Architect Ellen Dunham-Jones is almost a Princeton native. She moved here at age 3 and but for one year in New York City stayed put until she had earned bachelor and master’s degrees in architecture from Princeton University.
The artist type in high school, Dunham-Jones had no illusions about her talent: “I didn’t think I was good enough to become an artist and it was way too scary,” she says. It was signing up for Architecture 101 during her freshman year that hooked her on the idea that “you could read buildings and read cities like you read books.”
Like all architects, Dunham-Jones appreciates a beautiful building, but she couldn’t look away from a reality that was spiraling out of control. “For every beautiful building we are producing,” she says, “another 1,000 acres were being plowed under for buildings I didn’t think were very good.”
Her vision of an architects role started to evolve in her first academic position as an assistant professor at the University of Virginia. “Moving to Charlottesville, watching sprawl develop and engulf what was this absolutely beautiful small town,” she says, “I started getting interested in not just individual buildings but in the nature of larger cities and the landscapes we are producing.”
Dunham-Jones will speak on “Retrofitting Suburbia” on Monday, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library on Witherspoon Street. She is looking forward to speaking in the new library, whose lead designer, Nick Garrison, was one of her housemates in graduate school.
Dunham-Jones moved to Princeton as a child when her father became director of admissions at Princeton University. He ended up spending most of his career, however, as a grants officer with the Carnegie foundation and corporation in New York City. Her mother raised four children and still lives in Lawrenceville.
After graduate school, Dunham-Jones worked in New York City for three years with avant garde New York City architect Peter Eisenman, but since 1986 she has been a full-time academic, with a small practice on the side. She spent seven years at the University of Virginia, seven more at MIT, and in 2000 moved to Georgia Tech as associate professor and director of the architecture program.
Over time Dunham-Jones’s focus on the realities of people’s residential lives made her a bit of a renegade. Even at forward-thinking Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she next taught, other architecture professors looked askance when she chose as the subject of a design studio, how to use the site of a dead mall to create a better community.
When she was invited to head the architecture program at Georgia Tech, she and her artist husband had some initial misgivings about moving to Atlanta. She decided to accept the position when she realized that the architecture faculty at Georgia Tech “completely got the critique of sprawl. They were not going to hold it against me that I was looking at alternatives to sprawl and trying to bring the next generation of architects to be more critical and prepared to deal with these types of problems.”
Dunham-Jones’s latest book, which she wrote with June Williamson, “Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs,” came out in December. It documents 80 real examples of architectural retrofits of typical suburban real estate, ranging from dead big box stores and malls to dying commercial strip corridors, garden apartments and office parks. “We found examples from around the country that had been either adaptively reused or completely redeveloped to much more urban or sustainable places,” she says.
Enclosed malls are dying. Although one new enclosed mall, Xanadu, is now going up in the Meadowlands, not a single new enclosed mall has been built anywhere in the country in the last two years. First, the good sites at highway exits are gone. Secondly, Internet shopping has made inroads.
But Dunham-Jones suggests that the most significant reason may have to do with lifestyle. When the first indoor malls were built, air conditioning was a big deal for people who lived and worked in spaces that had none. “Nowadays,” says Dunham-Jones, “people are spending so much time in air conditioning that when they want to go relax, sitting outside is more of a draw.” The solution has been to build open-air lifestyle centers and town centers with restaurants and cafes.
Demographics have changed drastically. Dunham-Jones paints a statistical picture of new realities in population distribution. “In the 1950s and ‘60s, when we started building postwar suburbs in earnest, one-half of American households had kids. Today it is less than one-third,” she says. And as for the Ozzie and Harriet type of household where pop went to work and mom stayed home in a suburban house? Those comprise less than 7 percent of households
Population growth is in single-person households, which at 30 percent of household types tracked by the census, is the largest demographic group. Not only are younger people marrying later, aging baby boomers are either retiring, are empty nesters, or are divorced.
As a result, suburban homes are less desirable. “Suburbs do a good job of maximizing privacy for the young family,” says Dunham-Jones, “but for a single person, that maximum privacy that the suburb provides can be pretty lonely. There is a lot of interest in places that are more social, where people can go to hang out and see other people. Whether they are actually talking to them or not, they feel like they are in a more communal place.”
First-ring suburbs are aging. Suburbs have grown mostly through a process of leapfrogging, explains Dunham-Jones. The first suburbs were built at the edges of the big metropolises. But every five to ten years another mall, another office park, and more houses would be built farther and farther out, creating a ring of suburbs around an urban center.
Now we are seeing those first-ring suburbs and their related retail aging or dying because of this leapfrogging. But despite the dying malls and shopping centers, these early suburbs have relatively central locations that make them ripe for redevelopment. As a result, says Dunham-Jones, it is not uncommon to see next door to a one-story carpet distributor a six-story loft building with a chic restaurant on the ground floor.
Sustainability is a central value. The biggest engine driving the need to retrofit the suburbs has to do with sustainability. Although more than 60 percent of U.S. jobs are in the suburbs, the average suburbanite has a carbon footprint three times the size of the average urban dweller, due both to extra driving and single, detached houses that leak more energy than housing that is stacked or has connected walls.
Dunham-Jones believes that retrofitting the suburbs is a way to redirect growth to existing communities that already have infrastructure and are closer in, but could use new investment. If even a quarter of the concrete grayfields, or “underperforming asphalt,” were redeveloped, she estimates, we could accommodate half the country’s housing needs.
One problem is that no one will want to live in these retrofitted places unless the architects do a great job designing them. The properties that Dunham-Jones highlights in her new book are being redesigned to accommodate a denser population, “regreened,” if the area is losing population, and prepared for “reinhabitation,” meaning that the physical building stays much the same but gets new uses. Immigrant mom-and-pop shops may take over a shopping center that used to house national chain stores.
Or, as retailers have gone bankrupt, some malls have filled their empty spaces with artists, theaters, and dance groups or have transformed into business parks.
To serve the large single and retired baby boomer population, the trend is open-air lifestyle centers, with cafes, restaurants, and nightlife, and town centers that add urban-style housing to the mix. Even if these new town centers, plopped in the middle of a suburban landscape, are not always esthetically pleasing, though, Dunham-Jones stands by them as filling a critical need.
“Architects especially are really suspicious of a lot of these places; the cities they love are those that have evolved over time and where you feel the patina of different generations. It feels organic and authentic,” she says.
That’s fine, but architects retrofitting the suburbs face inflexible street layouts and must impose new structures to accommodate denser populations. Hence, they are developing town centers with the more adaptable block layouts of places like Manhattan.
“You end up with a project that has instant urbanism,” says Dunham-Jones. Although she loves the incremental urbanism of big cities, she will go down to the mat defending town centers. “We need instant urbanism,” she says. “The reality is that because the street system in the suburbs is so specialized and unadaptable, you really have to work at a big scale.” Maybe instant architecture feels a little fake, but buildings can change; once you lay out streets, it is hard to change their configurations.
Dunham-Jones suggests that, as a nation, we may not yet be ready to wholeheartedly adopt her perspective. “Culturally our country takes pride in seeing downtowns flourish, change, and grow, and thinks suburbia should be forever frozen in the form it was developed in,” she says. But especially as gas prices go up — and they will — we can’t just change the suburbs incrementally, one building at a time, and Dunham-Jones is inviting her fellow architects to redevelop the suburban landscape, one town center at a time.