Americans long have had a love-hate relationship with the suburbs, which began sprouting after World War II when new highway networks made urban outskirts accessible to mass populations.

Idealized as utopian precincts of privilege, safety, tidy lawns and picture windows, they were also criticized as psychological sand traps and islands of conformity bereft of culture. Stratified by age, income and ethnicity, they became magnets for whites fleeing urban troubles in the 1960s and home to desirable demographics (soccer moms) in the 1990s.

So where are they now? Walker Art Center investigates in "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes," opening Saturday, with a preview party tonight. Comprising more than 75 paintings, photos, architectural models, videos, sculptures and other art by 30 artists and architects, the show offers a snapshot of the suburbs as they have evolved over the past 20 years.

"I'm one of those people who grew up in the suburbs and hated them," said Tracy Myers, architecture curator at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. She organized the show with Andrew Blauvelt, Walker's design director and curator.

"This project forced me to suppress my inherent bias and look at them objectively," Myers continued. "More than 50 percent of the American population lives in suburbs now, so there is obviously something people like. We're saying: Here's the reality. Let's see if there is something we can capitalize on."

Stereotype vs. reality

The curators said they had to jettison a lot of common stereotypes about suburbs. Recent census and demographic studies show that they're no longer (if they ever were) trouble-free enclaves of prosperous white families. By 2000, 29 percent of suburbanites were young singles and elderly people living alone. Immigrants are now nearly as likely to settle in the suburbs as in inner cities. A 2001 study found that 19 percent of the country's regional malls were dead or dying. More new homes in outlying areas have spawned traffic tangles; rising fuel prices are curbing expansion. A consensus is growing that unregulated sprawl is environmentally damaging and unsustainable.

The curators quickly realized they could not address all the issues, nor propose solutions to every problem. But they could provide a forum to spark ideas.

"We decided on three sections having to do with the residential tract home, the retail environment -- shopping malls and big-box stores -- and car culture and roadways," said Blauvelt.

Each section includes art -- photos, paintings or sculptures that identify a phenomenon -- and architectural commissions that suggest changes or adaptations to improve or re-use facilities.

Minnesotans featured

St. Paul photographer Chris Faust has been a keen observer of suburbia and its effect on the natural landscape. His photos from the early 1990s show McMansions abutting plowed fields and apartment buildings crowding open prairie. Minneapolis photographer Laura E. Migliorino reveals the ethnic diversity of Minneapolis suburbs by photographing residents outside their homes and superimposing computer montages of their surroundings. The Minneapolis-based landscape architecture firm Coen + Partners shows its much-discussed plans for a "reinvented" suburb near Rochester that attempts to integrate modernist housing into the natural landscape rather than impose a preconceived suburban site plan.

Addressing the rehabbing of abandoned malls and big-box stores, Ohio photographer Julia Christensen documents their transformation into schools, day-care centers, a church, an ethnic market and even the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn. The international design firms Interboro (Brooklyn and Dusseldorf, Germany) and Lateral Architecture (Toronto) offer ideas to modify the desiccated landscapes of abandoned malls and parking lots by inserting such new-use elements as wind farms, exercise plots, wetlands and parking-lot cafes.

Other photographers document the intrusion of the porn industry into suburban Los Angeles (Larry Sultan), the design of automotive test tracks (Center for Land Use Interpretation) and the geometric elegance of parking lots seen from the air (Edward Ruscha).

Sculptors inject a bit of playful humor by cleverly manipulating suburban material. Stefanie Nagorka of New Jersey builds and then documents impromptu sculptures she concocts in the aisles of home-supply stores, including a domestic version of Brancusi's famous "Endless Column" sculpture made from concrete planters and a twisted Jackie Ferrara sculpture from concrete pavers. And New York artists Floto+Warner cut up inflatable plastic lawn ornaments (snowman, Santa, reindeer) and reassemble them as bizarre mutants.

"The intention of the show was never to document every condition of the suburbs today, nor to prognosticate or to offer solutions," said Myers, "but to capture a moment in the way suburbs are perceived by artists and architects, and to show the ways that some architects have responded to the suburbs."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431