Bauhaus Kolleg XIII: After Levittown – October 2011 until June 2012
In 2008, the developer Levitt & Sons was forced to announce that there was no future for the residential resort it had planned in Florida. This shattered not only the dreams of its individual customers who had come so close to owning a retirement home. A collective dream got shattered since Levittown had made possible the ‘American way of life’: For over 60 years it had been lived out in suburbia. ‘Levittowners’ became the name for young post-war families who moved from Philadelphia or New Jersey to what were then the largest suburbs of America. In the 1950s, the developer Levitt & Sons built three suburban communities, so-called Levittowns in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, which consisted of more than 20,000 single-family houses as well as community buildings, schools, shopping centres, sports facilities and cultural facilities. Levittown provided homes primarily to ex servicemen returning from World War II and their families, thereby benefiting greatly from federal government supports for housing. Cheap mortgages and government subsidies allowed even middle-income families to realize their dream of the own home. Levitt mass-produced those homes cheaply and efficiently, realizing on a grand scale what its European colleagues from the Bauhaus had anticipated back in the 1920s with the Törten Estate in Dessau. The advertising slogan ‘3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and 2 Fords’ was meant to thwart criticism that found life in the new suburbia monotonous and uniform – Pete Seeger’s song ‘Little Boxes’ being a prime example.
Still in the 21st century, Levitt’s customers trusted in the fact that the developer sold not only houses but a complete life-style – which lately however came in the guise of a gated community. All the worse was the disappointment of the children of the Levittowners, the baby boom generation, when the company, despite 60 years of expertise in the real-estate and residential home building businesses, had to file for bankruptcy.
The new Bauhaus Kolleg will take Levittown, the role model of American suburbia, and the fate of its latest projects as the starting point of a comparative international study on the economic, social, ecological and cultural implications of a global suburbia. The dramatic fallout of the global financial crisis of 2008 can be seen the clearest in the suburbias. Levitt & Sons’ company history can be read as only one example amongst many for the disastrous development of the global financial economy: since the 1980s a transformation has set in, away from investing in immobile capital, i.e. land, and towards investing in liquid assets that can be transferred across national borders in the form of funds and portfolios. Today, ownership has been decoupled to a hitherto unknown extent from the location of the assets. A new international ‘financial market architecture’ in the form of particular investment structures has fostered this development. Residential resorts and gated communities constructed by international developers are the building sites of this global financial market architecture.
Based on Levittown which has a history closely linked to the Bauhaus’s vision of modern living, the Bauhaus Kolleg will take a critical approach to current international developments in suburbia, as well as develop creative solutions for this form of housing which is today no longer economically and ecologically viable. During the first semester, Levittown will be the subject of seminars, field trips, lectures and workshops: discourses, methods and work practices will be introduced in order to visualize the complex relationships and nexus between infrastructures, financial flows, resource allocation, actor-networks and institutions. In the second semester, the international Kolleg participants will be asked to develop critical creative approaches towards this global housing and life-style model in the form of projects and scenarios, applying the knowledge acquired in the first semester and using similar suburban projects in their home countries as examples.