Exhibition redefines suburban sprawl

Forget terms like “city,” “suburb” or “countryside.” Welcome to the age of “mall glut,” “snout houses” and “zoombergs.”

Dolores Hayden, professor of architecture and American studies, has provided a guide to new terminology used to describe the changing American landscape with an inaugural exhibition at the Yale School of Architecture Gallery, now located in its swing space on Edgewood Avenue. “A Field Guide to Sprawl” pairs Hayden’s witty codification of terms and definitions — the exhibit is based on her book of the same title — with aerial photographs provided by Jim Wark.

The result is an illustrated devil’s dictionary of sprawl — the current trend of excessive growth and unsustainable land usage — with an emphasis on the social and political problems that cause it. Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, said aspects of American culture might be responsible for our inclinations in urban planning.

“As we sprawl out, we often leave behind us earlier developments, older cities and old suburbs that are allowed to decay,” he said. “When we have no more space, we just move on; we follow the old American impulse to ‘Go West Young Man.’”

“A Field Guide to Sprawl” covers the spectrum of development problems that stem from this pattern: Alligator (land producing negative cash flow, taken from the phrase “up to one’s ears in alligators”) to Zoomberg (a sprawling place prone to growth). With each term, Wark’s aerial photography makes the familiar suddenly strange, transforming common scenes and objects into startling, inhuman geographies.

For example, in “Asphalt Nation,” Wark transfigures an ordinary parking lot into a calculated geometry of diagonal lines of cars in seemingly endless symmetry. Although this landscape is entirely man-made, no actual people are ever present.

Each term and photograph also highlights an explicit social or political problem. In the description under Asphalt Nation, Hayden references Jane Holtz Kay’s book by the same name and argues, “American mobility is obstructed by car culture. The asphalt nation sprang from the Road Gang, a 1950’s lobby of automobile and truck manufacturers, tire makers, gas and oil interests, highway engineers and paving contractors who encouraged the federal government to expand its road building activities.”

By giving people a vocabulary to describe sprawl, Hayden said, she is also attempting to teach people how they can stop it.

“If you want to be able to critique something, you have to be able to name it,” Hayden said. “You need to know the jargon in order to understand what these things are.”

Hayden said she found that most Americans could not understand or explain what was happening to their urban landscape. After writing books for academic readers, she said, she decided to write a more stylized book to reach a wider audience.

“I thought there was perhaps room to share with people the insider vocabulary and slang that I had picked up in the field,” Hayden said. “It seemed to me that this would open a lot of doors. People would go to community meetings and be able to understand what was going on much more accurately.”

Dean Stern said the exhibit carries local importance. With sprawl manifesting itself across Connecticut in the spread of small towns like Guilford, he said, residents of the Elm City are particularly interested in this topic.

Robert Brown, a New Haven resident and retired photographer who used to work in the visual science department at Yale, said he enjoyed the exhibit and thought it had an important message.

“I’m kind of disgusted by how everything runs rampant for profit rather than what would be best for the community,” he said. “When I was growing up everything was so well planned out to begin with. I’ve just seen terrible changes since then.”

Hayden will be giving a lecture on the exhibition on Sept. 20 in LC 101, with a reception to follow at the 32 Edgewood gallery. The exhibition runs until Oct. 19.

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