Thursday, January 20, 2011


©Christopher Gielen


Last September, BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh paired with German-born, New York photographer Christopher Gielen, wrote his first piece for the Opinionator blog. "The Geometry of Sprawl" is an awestruck essay on Gielen's helicopter perspectives of American housing subdivisions and prisons in the southwestern United States. This article was the first in a series of internet writings from this past Fall that looked down on the surface of the earth, whether by aircraft or via satellite.

©Christopher Gielen

As Google Earth passes its fifth birthday, its impact on our visual comprehension of our society's spatial manifestations is still nascent. Just as the landscape of visual comprehension is shifting between aerial photography and this newly-ubiquitous satellite imagery, so has the American built environment rapidly altered in past five years of economic and construction expansion. This imagery, criss-crossing the internet this autumn, is engendering a reflection on this recently-passed era.

While the pictures are interesting, this is a game you can play by yourself for free with Google Maps. And if you use Google Maps, you can do it without the anti-suburban bias skewing your viewpoint (literally and figuratively). You can then do things like compare Arizona's communities with their California or Mexican neighbors. I am no fan of the suburbs or of AZ, but this is a venomous depiction that should have been toned down.
--quilt, chicago in Opinionator comments.

Christopher Gielen's work, and his statement as an artist, combined with Manaugh's typically earnest yet academically disengaged prose, sparked several pages worth of comments under the entry. Certain questions of politics and economics are implied and revealed by Gielen's photos and the way he presents them. (and apart from the very important and real issues of sustainability and dehumanization). In the monochrome of their xeroscapes, they indeed make bleak images, and Gielen emphasizes their sprawling horizontality in contrast to "vertical urban centers."

This and above, Untitled ©Christopher Gielen

Yet more than one commenter recognized the rather efficient use of land and space depicted in these neat organizations of housing. Gielen and Manaugh's exhibition, and many of the New Yorkers' comments on them, struck many as elitist and derogatory. This attitude was even more on display when the Infrastructuralist reposted the story, titling his entry "The Tragic Artistry of Sprawl" and employing the words "Horrifying" and "terrifying" in his post, which sparked at least one comment on the use of hyperbole in talking about views of the homes of tens of thousands of Americans.

Gielen and Manaugh do a beautiful job of capturing a horrifying landscape. Completely dehumanizing and utterly void of any earthly appeal, is it any wonder this is the land of Sharon Angle and Ben Quayle? A place so artificially constructed that serving as the staging ground for predator drone missions on the US-MEX border and robot warfare against remote mountain villages in NW Pakistan is hardly a surprising byproduct of this psychologically toxic environment. See you at Costco : ) . . .
Jonathan L, Kauai, HI in the NYTimes Opinionator comments.

Jonathan L, I was anticipating a snobbish, political comment like yours. An aerial view of Manhattan would look just as "horrifying" and "dehumanizing", perhaps even more so due to the extreme population density. If living in a suburban house is "psychologically toxic", then I suppose being crammed into a high rise apartment building is the path to sanity?
--Frederick Singer Huntington Beach, CA, in NYTimes Opinionator comments

Hyper documentation, criticism, and offerings of interpretation. Its the "CABINET" generation of Rococco Post-Modernism. Speculating how it got that way or how "evil cool" it is (the horrifying and dehumanizing land of Angle and Quayle, really? How exactly?) when held at a distance for a hyperbolic tut tut.
--Bob Hinter Earth, SD in NYTimes Opinionator comments

In November, summarized the Manaugh/Gielen article and assembled a slideshow. At least 125 comments followed. Gielen sounds even more aloof and detached in all this press, and in the 125 comments that follow the CNN post, he is often panned as a European New Yorker helicoptering above fly-over states, a judgement which his quotations make hard to counter.

"Sprawl is a really careless use of new land. I want people who look at my photos to start a reconsideration of how they live through art," Gielen said.
Does it bother Gielen that he is completely contradictory in his views? On the one hand he claims that urban sprawl is a waste of land, then he shows pictures of tightly-packed houses and complains about how crowded and uniform it is. His pictures are completely ordinary-- mildly interesting but hardly art and not at all original or provocative.
That said, I would enjoy flying around in a plane taking snapshots and claiming to be an artist/deep social critic. Well, I would enjoy flying around and taking snapshots. --badcyclist, commenting on story

More than his method, its important to realize that Gielen, reportedly working for five years, is merely a newcomer to a very long line of aerial photographers, stretching back at least to Charles Lindbergh himself. Gielen doesn't appear to have any architectural training, which is in contrast to one of his pioneering predecessors, Massachusetts-based Alex MacLean, who holds an architectural degree from Harvard. MacLean wasn't mentioned anywhere online this fall.

©Alex MacLean

©Alex MacLean

©Alex MacLean

©Alex MacLean

©Alex MacLean

MacLean's photographs encompass a much wider range of built environments, reflecting several decades of piloting his own plane across America, including the concrete steppe of the endless parking lots of downtown Houston, to the hidden fields of auto chasis graveyards, to photos which much more provocatively evince the wanton and wasteful use of precious land in America's suburban frontiers. In many instances much more successfully that Gielen, they reveal true sprawl: that is, the use more land and space than is necessary to build and expand our cities.

Manchester, NY ©Alex MacLean from his book Designs on the Land

Gielen has other contemporaries working in the same realm and from the same altitude, which likewise made the rounds this autumn, including super-photographer Edward Burtynsky. Burtnysky's and McClean's images contrast Gielen's overstuffed subdivisions, capturing empty planned communities, revealed to be future neighborhoods only by the grid work of roads and the few structures that have thus far been built.

Salton Sea ©Edward Burtynsky

As with so many aspects of contemporary lives, the tools and technologies of the internet are encroaching on the rarified space of artists and aerial photographers. Not least of this is Google Earth, which allows any internet user to view any corner of the earth from on high at a moment's notice.

It's amazing how so many artists prefer to live and emote in their abstract little boxes, instead of educating themselves, in the long history of urban form. What modern writers and artists like this completely miss, is that there's an ocean of knowledge in traditional urbanism and building, that the modern designer, developers...and the modern architecture and arts academy...have thrown out the window...and built a wall against. They leave the impression that they are making new and cool discoveries. In fact, their "tabula rasa" thinking is the well spring of their mystified well as their dumb-as-dirt, historic ignorance. Yes, sprawl is bad and unsustainable. Find out why.
--Rich Pennsylvania, in NYTimes Opinionator Comments

A spectacular example of how this tool can play a role in our understanding in a new way came about by a unique and intriguing engenderment: an installment of the terrific radio podcast Planet Money, from NPR. The Planet Money team crafted an episode around toxic assets, and in so doing visited the frontiers of America's subprime housing bubble, in this case the newly created residential developments of canal-and-cul-de-saced southwest Florida.

Rotanda West from originally from Google Earth

Lehigh Acres from originally Google Earth

Fort Myers from originally Google Earth

Big Marco Island from originally from Google Earth

This, in turn, inspired Boston Magazine to assemble a series of startling Google Earth images into a superb photo essay. More than 350 respondents posted comments, far more than Manaugh's and Gielen's NYTimes entry.

The Boston Magazine photo essay, which is simply a series of Google Earth screen shots, is every bit as arresting and enlightening as Gielen's work. Its also telling that includes Rotanda West, a Fort-Myers area development that Gielen photographed.

An aerial photo by some predecessor to Mr. Gielen would have shown the devastation of logging, raw cuts in the hill where streets were constructed, some houses and a few shacks. At the present time the neighborhood is filled with mature trees and much of the earlier uncontrolled slopes have been terraced or otherwise stabilized. It is a good neighborhood. My point is that much housing development (perhaps nearly all) can be looked at from viewpoints that are unflattering, even "horrifying". It's what is done to house human beings. Where would Mr. Gielen have us live? the pictures are arresting and beautiful but I think his admirers grant a profundity to those images that is illusory.
--Kieth Nissen, Seattle, in NYTimes Opinionator comments

The collection is made up of both huge agglomerations of densely-packed geometries and forlorn, regrown wastelands of never-completed communities. The verdancy here is striking, and recalls some of the debate in the comment sections of the other Gielen articles, as to whether our dryland communities are unsustainable due to a lack of nearby water, or if our greenbelt boom of housing is destroying a more precious environment.

A less-recent development than Google Earth, but which nonetheless encroaches upon the professionals' realm, is that fact that America has become a "flying public" and therefore nearly anyone can be an aerial photographer, without a pilots license or even professional camera. This popular tradition is often presented with enthusiasm, not for the fear at what it reveals but for the general thrill of the opportunity to peer down at the earth.

Such is the case of NOTCOT's somewhat prosaic Operation Window Seat project, which is filled with a gee-whiz wonderment in simply angling a camera over an aileron. There are at least six books for sale on with the title Window Seat, several of which speak of inspiration, reflection, and philosophy. Looking down on our planet may be the last romantic aspect of contemporary air travel, and thus far one of the few aspects of flying that airlines can neither take away entirely nor figure out how to charge for.

Taking this all in, its clear that more is required of an artist than a helicopter and a hipster's detachment. An ingenuous and gorgeous example of a more provocative alternative was also on display this autumn, featured in the both Urban Times and Northcoast Zeigeist.

©Ross Racine

Hickoryglen Estates ©Ross Racine

Highland Acres ©Ross Racine

Sunshine Acres ©Ross Racine

Canadian-born New York artist Ross Racine is not a photographer. Racine's work, despite looking like photocollage, are in fact drawings, using Illustrator and Photoshop, and according to the artist, contain no elements of photos at all. Racine takes the geometry of the cul-de-sac past its logical end-point, working out subdivisions that are completely disconnected and insular, which a rational impossibility. Likewise, he riffs the gimmicky, wasteful patterns of house-and-yard developments by making a patterns of overly haphazard, over-paved, under-occupied clusters of residences. Equally his appellations seem to match those of the actual locations of the photsurvey: Sunshine Acres, Highland Acres, Hickoryglen Estates, as in contrast to Gielen's series, with individual photographs of southwestern suburbs apocalyptically called Untitled X.

When are we going to dig in, get busy, quit treating our 20th century cities like "horrifying" butterflies on pins in a case and start projecting better (or at least current) urbanisms?

This is all so tired, flying around and shooting it montgolfier style as a way of "criticizing" it. This sort of stuff is easy and already well done. The hardest thing about it is not getting in quasi-legal hassles with the prison people.

I for one can't wait until Geoff and the "Cabineteers" turn the corner and grow past this era of self-aggrandized curation where they mistake wit and novelty as a creative act and they turn their energy, skill, and intelligence towards projecting rather than collecting.
--Anonymous response in NYTimes Opinionator


  1. Interesting post. I do want to point out at least one thing, though, which is that, in my piece for the NYT, I don't ever actually say that the landscapes depicted are horrifying, soul-crushing, or "dehumanizing and utterly void of any earthly appeal," as the comments themselves wrote. In fact, as you correctly imply in your post here, I ultimately relied upon the whammy bar of awe, and I tried, in fact, to cast these sites as a kind of terrestrial enigma more deserving of respectful attention (even calling for a whole new branch of the human sciences in a hyperbolic gesture of bringing this point home).

    Of course, I do use the word "alienating," but this is primarily in reference to Gielen's own approach (his untitled photos, seemingly voyeuristic angles, and so on). For something to be alienating is not necessarily negative, in any case, though I could obviously have made that more clear.

    What I did not want to do with my article—without going to the opposite extreme—was, in many ways, precisely what many of the commenter's seem to be projecting onto it. I precisely did not want to write a piece that comes across as some sort overarching, flyby condemnation of suburban life. As such, I tried to focus as much as possible on the actual geometry—the spatial configurations—of these towns, and I think it is objectively demonstrable that I did not say sprawl is somehow destroying the moral or political fabric of the U.S., etc. etc.

    In any case, I actually think, at least partially, that something else was going on in the comments thread, which was that people seemed to assume, immediately, that anyone writing about suburbia based on images taken from above must, inherently, be doing so from a position of interpretive derision and arrogance. But describing retirement communities as "spatial endpoints of certain journeys," for example, is qualitatively (and, I would have thought, really quite obviously) different from calling them "dead ends" or "spiritual prisons," or whatever other sort of cliché I could have trotted out.

    As far as the originality of the piece goes—or lack thereof—I concur with everyone who has pointed out that aerial photos of the U.S. built environment are nothing new, and, even more specifically, that my own often "earnest" approach, as you call of it, attempting to find an almost mystical awe in overlooked landscapes, can be just as clichéd as the approaches I was trying to avoid.

    Thanks for the feedback, though, and the time. I've been enjoying your blog.

  2. Geoff, Its great to get your comments on this.

    I definitely didn't mean to imply that you hold any opinion that you don't or otherwise misconstrue what you said in the piece.

    I have nothing against the fellow personally, but I feel that in his own comments and artist statement, Gielen comes off as unfortunately aloof. Stating that suburbs are soulless or inferior to high-rise city life is not a particularly original assertion. I definitely think the fact that he is a European artist living in New York talking about how unfortunately he finds the American suburbs starts to create its own cliché. Of his photography itself, my point in the post was that there are other, older artists whose work has explored the same American landscapes more broadly, and that Google Earth democratizes the photographic examination of these landscapes-- so the space Gielen works in overlaps with these.

    I thought your Opinionator piece suggested more interesting directions for his work to go in--especially your conclusion. A lot of the NYT comments didn't like your neologism, and perhaps they're academically correct that it should be a branch of geography, or whatever. But I thought it was a very valid provocation, to examine just why these geometries are assigned to large-scale housing estates (beyond just the fetish of the designer), what sort of effects these orientations might have on inhabitants, etc. Rotanda West, shown in the post, would be a good subject for this.

    This is exactly why I thought Ross Racine's work fits so excellently with this. Beyond his artistic talent, Racine really pushes this issue of the internal arrangement, repetition, and orientation of suburban geometry to an illogical condition, where the place can no longer be successfully navigated. But then, how unnecessarily complex are the subdivisions of Gielen's photographs or the slideshow? That's fascinating, and its too bad your proposal was lost on so many of the readers/commenters. For all these articles, the comments sections had many being snobby about city living and/or dismissive of the sprawl, and while some of this discussion was interesting, too, it was apart from the point of your article and not necessarily your opinion.

    As for the importance of being earnest, I am very much in support of those who let their enthusiasm for the topic at hand to show through. BLDGBLOG is really enjoyable precisely because you write with a freedom of conjecture and association-- I think I mentioned this in the discussion of the Critical Condition situation a few months back. I appreciate people who aren't afraid to let their excitement for a subject come through in their writing. Such gestures are too rare, even in the realm of the personal blog. Why? Is wonderment deemed too childlike? It might be assumed that an air of academic detachment might be more respectable, or official, or professional, but its also boring.

    Again thanks very much for reading and commenting (btw I enjoy your blog, too!), Matt

  3. Interesting post. Well worth the read. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, Michael!


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