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The Suburban Dream and the Architectural Nightmare

Part 1 Dissertation 2010
George Thatcher
University of Brighton | UK
My dissertation explores the nature of British suburbia, with particular focus on Saltdean, a 1920s suburban development outside of Brighton. This subject choice resulted from a second year design project, in which a building proposal was fashioned from the language of its suburban environment, thus highlighting the conflict between the architect's objective of innovative form-giving and the inhabitants' desire for comfort and conformity.
Both the successes and failures of what I have chosen to call 'Suburbitecture' are examined from a number of perspectives. The opinions and values of not only the modern architect, but also the speculative developer and the inhabitants of suburbia are weighed against each other. The discussion addresses issues regarding aesthetics, social implications, economic viability, as well as the infrastructural context of suburban development. The form language of suburbia is scrutinised, asking if, and to what extent the unrelenting and often fierce professional criticism of this 20th century phenomenon can be justified.
With reference to material sourced from local historical archives, my case study of Saltdean's early development allowed for an examination of the very homes, residents, and individuals responsible for this particular type of suburban development. This concrete example is set against the broader history of interwar developer-driven suburbia, as described in the general literature on the subject.
While I aimed to provide a balanced discussion, I also sought to challenge my own preconceptions of suburbia and those of the architectural profession. Despite much debate regarding the subject, many contemporary architects would no doubt still recoil at J.B. Priestly's provocative suggestion from 1927 that “[we] should be content to make the whole country hideous if … in doing so we could make all the people in it moderately happy.”
The dissertation concludes that Saltdean's legacy is a mixed one, perhaps as much as the opinions about suburbia itself, and that 'Suburbitecture' is a phenomenon worthy of greater, and certainly more positive attention. After all, as Paul Oliver points out, “a building phenomenon of such an extent … should have … a profound effect on the nature of architectural and planning education.”

George Thatcher

This dissertation began with a set of questions about the negative perception of the British suburb by the architectural profession and the student's own preconceived ideas about 'suburbitecture'. While suburbia has been much discussed, the issues it raises are perpetually intriguing, it seems. In his dissertation, George Thatcher brings a combination of polemical intent and serious scholarly research to the subject, resulting in a lively, well-informed, and original study.
The centre piece of the dissertation is a historical case-study of Saltdean in East Sussex. Based on archival material and set against the background of the emergence of modernist architecture in Britain, it offers an intriguing account of a specific instance of 1930s developer architecture. This historical study is set in the context of a broader examination of the virtues and shortcomings of suburban architecture, in historical and contemporary perspective, and a gentle critique of modern architecture's difficulties in coming to terms with the phenomenon of the suburb.
This is a well-rounded dissertation where historical study informs contemporary debate and provocation is backed by reference to recent scholarly work. There is also a sense that the investigation is part of an ongoing architectural project and open-ended journey of the student, involving experiments with writing styles, modes of enquiry, and a continuously refined position towards the subject matter.

Karin Jaschke
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