Andrea Vesentini


On his book Indoor America: The Interior Landscape of Postwar Suburbia

Cover Interview of January 09, 2019

The wide angle

The greatest challenge in writing a cultural history is that its primary object of study is incredibly hard to pin down. The focus should not only be on the materiality of architectural spaces but also on the sociocultural forces that originated them. Although some historians are led to disqualify the validity of cultural studies as a methodology exactly because of the intrinsically indefinable nature of its subject of analysis, I soon realized there was no other way to address this topic if not by approaching it from several fronts.

In Indoor America, the interest is not just on interiors as built spaces that were designed by architects, built by developers, and inhabited by real people, but also on interiors as a state of mind. Fallout shelters, for example, to which an entire chapter is devoted, mostly came alive as imagined spaces in popular culture given that only a handful were completed. However, the fact that they were a hotly debated issue for years, as well as their widespread representation in civil defense films, design manuals, and widely distributed magazines, left a mark on Americans’ imagination if not on the landscape they physically inhabited. Therefore, they cast an influence on the way domestic and public interiors were conceived. Their greatest legacy is not found in the built environment, but this does not mean that they are not part of the country’s architectural history.

The multifaceted aspects of this cultural landscape brought me to the conclusion that, in order to tell such a history, I had to take into account the design of all such interiors, as well as their depiction on a variety of media, ranging from advertising to films. Beatriz Colomina’s book Domesticity at War was unquestionably the first source of inspiration. When I first came across it, I could not let go of it. The way in which postwar architectural history was told through images captured me in a way probably no other book ever has, drawing me into an age I had never experienced firsthand. I was not just presented with the events that happened in those years, the places that got built, and the architects that designed them. I could almost smell those interiors, walk into those houses, hear the sound of TV commercials. I wanted Indoor America to also construct a sort of inhabitable landscape, and thus images took center stage in the analysis. They are not just brought into the discussion as documents, but as mysterious texts to be deciphered, rooms to be unlocked and explored.

I also wanted the book to provide a bigger picture of suburbanization that could explain why this phenomenon happened in a certain place and a certain time. There is a wealth of scholarship evidencing the financial and political support of suburbanization against other forms of urban growth in the postwar years, but I felt still too little had been written about the deeper motives that justified such backing. My purpose was to uncover the cultural needs accounting for the extensive consensus around suburbanization. The aim was to single out the causes that made suburbia and its interior landscape desirable in the eyes of the majority. The undisputed reference text on the history of American suburbs, Kenneth T. Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, was published over thirty years ago; I thought the time was ripe to rewrite this story, keeping the broad focus of Jackson’s book, but from a completely different angle.