Tyler Green
Art-focused Journalism by Tyler Green

Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

William Garnett, Lakewood, Calif. and the grid

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Yesterday at the new The Atlantic Cities website, Emily M. Badger told the story of how the dreaded suburban cul-de-sac came to be, complete with how the federal government spent decades encouraging the (mal) development.

The Federal Housing Authority embraced the cul-de-sac and published technical bulletins in the 1930s that painted the urban street grid as monotonous, unsafe, and characterless. Government pamphlets literally showed illustrations of the two neighborhood designs with the words “bad” and “good” printed alongside them.
The FHA had a hand in developing tens of millions of new properties and mortgages, and its idiosyncratic design preferences evolved into regulation. From the 1950s until the late 1980s, there were almost no new housing developments in the U.S. built on a simple grid.
Badger published the above graphic with her essay, and the combination of her well-told story and the graphic reminded me of the work of pioneering California photographer William Garnett, whose post-World War II photographs of the construction of Lakewood, California presaged the seriality of minimalism and the New Topographics’ interest in the way land-use was changing the West and America. In his NYT obituary for Garnett, Philip Gefter quoted John Szarkowski from “Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art”: “Aerial photographs that possess true coherence of intention and resolution are rare, and a remarkable number of those that hold firm in our memories were made by William A. Garnett.”

Today the J. Paul Getty Museum has 29 Garnetts, likely the largest collection of any American museum. (Update: The Getty’s website says 29. Turns out the Getty actually has 49.) Included in the Getty’s collection is the Garnett above, Trenching Lakewood, California (1950). The picture shows almost exactly the kind of suburban shape that Badger says the FHA was in the process of eliminating in 1950. Yesterday I featured five of Garnett’s pictures of Lakewood on MAN’s Tumblr, 3rd of May. Click here to see today’s story+art (Marsden Hartley and the possibility of a new national park in Maine) and scroll down to see the five Garnetts.

Related: What about Badger’s discussion of the impact of the cul-de-sac-ization of America on living standards and crime? Check out two books: DJ Waldie’s award-winning memoir “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir,” about a childhood in Lakewood; and Joan Didion’s “Where I Was From,” which includes a story about a horrific crime that was committed in Lakewood. (The Didion story is also available to New Yorker subscribers here.)
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  1. Jerry Beck says:

    The Fitchburg Art Museum in Fitchburg, Massachusetts has a wonderful William Garnett exhibition entitled “Discovery From the Air: Aerial Photography by William Garnett,” which is currently on view until January 1, 2012.

    On Sunday, November 6, at 1:00 p.m., Fitchburg Art Museum Photography Curator Stephen Jareckie will be giving a gallery talk by discussing Garnett’s photography and his many adventures, challenges, and significance as a seminal figure in American photography. This will be free with museum admission.

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