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Mitford Close: My Suburb vs. Our Village: Tracing the Emergence of Suburban Iconography in Contemporary Literature

Part 2 Dissertation 2009
Tom Brigden
Cardiff University, UK
The rise of suburbia over the past two centuries has been charged with bringing to an end our ‘vernacular’ tradition of house-building. Whilst the ‘vernacular’ is assumed to be pragmatic, ‘authentic’ and ‘original’, suburbia is bemoaned as ‘inauthentic’. Why is suburban iconography perceived to be so ‘un-vernacular’? What differentiates ‘vernacular’ iconography from the suburban?
The conventional history of suburbia charts the typological development of the suburb with little emphasis placed on changes in the social, political and economic fabric of society. Whilst changes in society are seen as the evils imposed upon us by the development of suburbia, there is evidence, in the writings of contemporary writers, such as Mary Russell Mitford, that lifestyles began to change before suburbia’s rise. Changing attitudes to privacy, ownership and leisure time and a dramatic increase in wealth, all coinciding with industrial revolution clearly began to influence the home. In effect, suburbia, it may be argued, developed as a response to lifestyle change. Therefore, suburbia may not be as contradictory to the notion of the ‘vernacular’ as is generally assumed.
Mitford’s illuminating accounts in Our Village (1824), allow an insight into the social, political and economic changes apparent in the village life of Three Mile Cross, Berkshire at this critical moment in time, as village became suburb. By drawing from her writing and accompanying sketches, I chart the emergence of recognisable suburban iconography from the ‘vernacular’ of the eighteenth century.
The familiar picket fence, window shutters and conservatory have been used in countless films, dramas and advertisements for the power of their symbolism and connotations. These applied ‘signifiers’, to use Roland Barthes’ definition, of suburbia are read, by most Architects, as purely representational ‘decoration’ i.e. the suburban house is Robert Venturi’s “Decorated Shed”. This may mark the separation between suburban ‘decoration’ and ‘vernacular’ ‘ornament’. Our perception of suburban iconography as ‘decoration’ may be preventing us from taking suburbia seriously, and thus, as Architects, we miss the opportunity to engage with it effectively.

Tom Brigden

Tom Brigden’s dissertation, supervised by Mhairi McVicar at the Welsh School of Architecture, is a delightful and inventive exploration which questions and develops ideas of suburbia.

Tom challenges the idea, predominant in conventional architectural and social histories, that ‘the vernacular’ in Britain (whatever, in practice, that may mean) ended with the rise of suburbia. His counter argument suggests that social changes considered by such histories to be evils encouraged by suburban development instead preceded suburbia. These social changes, he argues, helped instead to produce suburbia and its iconographies. Indeed, they also helped to produce the idea of the vernacular. Tom develops his case with reference to the Berkshire village of Three Mile Cross – now subsumed into the suburban sprawl of Reading – and its eighteenth and nineteenth century representations, particularly in the literary works of once-famous local novelist Mary Russell Mitford. The dissertation is a distinctive piece of work which makes important and unexpected connections. It is both original and rigorous in its approach and choice of focus. Its sources are wide-ranging and appropriate. There is clear evidence of a distinctive critical mind at work.

Receiving the top mark in his cohort for both dissertation and design, Tom has been put forward by Cardiff University for an AHRC Block Grant PhD Studentship, which we hope he will be taking up in September.

Dr. Adam Sharr RIBA.
MArch 2 Year Chair and Dissertation Module Leader.
Welsh School of Architecture,
Cardiff University.
02920 876728 (direct line)

Ms Mhairi McVicar
Dr Adam Sharr
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