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.

By Mark

Mark is an architect in San Francisco.