“Space to play, affordable rents and genuine community have time and time again provided a platform for simple pleasures outside of the city.”
The suburbs are far more fascinating than we often give them credit for. Space to play, affordable rents and genuine community have time and time again provided a platform for simple pleasures outside of the city. It’s why we themed this edition of the Urban Research Journal around the idea of Suburban Bliss. Creating the suburbs of the future will involve learning lessons from our cities: adopting increased density, building in room for change and growth and creating clusters of culture, commerce and education. But ignoring what the suburbs already do well could be our downfall. For our latest Field Notes we take a look at a few places we’ve found joy in the suburbs, taking us from the backstreets of Tokyo to Copenhagen’s northern neighbourhoods.
Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen
Denmark’s most visited art gallery isn’t in the heart of Copenhagen, or even Aarhus; it’s located 35 minutes north of the capital by train in a sleepy suburb called Humlebæk. Overlooking the Øresund Sound, the modernist mid-century gallery draws visitors outside the city centre with a permanent collection that includes works by David Hockney, Robert Rauschenbergand Yoko Ono, attracting 750,000 visitors each year and providing a substantial tourist economy for Humlebæk. Prior to Louisiana’s inception the world’s most regarded art collections were mostly housed in urban contexts, but in recent decades the art world has increasingly adopted the model, with internationally acclaimed art galleries opening in the suburbs of Melbourne (Heidi Museum of Modern Art), Hobart (MONA) and New York City (Dia:Beacon).
Welcome to Thornbury, Melbourne
In Melbourne, Thornbury is where the inner city meets the suburbs. Connected to the CBD by two tram routes it benefits from the kind of lifestyle retail that comes with medium density living and with a population that is increasingly young, progressive and multicultural. Welcome to Thornbury epitomises the changing face of Thornbury, serving as both an important community focal point and an example of the urban lifestyle retail that the suburbs can benefit from. By clustering a set of independently operated food trucks around a centralised bar and a sun-dappled beer garden, operators Welcome to Group have created a model that is scalable (in 2017, they opened Welcome to Bowen Hills in Brisbane) and accessible while providing an important platform for new food and beverage operators to test the market.
It’s difficult to define the suburbs in a city as dense as Tokyo, but Yanaka, an hour by train from the commercial centres of Shibuya and Shinjuku, comes close. Yanaka is a traditional Shitamachi neighbourhood, a historic parallel to our contemporary understanding of suburbia. Shitamachi neigbourhoods are traditionally home to merchants, small business owners and restaurateurs – distinguished from the upper-class Yamanote – and are historically more welcoming than their more urban counterparts. Yanaka has experienced a cultural renaissance over the past decade, thanks to retailers like Classico and CIBI, but its international visibility is largely the responsibility of Tokyobike. Their retail and rental HQ is located at the heart of the neighbourhood and encourages locals and visitors to explore the peaceful streets on two wheels. Their neighbourhood guide promotes the best art, history and retail in Yanaka, offering a glimpse of how the suburban lifestyle can be embraced in a city of nine million.
Writers Theatre, Chicago
The Writers Theatre began in the backroom of a suburban bookstore, some 32 kilometres outside Chicago, in 1992. It quickly outgrew its quarters and teamed up with another Glencoe-based civic group, the Woman’s Library Club, and occupied their out-dated brick clubhouse. It was an organic and financially sensible merger of two community-minded organisations, but it wasn’t sustainable. Both groups attracted greater audiences and despite their suburban roots, became important cultural institutions in the wider Chicago region. It was time to grow again. The existing theatre was razed and in its place a new 36,000 sqf Writers Theatre would open its doors to Glencoe. Designed by Studio Gang, the performing arts centre is a striking addition to the suburban landscape and the kind of ambitious architectural project usually reserved for a more urban context. Today the multi-use complex is a destination for theatre lovers from across Chicago, a community hub for local residents and a site at the heart of economic growth for the region.
It’s clear the suburbs can learn from our cities, but there’s just as much our cities can take from the suburbs. Mikkel Borg Bjergsø has a knack for reinterpreting the traditional Danish bodega, a neighbourhood staple where people from all walks of life congregate, and transplanting them around the world. It doesn’t hurt that Bjergsø has an international reputation as a master brewer, or that his Mikkeller outposts frequently feature more than two-dozen hard to find beers from around the world. While his Berlin, San Francisco and Tokyo bars inhabit prime real estate in the busiest parts of each city, Mikkeller Bangkok is tucked away in an obscure residential street, in a converted double story house at the back of a leafy garden. Strictly speaking, we’re still in the heart of Bangkok, but as you walk by the walled gardens, private homes and leafy streets you get that same feeling of exploration that the end of the train line provides.
Copenhagen, Denmark; Melbourne, Australia; Tokyo, Japan; Chicago, USA; Bangkok, Thailand.
Samuel Davison is Editor at Right Angle Studio. He has written extensively on cities for a range of international publications. He also publishes This is the Same Ocean, an annual journal of photography. His photographic work has been shown around the world and he was the 2016 winner of the Independent Photography Festival’s Grand Jury Prize.