Urban Sights: Urban History and Visual Culture

'Little boxes'

Despite the extent of this decades-long construction spree, the Sunset is not Doelger's most well-known development. That title is held by Westlake, Daly City, built following his endeavors in the Sunset. Comprised of 6,500 houses and 3,000 apartments, the area is a model suburb, extensively planned to include all the requisite commercial, cultural and public facilities. Folk singer Malvina Reynolds immortalized the area in her iconic song 'Little boxes', written in 1962 and made famous by Pete Seeger's 1963 renditionReynolds' satiric vision of suburbia as standardized 'little boxes' made out of 'ticky-tacky' has remained a part of popular culture for decades, employed as a quick signal of loathsome post-war conformity in a multitude of contextsAs Reynolds sang, 'There's a green one and a pink one/And a blue one and yellow one', though the end of the lyric, 'and they all look just the same', is not quite accurate. Like many suburban developments, Westlake was built with a limited number of floor plans, but those seven basic styles were adapted to produce 260 unique façades, just as Doelger's Sunset blocks were aligned to avoid obvious design repetition. In some respects, however, Reynolds' acerbic take on suburban development was prescient: the musician's daughter recalls that when prompted to return to the spot of her original inspiration for a magazine feature, 'she couldn't find those houses because so many more had been built around them that the hillsides were totally covered'.
The Sunset district, in fact, is visible from Westlake, creating a continuous sight line of Doelger row houses between suburb and city. A measure of this continuity is suggested by the works of another suburban observer, William Garnett. Garnett's photographs of the Lakewood development in Los Angeles County have frequently been used as illustrations of the suburban grid; as D.J. Waldie reflects in his memoir of Lakewood, the photographs 'became the definition of this suburb, and then of suburbs generally'. The photographer's aerial images – made while he simultaneously piloted his Cessna – are both elegantly distilled formal studies of architectural patterns and records of mass construction. The Lakewood photographs were a commercial commission used in magazine spreads and the developer's promotional literature, but also became fodder for suburban excoriations like A. Adams and N. Newhall's This Is the American Earth and P. Blake's God's Own Junkyard. Likewise, Garnett's San Francisco images were commissioned for The American Aesthetic (1969), architect Nathaniel Alexander Owings' case for the cultural and environmental value of high-density cities. Here, sandwiched between the familiar Lakewood shots and concentric circles of Eichler homes in Palo Alto, are aerial views of the Sunset. Both the grid layout of the page and the various patterns of housing arrangements suggest rampant geometric swathing of the landscape. Though the Sunset homes are more tightly adjoined than those of the suburban images, their co-presence implies a unified development impulse, a connotation supported by the juxtaposed text. Owings mocks 'Homo suburbianus's' discovery that his own prized retreat has taken on the worst traits of the very urban form he fled:
The air is thick with the sounds and smells of his own and his neighbors' autos and power lawnmowers, and with smog and dust, which supposedly had been left behind in the city. With these trials also comes the realization that people can become one with a homestead but not with a tract. Impersonal, drab sameness offers stony soil and withers personal roots.
Though he praises San Francisco for its investment in public transportation and its post-Embarcadero Freeway resistance to highway building, Owings contends that any analysis of its built environment could 'end up with conclusive proof that she is the ugliest city in the world, not the most beautiful'. As with Adams, Newhall and Blake's slightly earlier jeremiads, the threat of suburbanization is clearly articulated: the Sunset homes are employed as an example of how even the world's most revered cities are prey to the apparently cheap, ruinous impulses of mass-produced housing.

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