Retro Book Review: Redesigning the American Dream (1984)
While groundbreaking new works are constantly being added to the body of planning literature, older texts still have plenty to teach. “The classics” have inspired and informed more recent work, and even their outdated aspects can provide a valuable glimpse into the zeitgeist of past eras.
Following its publication in 1984, “Redesigning the American Dream: The Future of Housing, Work and Family Life” by Dolores Hayden received awards in planning, design and feminist scholarship. It is a measure of its influence that Arlie Russell Hochschild cited it several times in “The Second Shift,” her ground-breaking 1990 book about the gender dynamics within dual-career American families.
From the point of view of a present-day reader, the greatest achievement of “Redesigning the American Dream” lies in illustrating the interplay between gender roles and housing design. Detached suburban houses were designed in the mid twentieth century to serve primarily nuclear families and to further social engineering agendas. The author unpacks archaic assumptions about gender roles lurking behind the design and layout of conventional housing, as well as American car culture.
Unfortunately, this subject continues to be relevant today; although the housing model of the car-dependent, single-family suburban house is ill-suited for the majority of today’s households, its mass-production continues unabated. Delores Hayden makes a convincing case for the increased liveability of alternative housing arrangements that blur private and public space. However, some of the solutions that she suggests for implementation seem outdated, far-fetched and unlikely to work on a mainstream level. She concludes that the very foundations of society need to be changed in order for average people to have access to housing that suits working parents, the elderly, and all kinds of “non-traditional” households as well as single-income, middle-class nuclear families.
From today’s perspective, “Redesigning the American Dream” is a very interesting, but scattered and dated read. Recognizing the interconnectedness of all the evils of North American society, from unaffordable housing to sexist billboards, the author seems to have tackled them all in one sprawling argument. Overall, this book certainly shows its age, but continues to offer plenty of food for thought. The aspect with the greatest ongoing relevance is Delores Hayden’s critique of North American housing as it fails to serve non-traditional households and women who work outside the home.
Can you think of more recent books that tackle some of the same issues? Perhaps people could share suggested reading in the comments.