Suburbs have a reputation for bland sameness: cookie-cutter houses, buildings that rarely challenge the status quo, and design that’s overshadowed by big-city neighbors. But that’s far from the reality. As suburbs undergo seismic shifts in demographics, culture, and development, their architecture is shifting, too. Some of the most exciting new buildings across America are in the suburbs. Let’s have a look around:
A new anchor for a community in need
Project: New Castle Route 9 Library and Innovation Center
Location: New Castle, Delaware
Architect: Perkins and Will
Libraries invite us to escape into fantasy, to learn about the world around us, and to gather. But as the world has changed, so too have these spaces. In New Castle, Delaware—a suburb of Wilmington—the next generation of libraries has taken shape. Historically, libraries were spaces you had to go to access information, but the New Castle Route 9 Library and Innovation Center is a place you want to visit over and over again.
Designed by Perkins and Will, the Route 9 Library isn’t your typical book repository. In addition to its collection, the library includes a media production studio, a full teaching kitchen, a STEM lab, a performing arts theater, a playroom filled with Legos, job training programs, community meeting spaces, a weekly farmer’s market, a sit-down cafe, and a sensory room for people with autism or Alzheimer’s disease filled with items that stimulate visual, auditory, tactile responses. It’s all housed in a beautiful modern building wrapped in a bronze screen with an abstract pattern inspired by tree leaves.
“Libraries have an antiquated, stodgy reputation as the ‘shush’ space in the city or on the school campus,” says Derek Jones, the architect at Perkins and Will who led the library’s design. “But they faced a little threat from the digitization of information and they’ve really risen to that challenge by adapting to the needs of a 21st-century user. Libraries were once like grocery stores of collections; now they’re kitchens of experimentation.”
The area where the Route 9 Library sits is isolated and has long been underserved—a food desert, an information desert, and a public services desert. The library was meant to become a resource for locals with few resources, and to spark economic growth. Since the library opened in 2017, it’s hosted coat and food drives and offered governmental agencies space to meet with constituents. Social workers hold office hours there to help people with benefits applications. Students in the local school district come to the library to complete their computer science homework. Summer youth programs train students in culinary arts skills in the kitchen, and the cafe then hires them year round. The maker lab and production studios hum with activity.
“Carnegie built libraries because we didn’t have access to books,” says Diana Brown, New Castle County’s community services manager. “We’re building libraries because there are communities that still don’t have access to the tools they need.”
How a new sanctuary is redefining space for modern spirituality
Project: Snyder Sanctuary
Location: Boca Raton, Florida
Architect: Newman Architects
Religion might be on the decline, but the desire for spirituality and community is stronger than ever. At Lynn University, a new secular sanctuary shows how design can help people from all faiths and belief systems make space for contemplative thought.
“There is a return to creating spaces that promote wonder and joy—that enable you to get to a place that opens your mind and heart and allows you to take that spiritual journey,” says Pete Newman, principal of Newman Architects and one of the Snyder Sanctuary’s designers.
In conceiving of the space, Newman Architects wanted to avoid any design elements that were closely associated with a specific religion: no tall steeples, no long naves, no fixed altar. Instead, they modeled abstract form after abstract form, and found inspiration in the Fibonacci sequence and the spiral shapes of plants, seashells, hurricanes, galaxies—the order of the natural world of which we’re all a part. They also looked at ancient architecture like Stonehenge and labyrinths and the circular themes of the built world.
The spiral is seen in the seven cast-concrete panels that compose the sanctuary’s walls. Each wall supports another and is a metaphor for spirituality. “The interdependency of one human to another is very powerful,” Newman says.
Tall windows let natural light flood into the space and invite visitors to gaze up into the heavens, inducing a humbling sense of awe. While the Snyder Sanctuary is open to people of all faiths, it’s also become a popular space for secular uses, like yoga and wellness retreats, pre-game quiet time for sports teams, and poetry readings and musical performances.
“Especially in these times of anxiety, there’s a need to find spaces of repose and communion,” Newman says. “This isn’t just happening at this university; it’s happening everywhere.”
A brick wants to be an optical illusion
Project: Lipton-Thayer House
Location: Evanston, Illinois
Architect: Brooks + Scarpa
In Evanston, a Chicago suburb, a new single-family home plays a game of hide-and-reveal. The yellow bricks of its undulating facade are all set at slightly different angles so that when you walk by, your eye catches a glimpse of the slick glass structure behind it.
”You’re not really sure when you look at the front of the house that it’s actually a house,” says Robert Lipton, the owner, in a video about the project. “It’s beautiful, it’s geometric, but it’s not traditionally residential.”
To achieve the optical illusion, the architecture firm Brooks + Scarpa used 3D modeling to meticulously map the angle of rotation for each brick. The result is an unexpected aberration in the otherwise traditional neighborhood.
“I guess it’s mysterious,” architect Larry Scarpa says in the video. “People, when they drive down the street, sort of do a little double take because they can’t see through it and then they can. So they stop their car and they look and they back up and pull forward like they’re trying to see through the building before they take off.”
How an abandoned shopping center was transformed into a vibrant school
Project: Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep
Location: Waukegan, Illinois
Architect: Juan Gabriel Moreno Architects
As the retail apocalypse grips the country, big-box stores are closing down and remaining vacant, a destabilizing occurrence in many communities on many levels. There’s the loss of jobs, the perception that an area isn’t economically worthwhile, and the psychological toll of seeing emptiness day in and day out. In Waukegan, a Chicago suburb near the Wisconsin border, a new high school built in a shuttered Kmart reflects potential these structures hold for adaptive reuse.
“The question [about what to do with vacant] big-box stores is a dilemma and an epidemic in the United States that merits significant investigation architecturally about what we can do,” says Juan Gabriel Moreno, the architect who designed Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep.
For decades, Waukegan has struggled with economic downturns, vacancy, and disinvestment. Once a thriving resort town and then a manufacturing hub, it’s now experiencing high rates of poverty and unemployment. Meanwhile, the demographics of the area have changed, with more African-American and Latinx residents locating to the area.
Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep—which is part of a privately run network of high schools that takes a work-study approach to education in which four days of the school week take place in the classroom and one day is spent at an internship—primarily serves students from families living below the poverty line. Originally located in a single room in a community center, the school grew enough to need a new space. The Kmart was available, and the school enlisted Moreno and his firm to create a space that would suit their needs on a limited budget.
The challenges with box-store conversions, according to Moreno, are poor original construction (“Things like insulation? Forget about it,” he says) and a complete lack of natural light. After retrofitting the structure, he opened the roof and added skylights, punched windows into the walls, and opened the building to the natural wetland behind it to better connect the school to the site. He conceived of the interior as a flexible stage so that teachers and students could reconfigure the space as needed.
One of the firm’s most dramatic moves was to paint the building’s exterior in vivid color. Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep’s official colors are blue and yellow, so Moreno used those—as well as green, a symbolic mixing of the two—to create a sense of pride. It’s the exact opposite of the drab beige of Kmart.
“When we started to work on the school, the strong feeling I had was it can’t remain hidden,” Moreno says. “It had to speak to a positive future for the youth and get them excited about going to school.”
Moreno’s plan worked. On opening day in 2018, parents and students fawned over the vibrant new design. The school has also won a number of design awards—including recognition from the Urban Land Institute and the Chicago chapter of the AIA—which is a point of pride for the students and teachers at the school, as well as for everyone else in Waukegan.
“It’s meant to be a community activator so as people go by, they see that someone is investing in the community,” Moreno says. “Whether their children are going there or not, they feel good about Waukegan and recognize that someone was doing something good.”
A Temple to Transit
Project: Princeton Transit Hall and Market
Location: Princeton, New Jersey
Architect: Studio Rick Joy
With a dramatic blackened-steel roof resting on monumental concrete columns, the Princeton Transit Hall and Market looks more like a temple than a train station, which is precisely the sensibility that its architect was after.
In 2012, Princeton adopted a master plan for a new Arts and Transit neighborhood, which included public plazas; the Lewis Center for the Arts, a Steven Holl-designed building housing programs in dance, music, musical theater, and theater; retail spaces and a grocery store; and a multi-modal transit hub for buses and the Dinky, the commuter shuttle connecting the university’s station to the much larger Princeton Junction station served by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit.
Studio Rick Joy—a practice based in Tucson, Arizona—was brought in to design the market and transit hub, which he rebranded as a transit hall and treated as a triumphal threshold for commuters.
“A ‘train station’ sounds boring,” architect Rick Joy says. “It should be recognizable as a beacon, a celebration of arriving and leaving and exhibiting the refinement of Princeton University and Princeton Township.”
The Transit Hall and Market, which opened in 2014, is Joy’s first public project—he typically designs high-end homes and hospitality spaces—and he took the same care and consideration in designing it that he would in designing a million-dollar residence.
“I use the same principles for my hotels and houses,” Joy says. “It’s all about human existence and the quality of the atmosphere… I make sure there’s nothing that can be taken away or added.”
The way Joy achieved this is subtle—and all in the details. He nodded to the verticality of the historic Gothic architecture on Princeton’s campus, and stripped everything else away. The transit hall features massive concrete columns, acid-washed so they take on the tactility of sandstone; bluestone floors; and wood-framed windows. The blackened-steel roof is angled to funnel rainwater toward the center and into a cistern. Joy oriented the building to block the wind for travelers waiting outside and to take advantage of the sun. The finishing touch? Custom oak benches from George Nakashima Woodworkers.
The adjacent Wawa market shares a similar minimalist approach, but looks almost like a shadow of the Transit Hall, with its blackened-steel columns instead of concrete and a living roof.
“I’m nowhere near as famous as I.M. Pei, Viñoly, Venturi, and the others,” Joy says, nodding to the celebrity architects who designed buildings on the university’s campus. “Princeton got my best work, while the buildings by them are not.”