suburb as not auto-dependent, debunking another suburban myth. The text reminded me of Ebenzer Howard’s groundbreaking ideas about the garden city, reiterating that the initial goal of the projects was collective ownership of the property, and how this ideal ebbed and flowed through the evolution of Garden Cities. This collective ideal is important in describing the history of the suburb because it casts the evolution in a humanist manner, rather than the removed work of a contemporary developer.

Each suburb is lovingly described via dense images and text; the prose is clear and friendly.

I most enjoyed the descriptions and the growth of such communities that gained popularity in an evolutionary manner, and perhaps no longer hold the stigma of the “suburb.” Llewellyn Park in West Orange, NJ, in particular has a fascinating history of growth and stagnation through America’s Civil War, highlighting that communities should grow slowly through history.

I found one nugget of information particularly intriguing, and I was sorry that it wasn’t more prominent in the conversation: a diamond shaped living room that resulted from a young designer’s urge to preserve the village picturesque in the meandering roads of the England’s Brentham community (1901-05). This suggestion that the broad strokes of urbanism and master planning can impact the domestic interior is fascinating; it could have been explored and proven very illuminating.

I was sure that there would be no element lacking for a text that weighs in at 12. 85 pounds, but after so much research, what I missed were discussions of the successes and failures of contemporary projects. About half way into to my reading of Paradise Planned, I skipped to the end of the book in a hasty “what happens at the end” impulse. I was sorely disappointed that all roads lead to a New Urbanism resolve: Celebration, the Walt Disney community. I admire the “leave no stone unturned” ethos of the book, but because Celebration was a cultural benchmark  in the 1960s, I think surely there are other more current examples of sustainable, healthy, walkable communities being built right now that could have been added to this catalog.

This work is impressive and will be useful for academics and, hopefully, intelligent practitioners – it is a tremendous resource.  If I were the authors, I would make sure it’s on every city planning desk in the country.

Annie Coggan is a principal with Coggan and Crawford Architects, and teaches at the Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Paradise Planned: The Garden Suburb and the Modern City
Location: Center for Architecture, 11.10.14
Speakers: David Fishman, Co-author, Paradise Planned; and Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY (introduction)
Organizers: AIANY Oculus Committee
Oculus Book Seller: McNally Jackson Books