Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ October 5, 2020
WHITE FENCES: PLANTATIONS AND POSTMODERN SUBURBIA
From the photo series White Fences.
Outside of the modest city of Columbus, Ohio is an isolated ‘bourgeois utopia’. The geography, landscape, and architecture of the suburb called New Albany are what you’d expect if Hollywood made a reboot of the Truman Show set in the midwest. White fences, large brick McMansions, bike paths, a center with a ‘market street’ and the studio light that occasionally falls from the dome, or in the case of New Albany, entitled teen drug dealers, occasional pill mill murder fiascos, suicides and the homes of Jeffrey Epstein and his billionaire suder, Leslie Wexner. My high school years spent living in this Truman Show bubble pushed me to escape, but now I find myself constantly revisiting this bourgeois utopia. I’ve been photographing the suburb over the past four years trying to make sense of the isolated bubble.
The geographer David Harvey sees the ‘new urbanism’ movement as selling ‘small town nostalgia in a suburban setting to a very affluent clientele.’1 He references Kentlands, Maryland, which housed IBM and the National Bureau of Standards. Guarded by white fences, brick buildings with white columns, and neo-traditional homes, the town, planned and built in the 1980s, offers the layout and aesthetic of what we think a ‘traditional’ town would look like in a contemporary context. This means you drive (but could walk (although few do)) from your brick or white wood home to a large parking lot where a vast New Classical brick structure with white columns houses the local K-Mart.
Around the same time Kentlands, Maryland was being planned, an empty farm town on the outskirts of Columbus, Ohio started to see vast plots of land being bought up. In the 1980s, billionaire Leslie Wexner started buying up land in New Albany to build a new town and estate in his own image, in the New Urbanist spirit. New Albany, Ohio had a population of 1,618 in 1990, today that population has expanded to 10,889. While there are some semi-affordable homes and apartments on the outskirts of the town, most homes are McMansions that cost upward of $1 million.
Les Wexner, the founder of L Brands, manufactured this suburb built on new urbanist principles. The New Albany Company, Wexner’s company that planned and built the town, wanted to avoid ‘the pitfalls of post-World War II suburban sprawl’, trying to create a town with a center that’s bike and jog friendly, as opposed to car centered suburban planning. The company most notably lists the main architectural reference as ‘the James River Plantation, where they found inspiration in the architecture’s centuries-old character and intrinsic relationship to the land.’2 I grew up in the south where former slave plantations coexist with Walmarts and car dealerships, but to build this world from the ground up, like a postmodern confederate theme park for the north, is something different. As though to make up for the lack of history in itself (literally being built from the ground up in the 1980s), the architecture is used to compensate - like a synthetic shell. However, the choice to create a plantation themed town is a turning point from the seemingly mundane, apolitical suburbs; an ideological peek at what’s under the hood.
New Albany High School, from the series White Fences.
New Albany High School, from the series White Fences.
In Living in End Times, Slavoj Zizek looks at the revival of Stalinist architecture among Russia’s new elites and observes that this architecture is not intended to be an explicit love for Stalinism, but is instead seen as a ‘pan-aestheticism’ where ‘all ideologies are equal, equally ridiculous, they are useful only to provide spicy aesthetic excitement, so the more problematic they are, the more excitement they generate.’3 Something similar is happening in the ‘new urbanism’ here in the US that utilizes an aesthetic nostalgia for 19th century America. Both Kentlands and New Albany appear to be nostalgic for another time in America.
The recycling of this 19th century style appears as a simple design choice that could have easily been any other reference, therefore ‘…reducing both history and geography to meaningless whimsy and pastiche (or to mere ‘facticity’ again) in an effort to celebrate the postmodern as the best of all possible worlds.’⁴. Combining the past with the benefits of the present. Pastiche is a notion Fredric Jameson uses to describe this process being used in cultural and architectural references in our time of postmodernity, describing it as the following:
Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs: it is to parody what that other interesting and historically original modern thing, the practice of a kind of blank irony, is to what Wayne Booth calls the "stable ironies" of the eighteenth century.⁵
While there is an appearance that the architectural references are not politically charged, as supposedly empty design choices from a ‘blank irony’ of the past, New Albany’s referencing of the James River Plantation is in reality more than just an aesthetic reference. The plantation’s website - a kind of tourist attraction now - boasts the historical list of residents, ‘Indians and early settlers, planters, signers of the Declaration of Independence, Presidents, slaves, emancipators and free blacks, educators and agriculturalists,’6 and was also where confederate General E. Lee spent most of his childhood. The same kind of historical glossing over taking place in describing the plantation (the website claims the plantation was ‘home’ to slaves and ‘indians’) is taking place in these new urbanist suburbs that use slave plantations as a non-ideological reference for suburbs to house the new rich. In the new urbanist movement that attempts to reference slave plantations in this New Classical style, there is clearly an attempt to gloss over the ideology; in this case as with the neo-Stalinist architecture in Russia.
Zizek argues that the neo-Stalinist architecture in Russia is seen as divorced from the ideology, simply a controversial reference, but he adds that this disconnect is not sustainable:
And exactly the same goes for the new apartment blocks built in the style of a neo-Stalinist architecture which pretends to pretend - it (and its public) think that they are just playing a game, but they are unaware of is that, independently of their playful attitude, the game has the potential to get serious. Their “playful indifference” conceals the reality of the ruthless exercise of power: what they stage as aesthetic spectacle is reality for the masses of ordinary people. Their indifference towards ideology is the very form of their complicity with the ruling ideology.7
New Albany’s architecture and spatial organization is more than just a controversial design choice when we take into account who is making these decisions, funding the construction and what they wish to sustain through the existence of this space.
New Albany Middle School, from the series White Fences.
Epstein and Disney
The L Brands, formally known as The Limited, Inc. (founded by Wexner and based near New Albany), is a prime example of what forms of production lay underneath an architecture based on slave plantations; the company notoriously used sweatshops and slave labor for materials and production. Victoria’s Secret (owned by L Brands) used US prison labor and also used materials produced by child labor in places like Burkina Faso. Jeffree Epstein (head of a child sex trafficking ring) was on the board of New Albany Company, ran Wexner’s estate while living in his guest house in New Albany and, since Wexner only cut ties after Epstein’s first conviction, many have questioned Wexner’s involvement and knowledge of Epstein’s child sex trafficking.
The architecture, displaying a desire for unabashed wealth, might seem to be disconnected from these seemingly evil capitalists and their actions, but there is a real dialectic between the design of a city and what can then grow out of this constructed architecture. With a median income of $187,200 and an 81.3% white population, the town, a 30 minute drive from downtown Columbus and 1.5 hour bus ride, isn’t for everyone. The city’s budget is unique in its investments. New Albany’s Economic Development fund greatly overshadows every other part of the budget; the closest second is the, almost tied, Police fund and General Administration fund.
This reality is not hidden behind the plantation architecture, but reflects the ideology it attempts to confine to an aestheticization. The utopian town stays distanced from the harsh realities, but the architecture and exploitation both feed into each other as Harvey points out, ‘[u]topias of spatial forms are typically meant to stabilize and control the processes that must be mobilized to build them. In the very act of realization, therefore, the historical process takes control of the spatial form that is supposed to control it.’8
This is the framework for a postmodern pan-aestheticism (flattening all culture to a visual reference divorced of ideological gravity) that is embodied in today’s postmodern neo-traditional technoburbias. In this explicit desire to return to a ‘traditional’ community, there’s an unveiling of America’s elite and corporations’ part in destroying the conditions in which a community can thrive in the first place; they communicate a desire for the exclusionary aspects of community.
‘The spirit of community has long been held as an antidote to threats of social disorder, class war and revolutionary violence… Well-founded communities often exclude, define themselves against others, erect all sorts of keep-out signs (if not walls), internalize surveillance, social controls, and repression. Community has often been a barrier to, rather than facilitator of, social change.’9
Kroger, from the series White Fences.
While it might seem far-fetched to read a causal relationship between architecture/planned geographies and social relations, there is nonetheless a back and forth playing out at the local, state, federal, and international level. A theme emerging in late 20th century theory was this acknowledgement; the acknowledgement of the place space held in acting as an agent of change or on the opposite side, reinforcing the current social and economic structures (as opposed to the powerful force of time through history). John Berger claimed, ‘Prophesy now involves a geographical rather than historical projection; it is space not time that hides consequences from us. To prophesy today it is only necessary to know men as they are throughout the whole world in their inequality. Any contemporary narrative which ignores the urgency of this dimension is incomplete and acquires the oversimplified character of a fable.’¹⁰ Derek Gregory went on to observe that ‘... spatial structures cannot be theorized without social structures, and vice versa, and… social structures cannot be practiced without spatial structures, and vice versa.’¹¹.
The effort put into development in cities and suburbs - tens of millions in tax credits, investments into expensive private development, etc. - could have been put towards swiftly ending a number of issues plaguing the consequences of our economic system: poverty, homelessness, child mortality, etc., communicating a social context that is then embodied and sustained through space and architecture (the spatial and financial organization of suburbs vs urban neighborhoods, poor states vs rich states, third world vs first world countries, etc.). These towns are like micro-Disney Worlds where the shells of hyperreality and fetishized utopias mask the vast inequality and poverty that surround them. Look to wealthy suburbs like Sandy Springs outside of Atlanta who declared themselves a city to get out of paying taxes to the city of Atlanta. This caused other suburbs to follow, greatly impacting the cities’ revenue. Like the film Florida Project shows, those who can’t afford to go through the golden gates of Disney are relegated to the spraw of cheap motels, fast food chains and abandoned houses.
The new urbanist towns exist to sell the new-wealth, or new-indebted, who crave a nostalgia for shameless inequality and exploitation (like the 1920s or pre-1865 America) a town where wealth can be consumed without shame, without having to see the damage done to sustain this façade; to reproduce the relations of production that sustain this spatial and social organization. To keep, as President Donald Trump said, ‘their Suburban Lifestyle Dream’. The architectural desire for plantations exposes the unconscious desire of America’s elites to establish the same hierarchies and exploitation under the appearance of apolitical ‘traditional’ values.
- David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, 2000, p 172.
- Slavoj Zizek, Living in End Times, 2010, p 252.
- Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of SPace in Critical Social Theory, 1989, P 74.
- Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991, p 23.
- Slavoj Zizek, Living in End Times, 2010, p 253.
- David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, 2000, p 173.
- David Harvey, Spaces of Hope, 2000, p170.
- John Berger, The Look of Things, 1974, p 40.
- Derek Gregory, Ideology, Science, and Human Geography, 1978, p 120-121.