Wednesday, April 18, 2012 / 7:19 am

Ikealand

The home furnishing giant gets housing envy.

by Gary Phillips

Ikea's Levittown

The last time the wife and I went to Ikea, and this would have been the one in Burbank, was when our kids were in grade school – middle school at the latest.  So that’s more than a decade ago.  I seem to recall we needed desks for them for their homework and a bookshelf.  No doubt I had a meatball or two while we shopped.  We made our selections and brought the items home and assembled the laminated pressboard and plywood wonders per the instructions.  What with their pre-drilled holes for wood dowels and fittings tightened with the included allen wrench, there’s something to be said for this kind of assembly line engineering that, I suppose, would have made Buckminster Fuller, the creator of the Geodesic Dome, proud. 

It comes then as little surprise that the Swedish-based home furnishing giant has a real estate development division called LandProp Services  There’s looking to bring their thing for order and symmetry to housing.  In East London, near the area where the 2012 Olympics will be staged, Ikea plans to break ground on a hamlet, a post-modern (or is that post-ironic?) Levittown called Strand East.  The area would contain 1,200 houses and apartments for some 6,000 residents.  There would also be 480,000 square feet of business and infrastructure – which I take to mean shopping centers including groceries, fish and chips shops and a Cineplex or two.

“We are in keeping with the Ikea philosophy,” Harald Müller, head of LandProp said.  “We don’t want to produce for the rich or the super-rich, we want to produce for families, for the people.” 

Ikea is not the first global company to extend its world view in this way.  In 1994, Disney built a town called Celebration a few minutes drive from Walt Disney World in central Florida.  Disney these days no longer runs the town but its influences remain.  Its buildings reflect a mix they call neo-traditional.   Lara Marlowe on the July 22, 2011 irishtimes.com ran this quote in her article about Celebration, “This is the hometown you’ve been searching for,” says the “Memory Book” that Carlson [a real estate agent] gives prospective buyers. “A place where kids still ride their bikes to school, and neighbours greet each other from wide sunny porches.”  Leaves made of tissue paper are distributed over well-kept lawns in the fall and Bing Crosby can be heard singing from hidden speakers.  As you, or Walt, might imagine, Celebration’s 10,000 or so residents are over-whelming white.

Jokes aside about Stand East being a ready-built enclave of thin outer walls put up with only an allen wrench and dowels, here’s hoping that Ikea’s effort lives up to Müller’s words. I take it as healthy symbolism the area for the town contains rusted machinery, hulks of empty buildings and dockyards.  That from this wasteland an urban planning experiment in mixed-income housing can bloom.  I’m sure there will be meatballs aplenty at the groundbreaking ceremony. 

Gary Phillips' latest is Treacherous: Grifters, Ruffians and Killers, a collection of his short stories.

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