Today, we talk to automobiles. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
I suddenly see that a whole
architectural movement has come and gone in my
lifetime. It arrived about the time I was born.
Then it got away when I wasn't looking. It was a
new architecture of instant communication.
You see, we lived in a brave new modern world in
1930. Our new machines had transformed us. Now cars
whizzed across America on two-lane concrete
highways. We were linked with one another as we'd
never been. If you didn't drive, you hitch-hiked.
Cars had become not only a 20th-century medium of
communication, they'd become a metaphor for
So we spoke to cars. Burma Shave signs hailed them
as they passed. For a thousand miles either side of
Wall's South Dakota drug store, signs told of that
kitsch oasis on the road ahead.
Then, a wild new architecture of communication came
out of California. Suddenly you could buy lemonade
from a building shaped like a lemon -- ice cream
from an igloo --- film from a shop shaped like a
camera. Buildings also took forms without rhyme or
reason -- diners shaped like boxing gloves,
zeppelins, dogs, and pumpkins. Pure means for
catching a driver's eye.
Architecture is supposed to be more subtle than
that. It should tell its function indirectly. But
there's little time for subtlety at 60 miles an
hour. We did what medieval businesses did 500 years
ago for a different reason.
You didn't find a tavern's name, "Head of the
Horse," written over the door of a medieval inn.
Too few people could read. Instead, you saw the
carved head of the horse itself.
California rediscovered that childlike directness.
The state had already declared its architectural
independence with Spanish Colonial adobe and
stucco. Next it'd moved on to exotic themes --
Grauman's Chinese Theater and the Aztec Hotel.
California had reached for the splendor of the
Now, in the 1930s, California moved all the way to
Wonderland. A 1936 Los Angeles Coca-Cola Company
was shaped like a great ocean liner. You entered a
huge coffee pot to drink coffee. Sometimes form
followed function as doggedly as your shadow
follows you. Sometimes function was as irrelevant
as a day-dream.
But it was more than just cuteness. It was a way to
make the break so we could begin again. The new
cars told us we had to reorder our lives. We
answered in the language of architecture.
For a season, we talked to cars. Now we take them
for granted and wait for the year 2000. What it
holds, we cannot know. Only one thing is sure: Our
children will one day talk to machines we never
imagined, in tongues as strange as these.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Heimann, J., and Georges, R., California Crazy:
Roadside Vernacular Architecture. Tokyo: Dai
Margolies, J., The End of the Road.
New York: Viking Press, 1977.
Liebs, C.H., Main Street to Miracle Mile:
American Roadside Architecture. Boston:
Little, Brown and Co., 1985.
Venturi, R., Brown, D.S., and Izenour, S.,
Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 1972.
This kind of representative architecture is called
mimetic or programmatic. I'm grateful to Margaret
Culbertson, UH Architecture Librarian, for her help
with this episode.
Two typical coffee-pot coffee-shops falling into
latter day disrepair
Mimetic architecture, forgotten and bypassed, on a
Texas backroad (Photos by John Lienhard)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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