Car­port, man cave, start-up in­cu­ba­tor and more

Richard Wil­liams rum­mages round a ver­sa­tile site that housed cars, com­put­ers, start-ups and more

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Richard J. Wil­liams is pro­fes­sor of con­tem­po­rary vis­ual cul­tures at the Uni­ver­sity of Ed­in­burgh. His lat­est book, co-writ­ten with Mark Crin­son, is The Ar­chi­tec­ture of Art His­tory, to be pub­lished by Blooms­bury at the end of the year.


By Olivia Erlanger and Luis Or­tega Govela

MIT Press, 224pp, £20.00 ISBN 9780262038348 Pub­lished 30 Oc­to­ber 2018

It’s of­ten said that each gen­er­a­tion dis­cov­ers sex for the first time and presents it to the world as if it were new. In the world of ar­chi­tec­ture, the same is ar­guably true of the sub­urb. Hid­den in plain sight, the sub­urb has to be re­dis­cov­ered with fas­ci­na­tion ev­ery few years, to the be­muse­ment of those who ac­tu­ally live there. If we think about the sub­urb in broader cul­ture, the process has been go­ing on far longer. There’s scarcely a Hol­ly­wood film that isn’t at some level a sub­ur­ban cri­tique.

Into this crowded field come two peri­patetic young artists, Olivia Erlanger and Luis Or­tega Govela, based be­tween Lon­don, New York and Los An­ge­les. They ex­plore the sub­urb through the ar­chi­tec­tural fig­ure of the garage, that sim­plest of an­cil­lary spa­ces, made for car park­ing but blessed with any num­ber of reuses and ap­pro­pri­a­tions. Their ar­gu­ment is sim­ple enough. The garage is the sub­urb’s Un­con­scious, the place where, be­hind the roller shut­ters, per­ver­sity finds a home.

This is not es­pe­cially new. Al­fred Hitch­cock’s en­tire Amer­i­can ca­reer re­volves around this un­der­stand­ing of the sub­urb, and Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities (1961) de­pends on it.

What is new is the garage, through which Erlanger and Govela are able to ex­plore re­cent de­vel­op­ments. They’re ex­cel­lent on the mytholo­gies of the found­ing of both Hewlett-Packard and Ap­ple, and they do a great job of teas­ing out the ob­fus­ca­tions and lies in th­ese sto­ries, as well as the facts (HP was a cre­ation of the garage; Ap­ple, it turns out, was not). They’re good on the deep ar­chi­tec­tural his­tory of the garage, too, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ro­bie House above all, and the way (for them, at least) its garage rep­re­sents the dark side of both his life and his sub­ur­ban project. They also have a lot to say about one of the great cin­e­matic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the garage, the lo­ca­tion of Kevin Spacey’s eroti­cised midlife break­down in Amer­i­can Beauty (1999).

Garage isn’t all good. The writ­ing, es­pe­cially in the in­tro­duc­tion, is prone to Bau­drillar­dian hy­per­bole, and is some­times un­in­ten­tion­ally funny (Bri­tish read­ers may want to send sam­ples to Pri­vate Eye’s bal­loon-prick­ing de­part­ment, Pseuds Cor­ner). A few things are sim­ply wrong, such as the as­ser­tion that Rome’s L’At­tico gallery pi­o­neered the use of in­dus­trial space for art in 1968, when lofts had been a fa­mil­iar part of New York’s art scene for years be­fore.

More con­cern­ing is the ab­sence of the garage mak­ers. We don’t get to learn about their in­ten­tions, or – post-Wright – un­der­stand very much about their de­signs. The book pro­ceeds by sup­po­si­tion and pro­jec­tion, with lit­tle ev­i­dence from the builders, let alone the or­di­nary users of garages. That leads to some odd things, such as the idea that garage wine­mak­ing is a new and some­what re­fined phe­nom­e­non, when most who grew up in the 1970s just as­sumed that that’s what garages were for. More gen­er­ally, a subur­ban­ite might as of­ten as not un­der­stand het­ero­gene­ity as in­te­gral to the sub­ur­ban con­di­tion, how­ever strangely ex­pressed on the sur­face, not an aber­ra­tion. But this is a vig­or­ous, thought-pro­vok­ing book that, af­ter decades of ur­ban boos­t­er­ism, rightly draws our at­ten­tion back to the sub­urbs.

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