Suburban Sprawl Photographed from Above

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By Brian Bruegge
Christoph Gielen's aerial photography reveals the patterns created by suburban development.

In, "Little Boxes," Pete Seeger’s 1963 ode to suburban conformity, the legendary folk musician observed that the little boxes on the hillside "all look just the same." In the 50 years of suburban development since then, the boxes may not be quite as small as they were in Seeger’s day, but Seeger's suggestion still rings true.

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Streets and houses radiate outward from this hexagonal suburb in Florida. Gielen’s perspective reveals the patterns formed by the streets (and yet invisible from street view). Photo by Christoph Gielen.

As if to prove this, photographer Christoph Gielen has spent years documenting suburban sprawl from above, snapping surreal aerial photographs of these artificial landscapes by helicopter. A collection of photographs from this series, titled Ciphers, is now available in a book of the same name, published by Jovis. The photographs simultaneously provide a fascinating case study of the suburban environment, an indictment of its land-hungry development practices, and revel in the strange aesthetic appeal of asphalt and stucco blocks without end.

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Outside of Houston, Texas, houses line parallel, curved streets. Photo by Christoph Gielen.

From above, the suburban landscape loses its context as a place of human settlement, and begins to more closely resemble an intricate mosaic pattern. Ciphers contains photographs of suburbs in California, Arizona, Florida, and myriad places in between. Despite miles of distance between all of these areas, it’s clear that Seeger was right: They really do look the same.

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Reminiscent of a desert flower from above, this Arizona suburb is fixed around the landscaped greenery at its center. Photo by Christoph Gielen.

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Nevada houses cluster inside a square frame. Photo by Christoph Gielen.

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A freeway interchange in Southern California casts sweeping arcs over the terrain. Photo by Christoph Gielen.