Unreal Nature

June 6, 2015

Looking for a Good Time

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:56 am

… The austere ambitions of the contemporary architect to create a self-justifying work of art have no place in this other part of town.

This is from the essay ‘Other-Directed Houses’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

… U.S. Highway 1 is in fact one of the most sensationally ugly roads in America, and there is a particular stretch of it, somewhere between Washington and Baltimore, if I’m not mistaken, which when photographed through a telephoto lens seems to epitomize the degradation which in the last few years has overwhelmed our highways. Two sluggish streams of traffic, cars bumper to bumper, move as best they can over a hopelessly inadequate roadbed between jungles of billboards and roadside stands, each sprouting a dozen signs of its own, and each with its own swarm of parked cars in front. This extends out of sight for miles and miles, varied here and there by a set of traffic lights.

… We must accustom ourselves to the fact that the most basic motive in the design of these establishments — whether motels or drive-in movies or night clubs — is a desire to please and attract the passerby. The austere ambitions of the contemporary architect to create a self-justifying work of art have no place in this other part of town. Here every business has to woo the public — a public, moreover, which passes by at forty miles or more an hour — if it is to survive. The result is an other-directed architecture, and the only possible criterion of its success is whether or not it is liked; the consumer, not the artist or the critic, is the final court of appeal.

… What there has to be is the absence of any hint of the workaday world which presumably is being left behind: any hint of the domestic, the institutional, the severely practical, the economical; any hint of the common or plain. On the contrary, what is essential, both inside and out, is an atmosphere of history, gaiety, of the unusual and unreal. Imitation is quite as good as the genuine thing if the effect is convincing and the customer is happy. Go into a roadside dine-and-dance in a non-holiday mood (as happens when you stop to make a phone call) and you are affronted by the shoddy decorations, the crude indirect lighting, the menu, the music. But go in when you are looking for a good time and for an escape from the everyday, and at once the place seems steeped in magic. It is a glimpse of another world.

… What actually speeded the revolution in taste was something quite outside the field of art: it was the fact that the wage-earning class began to acquire more leisure than the executive or professional class had, and began to have more money than before. It was at last in a position to set its own pace in leisure activities and attitude.

… Neon lights, floodlights, fluorescent lights, spotlights, moving and changing lights of every strength and color — these constitute one of the most original and potentially creative elements of the other-directed style. It would be hard to find a better formula for obliterating the workaday world and substituting that of the holiday than this: nighttime and a garden of moving colored lights. It is perhaps too much to say that the neon light is one of the great artistic innovations of our age, but I cannot help wondering what a gothic or a baroque architect would have done to exploit its theatrical and illusionist possibilities, its capacity to transform not only a building but its immediate environment. The contemporary architect will have none of it, and while he makes much of his synthesizing of all art forms, the ones he chooses are usually the traditional fresco and mural and mosaic. Matisse and Dufy might have designed in neon with great success, and so for that matter could any imaginative sculptor.

… I know of no architecture school in the country which acknowledges the existence and the importance of a popular, other-directed architecture meant for pleasure and popular mass entertainment. We have forgotten, it seems, that architecture can sometimes smile and be lighthearted, and that leisure, no less than study or work, calls for an appropriate setting. Yet the few roadside establishments designed by imaginative and skillful architects are so immensely superior to the rest that they have almost at once been imitated. At present the average highway resort — motel, drive-in movie, restaurant, or nightclub — has been put up by the owner with no sort of guidance but his own limited experience and taste, or at best by a building contractor.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The display signs are usually the product of an industrial firm knowing nothing of the location or the public. The lighting itself is the work of the local electrician, relying on catalogs for inspiration. The landscape is done by the local nurseryman, and the planning, the location, the relationship to the neighbors and to the highway is little more than an adjustment to local zoning restrictions or to the edicts of the highway department. We need not be astonished at the results.

My most recent previous post from Jackson’s book is here.




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