A New Kind of Suburbia

Metropolitan Workshop has been thinking critically about how innovative forms of suburban housing and neighbourhoods can enhance sociability and liveability since our inception in 2005. So, when we launched our practice-based research programme in 2019, selecting suburbia as our first annual research theme felt like a natural point of departure. A New Kind of Suburbia built on a considerable body of work begun with our former mentor and colleague, the late Sir Richard MacCormac, most clearly reflected in our successful entry to the Wates/ RIBA Private Rented Sector Ideas Competition.

A New Kind of Suburbia

Annual Research Project, 2019-2021

Project Lead: Dhruv Sookhoo, Head of Research and Practice Innovation

A New Kind of Suburbia, sought to do many things, reflecting our varied interests as architects, urban designers and researchers. With an expanding portfolio of suburban projects across our busy Dublin and London studios it felt particularly pressing to critically examine our design thinking in relation to emerging social issues associated with suburban placemaking. We recognised that while most people in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland live in suburban places, suburbia is ill-defined, and the varied experiences and aspirations of suburbanites are commonly taken-for-granted by the housing market. Our projects for Nationwide Building Society in Swindon, Urban Splash in Milton Keynes, and South Dublin County Council in Clonburris, West Dublin, were under development during the research project and stimulated our thinking about the potential of reimagining suburban development in the real world.

Our research project aimed to enhance our understanding of the challenges faced by existing and new suburban residents, and positioned us to create design-led responses, able to harness social and technological innovations to improve resident’s quality of life. This found practical expression in our reflection on the application of the Homestead, a typological device that aims to structure new types of suburban development that are efficient in form, respond to changing market conditions through flexible densities, typologies and tenure mixes, and are capable of optimising private and public space to enhance the public realm for greater sociability.

We value collaboration, and envisaged our research programme as a dialogue between designers, developers, and policy-makers, that would refine our long-term thinking and doing in relation to emerging, pertinent practice topics. Our project began with the launch of a working paper, A New Kind of Suburbia (Prospects 1, London Studio), prepared by our London studio, which reviewed existing policy and academic literature related to suburbia in the United Kingdom. It presented our own work alongside contributions by leading architecture studios, including: Levitt Bernstein, Studio Partington, Sarah Wigglesworth Architects, and Proctor Matthews Architects. Contributions by colleagues within the practice, included reflections on past and ongoing suburban projects, and most interestingly, their consideration of how their formative experiences of suburbia shape their design intent as practitioners. Within the mini-series Making Suburbia, Suburbia Making Architects, colleagues explored how living in suburbia had informed their perspectives on the value and potential of the suburban developments, and their aspirations for the suburban places we are involved in creating:

Publication: A New Kind of Suburbia (Prospects 1, London Studio)

Image: Exhibition Launch- New Kind of Suburbia, London Studio

Our Dublin Studio reinterpreted our working paper to speak to the socio-economic context in the Republic of Ireland.

Publication: A New Kind of Suburbia (Prospects 1, Dublin Studio)

Publication: Reflections for Future Practice and Thinking: Exhibition Talks and Roundtable

Our working papers and exhibits held in our Dublin and London studios captured exemplar projects and perspectives on suburban development, which grounded provocations by invited expert practitioners. Taken together, our exhibits and the provocations they contextualised served as a resource for a stimulating and wide-ranging roundtable in June 2019 with invited practitioners and academics with an interest in suburban housing. Discussion focused on the potential of future suburban places to address emerging social challenges through better approaches to design, development, construction, and management. Reflections for Future Practice and Thinking: Exhibition Talks and Roundtable, records invited exhibition talks and presents the practical themes that emerged from our roundtable dialogue with leading experts, which have an implication for our ongoing design and research practice.

Video: Closing Event – Panel Discussion

To celebrate the completion of A New Kind of Suburbia we invited a panel to discuss themes that emerged from our project, including the ever-changing character of suburban places, the social mechanisms that will shape future suburbs, who should have a say in how suburban places develop and share the benefits of intensifying existing suburbs and developing new suburbs, and the role of professions in designing, building and managing suburbs to become productive, social places for all. Our panel chair Dr. Elanor Warwick (Head of Strategic Policy and Research, Clarion Housing Group) was joined by Eddie Conroy (County Architect, South Dublin County Council), Jonny McKenna (Director, Dublin) and Vincent Lacovara (Head of Planning, Enfield Council and Director, Public Practice).

Practice Contributors: David Prichard, Denise Murray, Ewan Cooper, Federica Fillipone, Gareth Bansor, Jack Hughes, Jonny McKenna, Neil Deely, Nick Phillips, Richard Robinson, Tom Mitchell.

Communications and Exhibition Design: Alexandra Bullen, Brandon Matthews, Debbie Novak, George Wallis, Ivan Dikov, Kruti Patel, Nima Sadar, Rebecca Davies, and externally, Lee Mallett (Urbik), Simon Rhodes, Andy Syson and Jim Hough (Smiling Wolf).

Exhibition Talks (London): David Birkbeck (Chief Executive Officer, Design for Homes), Peter Freeman (Non-Executive Director, Argent), Mark Latham (Director of Regeneration, Urban Splash) and Gus Zogolovitch (CEO, Unboxed Homes.

Exhibition Talks (Dublin): John O’Mahony (Director, O’Mahony Architects), Michael Pike (Director, GKMP), Joe Brady (Associate Professor, School of Geography, UCD), Eddie Conroy (County Architect, South Dublin County Council) and Brian Moran (Senior Managing Director, Hines).

Roundtable Participants (London): Dr. Elanor Warwick (Head of Strategic Policy and Research, Clarion), Andy von Bradsky (Head of Architecture, MHCLG), Keith Brown (then community organiser, Nationwide Building Society), Graham Cherry (Chief Executive, Countryside), Vincent Lacovara (Head of Planning, Enfield Council), Chris Langdon (Development and Investment Director, ENGIE), Prof. Stephen Proctor (Founding Director, Proctor Matthews Architects), Prof. Mark Swenarton (Emeritus Professor of Architecture, Liverpool University), Sarah Wigglesworth (Director, SWA). Dhruv Sookhoo and Neil Deely.

Contributors: Dinah Bornat (ZCD Architects), Mark Latham (Urban Splash), Jo McCafferty (Levitt Bernstein), Richard Partington (Studio Partington), Toby Carr (Sarah Wigglesworth Architects).

External Publications

Invited Contributions (selected)

Featured in scholarly publications

  • Rob Cowan. (2021) Essential Urban Design: A Handbook for Architects, Designers and Planners. RIBA Publishing: London., features Engie Homestead.
  • Tim Townshend. (2002) Healthy Cities?: Design for Wellbeing. (Concise Guides to Planning). London: Lund Humphries., features Oakfield Village, Swindon.

Exhibitions

  • Clerkenwell Design Week, London Studio (ending 23 May 2019)
  • Studio Lates, London Festival of Architecture, London Studio (07 June 2019).
  • Irish Architecture Foundation’s 2019 Open House Dublin, Dublin Studio (11- 13 October 2019)

Podcasts

  • Jonny McKenna and Dhruv Sookhoo (2021) A New Kind of Suburbia and Practice-based Research. [Green Urbanist – Ross O’Ceallaigh]. [Accessed: 29 March 2021]. Available from: #20: Jonny McKenna and Dhruv Sookhoo (Metropolitan Workshop) – A New Kind of Suburbia and Practice-Based Research (buzzsprout.com).