Beyond Buildings


Stim and Dross: Lars Lerup on Sprawl

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Alphabet City. Courtesy: Lars Lerup


Two decades ago, Lars Lerup was “hijacked by the vastness of the suburban dream.” Having moved to Houston to be dean of the Rice University School of Architecture, the Swede found himself in a landscape he could barely comprehend. Now retired, Lerup has left us a wonderful, tentative, and evocative attempt in One Million Acres & No Zoning (London: Architectural Association, 2011) to understand sprawl from one of its epicenters, or rather places of continual escape. For, as he puts it:


“Houston suburbia shifts directly to the house in the garden leaving all other accoutrements behind. An escape from confinements more abstract than those of the traditional city–cultural history, family, inherited destinies—may have encouraged the process. Houston is never a destination but always a point of departure, the exhilarating beginning for a steady flow of newcomers. It seems perfectly reasonable to find the space program located here—a launch pad for the last frontier.”

Double Space; Megashapes. Courtesy: Lars Lerup


The conurbation exists, he goes on to point out, in One Million Acres, at the intersection of the pursuit of our Manifest Destiny, which leads us always on to the next thing and place, and the dream of the City on the Hill, the good place to live according to a set of values and beliefs we seek to share. This creates the particular logic of sprawl. It is not the result of a conspiracy, though the availability of cheap gas and subsidies for infrastructure such as roads obviously made its particular forms possible.

Utopia. Courtesy: Lars Lerup


What remains in the world of sprawl is not the traditional notion of the city, but a particular place that continues to have a particular geography, character and, as Lerup points out, even smell. He waxes lyrical about the “zoohemic canopy” of Houston’s trees and the hidden world of its bayous. Human beings layer a seeming chaos of cul-de-sacs on top of this ground, but Lerup sees a logic: the “fieldroom” of sprawl, the leftover spaces that are the result of leap-frogging development, and the particular and staccato spatial and temporal rhythms of sprawl.


Most of all, he sees what he calls “stim and dross";


“On an ‘activity surface’, dynamism and quiet co-exist. Stim, as in stimulation and dross, as in mere residue, are catalyzed by a mixture of human movement, communication, noise and action. The constant 24/7 activity block of the traditional centric city does not exist in the tattered fabric of the middle landscape. Never really contiguous, the activity of the day-and-night life cycle is interrupted by lulls, interruptions, skips and hops, times and spaces where the activity cloak gapes in underlying stillness reveal the mysterious abyss of nature. We rely on the opposite of dross to disguise this dark abyss; stim combats isolation, boredom, loneliness and despair. But compared to the lively and ongoing cycle of the old city, sustained stim is a scarce commodity here. Stim and dross–as if setting alternating patterns of sound and silence to score an oft-disrupted geography—characterize the middle landscape.”


The order he finds is not that of planning according to pseudo-rational principles, but the result of a more organic process. A place such as Houston is more like a self-organizing system, in which “pilot fish” developers create moments of attraction (stims) that, in tension with other moments of activity, lead to a fluid and ever-changing order. Resistance to such developments has to be equally flexible. Zoning does not exist and will not work, Lerup argues. Instead, he listens to the urban theorist John Mixon, who calls for tactical planning strategies based on the transparency of information digital technology has made possible.


Mixon’s and Lerup’s models for working in and on sprawl are those of nature: self-organizing systems, emergent systems, and schools of fish or fireflies. He admits to a certain romance for the Internet. It will create, he believes, in concert with sprawl, a new kind of space:


The two spaces—actual and virtual—equally resist fixity. Although enfolded and embedded, they remain separate. This new double space, of which we can only seen the vague outlines, is both the projected physical envelope surrounding me as I careen along the highway (or settle into the subdivision’s somnambulant pace) and the virtual space defined by incomprehensible warp-speeds—a new Piranesian space that will never be fully known. One open space only half imagined, the other racing at the outer edge of my peripheral vision: both are forever emerging, no longer anchored by the built but sketched by the new ephemeral –yet real—lines, points, and fields of power. The new double space has finally undone the claustrophobia of a nation of cul-de-sacs.”


All that is needed to make this work, he finally claims, is “The Giant Retro-Fit,” in which houses will be made greener, the bayous will become a connective tissue, and the leftover space will become common areas.


Storm; Surburban Fragmentation. Courtesy: Lars Lerup


The vision is romantic, but no less so than the quasi-utopian dreams of either Garden City planners or New Urbanists. The difference is that Lerup’s comes from accepting the world of sprawl, and trying to figure out how to make it better–socially and environmentally, aesthetically and organically. This volume, itself an almost self-organizing collection of observations and sketches, is not a manifesto or recipe book. It is an attempt to do what too few have tried, namely to actually look at, comprehend, and work in and with sprawl. It is a wonderful legacy from a great teacher and dean.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:45 PM Wednesday, March 06, 2013

    There's no date on this article, but I'm sure I found it well after the posting Lars Lerup, my favorite teacher at UCB, appears to be rationalizing a move to the 'burbs. Very eloquently.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.