Facadism gone wild: a visit to Washington D.C.

The image of Washington D.C. forged by television and film is usually confined to government buildings, the river, and monuments. Most people are familiar with the city’s low-rise skyline, dominated to this day by the stark white obelisk of the Washington Monument. Venturing into the city’s streets brought the great lengths the city’s preservationists have gone to to freeze architectural progress somewhere in the late 19th century into very clear focus.

Much has been made of the District’s strict height limit and recent efforts to lift it. The height limit does undoubtedly lead to monotonous streetscapes of squat-looking office buildings, however this was not the most surprising part of Washington’s architectural fabric. This is what really caught my attention:

DC Facadism

Did the architect of this massive office block think we’d not notice it with the thin veneer of brick three-story facades tacked on the front? Granted, D.C. is not the only city where facades are preserved as a part of new construction. However, it’s the only place I’ve seen something as bizarre as this:

Facadism in Foggy Bottom

I can’t help but think it looks like a 100-something year-old building was extruded out of the front of a 1990s office building. The massive white property line wall certainly helps cement this image, however I’m not sure how much better it will look if another building is built next door.

While the first two examples are unsuccessful and bad, the final example I’ll show manages to transcend being simply bad by being so completely honest about the fact that a new building was built completely around the older structures:

Crazy DC Facadism (Mexican Embassy?)

Upon doing more research, I discovered that the facades were originally part of a group of rowhouses known as “The Seven Buildings” that dated from the 1700s. President James Madison and his wife Dolley lived there from 1815 to 1817 while the White House was being rebuilt following the War of 1812. You can read more and see a photo of the historic plaque at The Grumpy Old Limey’s site.

A brief pro-clutter interior design manifesto

I was browsing Apartment Therapy recently and came across one of their ‘Before and After’ posts titled A Granny Office Goes Modern. The ‘before’ photo does look like it could be a grandmother’s office:


After “a simple organization and renovation techniques you can completely change the style and give a space a fresh and modern makeover.” The after  photo has the hallmarks of a fashionable interior makeover: designer furniture, an accent wall, useless empty baskets on shelves, and a mysteriously cord-free computer (this was a big hit in the comments).


Yes, it’s fresh. It’s modern. But what have we really accomplished here? Every last shred of personality has been stripped from the room. God forbid anyone have to look at family photos, or (even worse) books! While I might not have kept all of Granny’s furnishings, there is something wonderful about going into someone’s house and learning about him or her through the things on display.

Clutter can get out of hand, but Granny’s office was far from being an episode of Hoarders. There is a contemporary trend in interiors to put antique cameras and baskets everywhere, and to find quirky vintage items to “curate” (one of the most grossly misused words I can think of, of late). Why not actually put your own things on display? What’s wrong with a few of Granny’s framed photos and maybe some books you’ve actually read instead of empty white storage boxes? One comment summarized it nicely,  “Where did the books go? The shelves are now cluttered with tchotchkes that don’t serve any purpose.”

Hopefully Granny’s stuff was carefully put in boxes and it will slowly filter its way back into the office.

A Vegan Thanksgiving

I don’t normally post recipes on here, but someone requested my tofu “turkey” instructions via twitter. I originally found this recipe online about 8 years ago and have been adjusting it yearly based on experience. I’ll apologize to all of the non-American readers who inevitably will question the funny measuring units and temperatures.

Tofu Turkey at Thanksgiving 2005

Tofu Turkey

  • 5 pounds firm tofu
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped fine
  • 1-1/3 cup celery, diced (about 4 stalks)
  • 1 cup mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/8 cup sage
  • 2 teaspoons marjoram
  • 2 teaspoons thyme
  • 1 teaspoons winter or summer savory
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon rosemary
  • 2 teaspoons celery seed
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce or tamari
  • 3 cups cubed bread

Basting Mixture

  • 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce or tamari
  • 2 tablespoons miso
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon mustard of choice


If you need a visual guide, I’ve posted photos of the process on flickr.

Mash tofu or mix well with hands. Be sure that all of the lumps are out.  Line a 12″ colander with wet cheesecloth over lapping the sides.  Add the mashed tofu to the cloth covered colander, press down and cover with the overlapping sides. Place the whole thing in a large bowl. Cover the cheesecloth with a plate that fits inside the colander and place a 5 pound weight on the plate. Refrigerate and let sit 4-5 hours or overnight. I have also found that filling a large pot with about 8 cups of water can take the place of the weight.

When time is up, start the stuffing.  Saute’ the onions, celery and mushrooms in the 2 tablespoons sesame oil. When soft, add the garlic and all the rest of the stuffing ingredients, except stuffing, mixing well. Stir and cook for 5 minutes. Add herb stuffing and mix well.

Remove tofu from fridge and take off weight, plate and top of cheesecloth.  Hollow out tofu to within 1 inch of the sides and bottom (You will have a “shell” of tofu lining the colander at this time, Place the scooped out tofu in a bowl. Place the stuffing inside the shell and pack in firmly.  Next cover with the remaining scooped out tofu you placed in a bowl and pat down firmly. CAREFULLY Turn stuffed tofu onto a greased baking sheet, flat side down.

Mix up the basting mixture and baste tofu “turkey” with half of it. Cover the “turkey” with foil, and bake at 400 degrees for about 1 hour. Watch carefully after 45 minutes because it’s easy for the edges to burn.

Remove foil, baste with all the remaining mixture except a few tablespoons and return to oven for 1 hour more, or until the “turkey” is golden. Remove from oven and use rest of basting mix. Using at least 2 large spatulas, move to a large plate.

Serve with the gravy of your choice, if you wish, and cranberry sauce. Tastes good leftover (if there is any!) in sandwiches or plain.

Serves: 8-10

Preparation time: 1 day

Vegan Gravy

  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 cup diced shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil (or sesame oil)
  • 1 can (16 oz) of vegetarian broth
  • 2 cups of water
  • 2-4 tablespoons miso paste (to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp garlic salt
  • approx 3 tbsp flour


In a large skillet or pan, sautee the onion and mushroom in vegetable oil just until soft, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the flour, and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently.

Slowly add the flour, one tablespoon at a time and whisk thoroughly to combine. Continue adding flour until the gravy reaches desired thickness. It is often easier to mix the flour with cold water and then slowly at it to the gravy to thicken.

Buffalo’s Grain Elevators: The Destruction of the Beginnings of Modern Architecture

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Standard Elevator

It’s been a few months now, but in July I had the chance to witness the destruction of one of Buffalo’s concrete grain elevators. Written about 30 years ago by Reyner Banham, and in the early part of the 20th Century by Corbusier and other European Modernists, the grain elevators on the Buffalo River are one of the world’s most important intact architectural landscapes. While many are currently sitting unused, their solid construction allows them to maintain their imposing presence even as windows get broken and their metal fittings rust.

I was initially alerted to the demolition of one of Buffalo’s elevators via the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s website but it was shocking to see the demolition actually taking place. The silhouettes of these structures are so seemingly permanent on the Buffalo landscape it is nearly impossible to imagine them disappearing or being altered, even when I consider all of the other important buildings I saw demolished while living in Western New York.

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Grain Elevator Demolition, July 2011

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Marine tower adjacent to the Wheeler Elevator, July 2011 (prior to demolition)

Seeing the gaping hole in the outer concrete wall of the building was a shock, knowing how quickly it was being demolished after standing on this site for 101 years. While the elevator complex being demolished is not the most architecturally significant of the structures that line the Buffalo River, the importance of the Buffalo elevators lies more in the complete http://buysoma.net landscape created by lining up a variety of these structures on a narrow river in the midst of an urban neighborhood. As buildings are demolished one at a time, the overall landscape is diminished- a landscape that is a testament to both the industry of the late 1800s and early 1900s and to the history of architecture.

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Cargill Electric and American Elevators

South Buffalo at Sunset
South Buffalo Sunset, 2010

The elevators are not all empty, Cheerios are still manufactured here and Gold Medal Flour is still milled in the same building photographed by Erich Mendelsohn in 1924 (one of these is reproduced in Reynar Banham’s Concrete Atlantis). 700+ foot-long lake freighters coming from the west still dock in this port and occasionally make their way through the sharp turns of the Buffalo river, yet the glory days are long over. In 1900 Buffalo was one of the ten busiest ports in the world, despite its inland location and the winter closure of its harbor each year. Now it’s the 28th-largest in the United States.

Buffalo Grain Elevators
General Mills Complex

On a positive note, I did visit a new public park that has been created on formerly industrial land across the river from the under-demolition Wheeler Elevator. By allowing people to enjoy the river and encouraging urban kayaking and boating, I can only hope that the appreciation for this landscape grows in the general public or soon it will be too late.

Buffalo River park
Buffalo River Park

Buffalo Grain Elevators
Great Northern/Pillsbury Elevator

Sonoma / Mendocino Part II: Sea Ranch & South

From there, it was further down the coast to the community of Sea Ranch. Laid out in the 1960s by the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin with buildings by architects including Charles Moore and Joseph Esherick, Sea Ranch is a pilgrimage site for San Francisco architects (and architectural tourists). It is incredibly unwelcoming to visit if you are not staying there or on a tour, however. The roads are private and marked as such. Our sorry-looking rented car with 120,000 miles on the clock (yes, really) would have been a dead giveaway that we didn’t own oceanfront property on the California coast so we stuck to the public ocean access trails and dropped into the Sea Ranch lodge.

A view of the lodge from across the fields:

Sea Ranch, California

The sea nearby. The wind was blowing so hard I nearly lost the camera:

Sea Ranch, California

Portions of the lodge itself are going to be torn down as part of a development being undertaken by the new owner:

Sea Ranch Lodge

Even the public toilets are done in the “Sea Ranch style”:

Sea Ranch Public Toilet

From there it was south to Jenner, where I encountered one of the windiest beaches I’ve ever set foot on. There were seals with their pups at the end of the beach but I never got close enough for a particularly good photo. The beach itself is spectacular:

Jenner Beach

After an overnight stay in Guerneville, it was on to see Armstrong Redwoods State Park. The Armstrong Tree, the largest in the park, is one of the key attractions:

The Armstrong Tree

It’s a spectacular park and nowhere near as crowded as the parks closer to San Francisco (like Muir Woods). I assume it’s probably more heavily used on weekends or in the summer but if you’re in the area it is worth a visit.

Armstrong Redwoods State Park

Northern California: from Wine Country to Manchester with a bit of Angela Lansbury

It’s been a few months, and in those months I’ve relocated back from Northwest London to the San Francisco Bay Area. Much of my time in California has been rather uneventful as it has been taken up by things like looking for a place to live and buying household essentials, though there was a recent trip up to Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

The first stop was the Sonoma wine country town of Healdsburg for lunch. I took at look at the new H2 Hotel, designed by David Baker + Partners Architects of San Francisco (my former employer):

H2 Hotel, Healdsburg CA

Several doors down you’ll find the Healdsburg Hotel, and eariler David Baker project:

H2 Hotel, Healdsburg CA

Heading north we checked out the Quivira Winery, a biodynamic wine producer that is a big proponent of raising chickens and using solar power. The wine in the tasting room was excellent.

Quivira Winery, Sonoma

The town of Mendocino sits on a wind-blown peninsula. It’s beautifully preserved wooden houses are out of another era (thanks to the entire town being a historic preservation district). Our hotel was out of another era too: 1985-1987, the years “Murder, She Wrote” aired. The show was occasionally shot on location in Mendocino, which stood in for the town of Cabot Cove, Maine. Our hotel, while not authentically old, was occasionally used for filming. Their sign even reflects the fictional location:

The Hill House Inn

For anyone who might be willing to question the hotel’s role in the production of the television program, I refer you to the wall of fame in the lobby:

The Hill House Inn

The Blair House, the home where Jessica Fletcher lived on the show, is now a bed and breakfast with a suite named after Angela Lansbury. If you’re interested in buying this house, it is currently on the market for $1.65 million.

The thing I liked most about Mendocino (aside from the ocean) is the design of many of the old homes. While it is known for its Victorians, the “tower” style houses are far more interesting. They have a variety of different sizes and forms, but most have similar general proportions:

Mendocino Tower House

Another design feature of the town is its rustic yet carefully considered style. I love this fence:

Fantastic Rustic Fence in Mendocino

From Mendocino it was up the coast to Manchester. Manchester? Yes, just like the one in England I didn’t manage to visit while I was living there. The California version of Manchester is noticeably smaller and more rural. There is also a large state park that is full of deer:

Deer at Manchester Beach

Across the road from these deer is an incredibly high-security facility known as the Point Arena Cable Station. This is the landing point for the fiber optic cables that cross the Pacific to Japan. There are a number of other cable stations up and down the coast with cable to a number of countries and Hawaii. This one ended up in Manchester because it is the closest place in the US to Japan. I was a bit nervous standing in the trees snapping this photo:

Manchester Cable Crossing

What else was there to see in Manchester Beach State Park? The spectacularly empty (of people) beach, of course:

Manchester Beach State Park

Then it was on the Point Arena, home of this lighthouse:

Point Arena Lighthouse

Join me in my next installment as I share tales of Sea Ranch and Guerneville.

The Opposite View Corridors of London

Lately there has been a lot of talk about the view of St. Paul’s and how the construction of Renzo Piano’s Shard tower is ruining the view from from Parliament Hill– one of the sacred view corridors of London (defined in Protecting London’s strategic views).

But what about the opposite view? Instead of looking AT St. Paul’s, what about the view looking AWAY from St. Paul’s? The path that takes one to the Thames from St. Paul’s is a highly-designed affair that leads down Peter’s Hill to the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern beyond. It’s a beautiful axial relationship reinforced through a clever landscape design by Charles Funke Associates that creates a variety of well-used public spaces. The long straight sightline afforded by this relationship allows the sort of visual alignment not often seen in London’s organic street pattern. Let’s take a look now- what is in this view?

The View to the Tate Modern from St. Paul's
The View to the Tate Modern from St. Paul's, now with Strata Tower

Yes. Strata Tower is directly the Tate. Not just any tower but a building voted as Britain’s worst of 2010. I’m not sure how I didn’t notice this before but I was quite disappointed when I did.

On Notetaking and Thrilling Wonder Stories II

Yesterday I attending a portion of Thrilling Wonder Stories II at the Architectural Association. The Cautionary Tales segment I sat in on included author Jeff VanderMeer, author Will Self and artist-author Paul Duffield.

Will Self made a habit of walking from central London to Heathrow Airport and then walking from his destination airport to his final goal. His most recent book titled Walking to Hollywood is a product of the activity of taking long walks, and in title alone points to the somewhat ridiculous nature of the project: nobody walks to Hollywood, except for Will Self.

His reading from this book was a segment that takes place in San Francisco, my home for six years, and was an internal dialogue of a man walking to the Golden Gate Bridge from his Union Square hotel room. Vividly described from the perspective of a person who has clearly been there and done his research, it was a thrilling account of the lure of the bridge (and large objects in general).

When Liam Young, one of the organisers of the event, asked for questions via Twitter I responded perhaps a bit too quickly, asking if Self took many notes while he was walking. I assumed he did take notes about his journeys and I expected him to use this as an opportunity to discuss his process for recording a long walk. Instead, he somewhat flippantly blew off the question and said “well, duh…. of course I take notes, I am a writer” and ridiculed the asking of the question- which resulted in most of the audience being too intimidated to ask anything else.

The brevity of Twitter certainly does not allow for the sort of question I was trying to get at. What I should have asked is “what is your process for creating a record of your long walks? Do you walk and write at the same time, or do you take photos and stop to compile http://www.onlinepharmacytabs.com/generic-flagyl.html notes every so often? Do you make a timeline?” Those are the sort of things I was hoping he would delve into.

The Thrilling Wonder Stories event itself is the perfect illustration of how the process of note-taking and recording has changed dramatically in recent years. While the presenters sat in the middle of the room, the gathered crowd took video and photos with cameras and mobile phones, some took notes and made sketches on paper, while others live-blogged on their iPads or sent cryptic Twitter posts that described the event in real time on a multitude of screens set up around the venue. All of these events created a worldwide feed of multi-channel information that presented the event from a multitude of perspectives. Many people no longer take traditional notes but rely on a combination of these new technologies to set up their own multimedia records of their experience, which may or may not be translated into a more traditional written record at a later date.

I admire Will Self as a writer and think he missed a good opportunity to expand upon his thoughts on how technology has changed the way people process and record the world around them. I should have guessed he is a traditionalist is his own writing practice seeing that he has derided the introduction of the internet to public libraries (and I must admit I did enjoy his rant about gadgets on his blog). He started yesterday’s talk by asking how many people in the room had been to the mouth of the Thames, and very few hands went up. Many more had viewed photos of it. He then conveyed the importance of walking and of actually experiencing the 360 degree reality of visiting places and seeing them at a slow pace, yet I am more interested in how you translate those experiences for your own record and for others.

FAT Saturday: Thornton Heath Library & The Museum of Croydon

Thornton Heath Library

Facing a weekend with nothing to do for the first time in ages, yesterday I set off to see the newly refurbished Thornton Heath Library by FAT Architects (or, more formally: Fashion Architecture Taste). It was also a good excuse to venture south of the Thames, something I don’t often do. Thornton Heath is close to Croydon’s town centre, accessible by rail after a long Tube journey from where I live in Northwest London.

Thornton Heath Library

Like many parts of outer London, Thornton Heath has a scrubby (yet bustling) high street that tapers off into nondescript semi-detached housing as one walks away from the station. The library is located in the fringe area where commercial has tapered to residential, yet is positioned so that FAT’s cast-concrete supergraphics are visible through the forest of shop fronts on the high street (see photo above).

Thornton Heath Library

The original building was constructed as a Carnegie Library in 1914. Like most of these libraries, it was built with a formal front entrance and raised off the ground by a flight of stairs. FAT’s design reorients the building around a new glass-enclosed entrance pavilion with a highly visible public reading room inside. The accessibility of the entrance is made into a design statement, as the new wheelchair ramp intentionally cuts off the original entrance which now sits behind it and is stranded above ground level (cue up a Colin Rowe-inspired discussion of phenomenal versus literal transparency here). If I had one criticism of this part of the building, the glass balustrade combined with white concrete makes all of the leaves and rubbish trapped between them incredibly visible from the street.

Thornton Heath Library

The extension of the reading room allows the interior of the building to feel much more spacious that it must have in its previous incarnation. People were actively using this area, taking advantage of the comfortable and well-selected furniture to enjoy a newspaper and watch the world go by. The windows themselves are huge and divided by wood mullions that are sympathetic to the oak furniture and hardwood flooring. They are much nicer than what it typically installed on public design-build projects.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

While the original entrance has been permanently sealed, the interior finishes and skylight have been restored to their original glory over what was originally the entrance lobby and is now a reading and browsing area. The incorporation of the original detail within the context of a vastly improved plan and circulation strategy shows the value of a carefully-considered renovation over a new-built library.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

Aside from the well-chosen stand alone furniture, the furniture integrated into the shelves in the library stacks was a fantastic touch and very much in-tune with the way people look for books. I’m surprised this sort of arrangement is not more common, because it is ideal for browsing.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The children’s library and public meeting room are both located on the lower level, accessible by a delightful light-filled stair that hugs the original exterior wall. The children’s reading room opens on to a deck with a grassy yard beyond. Rather than simply denoting the space for children with primary colours and a ‘fun’ carpet, the room is well-proportioned and the access to the outdoors makes it a special space separate from the rest of the library. It was incredibly well-used on the day of my visit. I did not photograph the children’s library because, being an adult man with no child in tow I was certain it would raise some sort of alarm.

Thornton Heath Library Interior

The one strange thing about the rear of the building was an American suburban-style picket fence that I can only guess was a Health & Safety inspired addition to keep kids from climbing the lush and inviting hill beyond:

Thornton Heath Library

Many older public buildings do not meet modern needs, but the sort of careful (yet not timid) approach shown by FAT both reinforces both the importance of building re-use and of the necessity for the involvement of talented architects in making great public buildings. Education Secretary Michael Gove’s attacks on architects for creaming off ‘huge’ fees on school design and refurbishment projects seems particularly off-target when one encounters a public building such as this that has benefited immensely from good design.

The Museum of Croydon

The Museum of Croydon is tucked away inside the Croydon Clocktower, a Grade I listed building built in the 1890s and designed by Charles Henman Jun. It holds a variety of cultural amenities and is adjacent to the Croydon Town Hall.

The Museum of Croydon

The museum tells the story of Croydon as told through objects. It doesn’t have many timelines, pictures or detailed maps (aside from one introductory display on land ownership and key roads) but instead is organised into rooms by era with corresponding items from the collection. FAT humorously labelled the entrance ‘then’ and ‘now’ which implies (unlike many museum displays) that there is no correct order in which you should view the displays.

The Museum of Croydon

The interior of the museum is very dark, which is accentuated by the grey matte plastic surfaces that mimic a variety of other materials like gilded picture frames or fabric. The objects are typically displayed in single item clear enclosures with a small and very difficult to read tag on each item. The descriptions border on cryptic in many cases. There is also a touch-screen display that accompanies each small group of objects, but the information on the computer mimics the minimal content of the wall tags.

The Museum of Croydon

The displays are well-designed, and as an ensemble the interior of the museum is gorgeous to look at. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I learned much about Croydon from my visit. While there was some information about the Blitz, it was very general and didn’t go beyond the information you could learn about many other British cities during World War II. Similarly, the Commodore computer from the Croydon library looks remarkably like every other Commodore computer sold around the world during the same era. While I conceptually get the point about telling the story of a place through objects, I think its unfortunate that so little of the story of the place is really told here. Croydon’s high-rise skyline makes it a peculiar place and I’d like to know more about why it turned out that way.

The collection of the museum is not a shortcoming on the part of the architects, I think the Museum staff should have considered more effective ways to tell the story of the city through these objects. The abundance of computer technology within the exhibition spaces could allow for a much richer experience if more information was provided.

Additional photos for both the library and museum can be found on my Flickr stream.

An Invitation to a New Way of Living: The Modern Motel

Author Alain de Botton is on a mission to convince people that they could live in modern houses. I read his book The Architecture of Happiness last year and wasn’t particularly impressed. After reading Will Wiles’ article in the November 2010 issue of Icon magazine about de Botton’s new company, Living Architecture, I became more interested in his mission. Would people really want to live in a modern house if they were educated to appreciate it? In de Botton’s own words:

Each is designged to challenge preconceptions about modern architecture and, with luck, win over sceptical Brits in the course of a weekend break.

Living Architecture didn’t go for half-measures: known as  “The Balancing Barn,” one of the first buildings available for rental is a shiny-metal clad house cantilevered over a hillside by the world-famous Dutch firm MVRDV.  At £725 for a 4-night break (the Living Architecture website cheerily points out it only costs £23 per person per night), the house offers people the chance to try out a comfortable yet strikingly modern lifestyle. I’m not so sure that de Botton’s goal of luring the British public to live in modern homes will be very well-served by this tactic: it seems only those already enthusiastic about staying in a modern home designed by a famous architect will rent this house. At present, the company has four properties and  they are planning to build more, but it seems like a drop in the bucket if there is any hope for a mass conversion to modern tastes.

You would think that if only de Botton’s company could roll out the program on a larger scale, the cottage-loving public would change their minds about domestic architecture, but I don’t think it is that simple. While in graduate school I examined a very similar phenomenon that took place in post-WW2 America in a paper titled “Modern Motel Architecture: Your Night in the Future.”

While the motor inn had existed in a variety of formats since as early as the 1920s, it took its clearly defined form as the motel after World War II. With the expansion of the U.S. interstate network, staying at these roadside establishments became very commonplace: 59% of Americans stayed at motels while on vacation in 1955 versus only 36% in traditional hotels. How were these new motels marketed? With modern architecture.

Googie sign, Tod Motor Motel - Las Vegas
The Tod Motor Motel in Las Vegas (2006)

While the signs announcing these businesses are often the most dominant feature, the motel buildings themselves were a drastic departure from the tourist cabins and traditional hotels that preceded them. Owners of these businesses needed to shake the “no-tell motel” image of the pre-war era that had been reinforced through popular culture. Hitchcock’s Psycho plays off of the public’s associations with run-down motels as a set up for the film’s plot with Norman Bates’s character living in a creepy old Victorian house that looms over its surroundings. Proprietors would use garish colours, large sheets of glass and modern methods of construction to set the modern motel apart from all forms of accommodation previously known to most Americans. Subsequently, the modern motel would be the first time most ordinary Americans would be invited to spend the night in an Architecturally findviagra modern building.

Reno, NV
Motel in Reno, Nevada (2003)

Venturi, Brown and Izenour discuss motels in Learning from Las Vegas and categorize them as “Pleasure Zone Architecture,” a category with qualities that include “lightness, the quality of being an oasis in a perhaps hostile context, heightened symbolism, and the ability to engulf the visitor in a new role.” (1) LFLV also points out the role that this type of architecture plays in allowing people to imagine the future, claiming that “for three days one may imagine oneself a Centurion at Caesars Palace, a ranger at the Frontier, or a jetsetter at the Riviera.” (2)

Outside of Las Vegas, the buildings were smaller and a little less grand, but still communicated the idea of a better life through modernism as motels spread across the United States, following the new interstates. Steven Izenour wrote about this phenomenon in short workbook in 2001 titled “Learning from Wildwood” about blue-collar resort motels in Wildwood, New Jersey. Families unable to afford a trip to the Carribean could instead spend a few nights at a beach-themed modern motel on the side of a New Jersey highway with a flat roof and large picture windows.

Did Americans clamour for modern homes after experiencing the future in these motels? The short answer is no. While modern-lite ranch homes did become somewhat popular, they still retained many traits of  traditional American homes. Communities like Levittown in New York and Lakewood in Southern California were the real look of the future, rather than space age motels. Modern methods of production brought the factory to the job site, but the end product was more Cape Cod than Buck Rogers:

Levittown, 1948: the post-war American Dream
Levittown, 1948: the post-war American Dream

Modernism was a fashion of the 1960s, and it fell out of favour. In an interview I conducted in 2005, Victor Newlove (the third partner at famed Googie architecture firm Armet & Davis, later known as Armet Davis Newlove) pointed out that people tired of modernism just as they had tired of tailfins on their cars. Architectural historian Alan Hess ties the death of modern commercial architecture to the rise of  highway beautification and the environmental movement of the early 1970s. (3) In any case, the era was definitely over when McDonald’s started to build brown brick restaurants with over-scaled Mansard roofs in the latter part of the decade. (4)

I doubt the situation in Great Britain in 2010 will play out much differently, especially now that the recent modern-ish housing in most British urban centres has become associated with the bubble economy of the last decade. With the new government comes a focus on localism in planning policy, which doesn’t look good for those wanting to build modern houses not “in keeping” with their surroundings. It is hard to change what is perceived as a centuries-old tradition of housebuilding with a few nights’ stay in a modern rental property.

1 Robert Venturi, et al. Learning from Las Vegas revised ed.(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998) 53.

2. Veturi, et al. 53.

3. Alan Hess, Googie Redux (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004) 178.

4. Philip Langdon, Orange Roofs, Golden Arches (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986) 140-141.