The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

Photographer Martin Adolfsson's book Suburbia Gone Wild, published earlier this year, documents the weird and expanding mirage of seemingly endless copies and duplicate environments called suburbia, like some poorly diagnosed spatial syndrome taking over the landscapes of the world from Mexico to Egypt, Thailand to India, to here in the United States.

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Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

The rooms are like dispersed pods from an unacknowledged global hotel chain, different only in their tiniest details. Is that image, above, from a house in Los Angeles, on the outskirts of Raleigh, or—as it happens—a suburb in Cairo, Egypt? Is this next photograph from Florida, Thailand, or—in reality—Moscow, Russia? How on earth can you tell?

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Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

These environments proliferate and echo one another, sometimes deliberately quoting and repeating each other's architectural details.

The street layouts match or just slightly deviate from an unseen super plan, some heavenly prototype known only to the designers of golf course communities and small architecture firms working on the edges of megacities.

Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same
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Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

Adolfsson has traveled through a dreamland slowly crystallizing here, like architectural snow precipitating from the global spreadsheets of developers. He wandered through scenes like the two shots above, not Las Vegas but more glimpses of Cairo, apparently no longer known for its pyramids but for its fake ponds and well-manicured grass.

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Is this Sydney, New Orleans, or—spoiler alert—Bangkok, Thailand?

Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same
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Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

Even the hobbies are the same—

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—as are the roadside advertisements for what's yet to come.

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That golf scene is in—where do you think? Minnesota? Nope, it's Bangalore, India. That billboard—is it Dubai? No, it's Cairo again, bleeding off into the dunes and promising whole new ways of future living, a comfortable home for tomorrow's J.G. Ballard of the Sahara.

In some cases, it's as if a supercomputer somewhere has misapplied the dreams of one nation onto another, like this kitchen and pantry in Mexico City, with its Saturday Evening Post plates and its international breakfast cereals. It looks no more inhabited than a showroom in a big box store maintained by U.S.-programmed machines that refuse to allow local articulations of culture.

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Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

But, of course, you might say, these are just the photos Adolfsson took, and he could easily have cherry picked his examples, cropped his inclusions, left things out, framed things editorially rather than objectively. Yep. That's always the risk with photography projects.

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But the extraordinary level of similarity found across these environments is stunning, either way, for its apparent coordination, as if the suburbs of the world are converging on some ideal, an as-yet unrealized form, and every development takes us just a tiny bit closer to this logical conclusion: something like the absolute value of suburbia (or perhaps its lowest common denominator), a spatial singularity toward which all our developments are pulled. As if something is coming, and it will be more identical with itself than ever before.

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This suit of armor you see, below, is from a house in China; those quite clearly staged but industrially anonymous cleaning supplies are from a show home in São Paolo. It's like the rooms of a single, vast house got shaken up and lost, redistributed in a spatial puzzle spanning the globe.

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In any case, Adolfsson's book documenting these and other suburban adventures around the world is available through his website. Consider picking up a copy.

And that portrait of John Kerry you see sitting on a table on the book's cover? Is that Atlanta? Maybe Philadelphia?

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Illustration for article titled The Coming Singularity, When All Suburbs Look The Same

It's from a house in Shanghai, China.

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DISCUSSION

I can definitely attest that the photographer didn't cherry-pick in Bangkok. There are (literally) dozens of new development projects, and dozens upon dozens of existing ones, that have cookie-cutter houses and/or McMansions that look torn right out of a new development in middle America. My wife's aunt and uncle (and her three cousins) live in a house in Mantana (Mon-tah-naa), an actual gated community with guards who salute you when you drive in - and the photo above, taken over the pond with the pretty houses in the background, looks exactly like that (so much so that I thought it could even be their neighborhood, until I read that the photo was of Cairo).

Their house is finished out for the most part just as a nice, upper-middle-class house in America would be. It's got a large faux-bronze bust of Shakespear in it, and a bunch of old English-language books on the shelves (they bought the "show" model, which the realtors/development people had decorated as a model home). Same hand-towels hanging from the same chromed rings in the bathrooms, same engineered hardwood floors, and so on.

The only obvious difference is that every room has the air-con blower unit mounted on the wall, with the remote control in a bracket by the door. And the kitchen smells of Thai food of course ;-)

You can drive past whole tracts of these new homes going up, and the signs promoting them, on the way to/from the airport (the new one, not Don Muang).