Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Martin Adolfsson photographs upper-class subdivisions around the world without permission.
Swedish-born photographer Martin Adolfsson has been living in New York City since 2007, but he's spent a lot of his time documenting upper middle-class suburban enclaves outside the U.S.
After six years of travel to five different continents, Adolfsson has published Suburbia Gone Wild, a new photography book that goes in and around the model homes of wealthy cul-de-sacs in cities like Bangalore, Moscow, and Cairo. His discoveries reveal a world that continues to homogenize around emerging clusters of wealth aspiring to a particularly American brand of suburban life.
It wasn't always easy for Adolfsson to capture these oddly beautiful shots of perfectly arranged kitchen pantries and opulent living rooms. His method was to photograph the model homes inside these developments, hiring locals to pretend to be a significant other who would then distract sales reps as he snuck off to take pictures around the house.
We caught up with the photographer via email to discuss his project, how he was able to pull it off at all, and what he discovered about the world's new gated communities as he documented their model homes:
Why shoot only model homes?
I used them as a vehicle to describe the search for identity among the new upper middle-class in the emerging economies that I visited. They offer a unique window into the dreams and aspirations of this rising class.
St. Andrews Manor, Shanghai, China (2009)
You got into these places by pretending to be a potential home buyer. How did that work?
I started to reach out to developers but quickly realized that they had many requirements that didn't fit well with what I needed for the project. So I hired local assistants that would pose as my partner (sometimes as my wife and sometimes more undefined). His or her part was to distract the sales rep while I took photos of the different interiors and exteriors and collected information about these suburbs.
Millenium Park, Moscow, Russia (2009)
What is it about upper middle-class American suburbs that makes them aspirational or exportable to the places you visited?
This copy+paste behavior is a result of America's cultural dominance over the past five decades, exported through soap operas, movies, and magazines. I also think that the "lifestyle" fills a cultural gap as many of these countries didn't have an upper middle class until recently and haven't established a strong identity for this growing class yet.
What compelled you to start photographing these places in the beginning?
I peeked out the airplane window as we were about to land in Bangkok in 2006 and saw these cookie cutter homes from above. They reminded me of Stockholm, where I was living at the time. I decided to investigate this further and it ended up becoming a project spanning six years, eight countries and five continents.
I also wanted to change people's perception in developed countries who usually see news about poverty, violence or other types of unrest from these areas. The fact that a family in Cairo decorates their living room in the same way as a family living in Arizona makes these places less exotic (for good and bad) but also makes it easier for people in developed countries to identify with those living in emerging economies.
St. Andrews Manor, Shanghai, China (2009)
What was the strangest thing you discovered inside one of these homes?
Probably the portrait of John Kerry in St. Andrews Manor in Shanghai.
Was there anything about the cultures around these suburban developments that surprised you as you explored more of them?
I came to the realization that many of the residents living in these suburbs share a common identity with residents living in similar communities around the world, whether it's Bangkok, Cairo, Moscow or São Paulo, than they do with their fellow countrymen living outside the gates of these suburbs. I think this is the beginning of a huge global shift where national identity is becoming less relevant.
Al Safwa, Cairo, Egypt (2009)
Beverly Hills, Cairo, Egypt (2009)
(Left to Right) Alcazar, Bangalore, India (2009), Magnolias, São Paulo, Brazil (2009), Scala, Mexico City, Mexico (2009)
Sylavan View, Bangalore, India (2009)
Kattemaya Height, Cairo, Egypt (2009)
Mivida, Cairo, Egypt (2009)
Top images (left to right): Verde Morumbi, São Paulo, Brazil (2011), St. Andrews Manor, Shanghai, China (2009), Whitefield, Bangalore, India (2009)
Suburbia Gone Wild was released in the U.S. last week. It can be purchased online and in select bookstores.
This interview has been edited and condensed.