Roadside Architecture

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Most Overrated Roadside Architecture:

Diners. They’ve been refurbished in recent years to look more streamlined than ever, more fifties than they were in the fifties. In fact, many were ptomaine palaces whose meals drove Americans to the dependability of standardized national fast-food chains. Today the reborn diners provide the visual equivalent of karaoke, mouthing the images of the past without the tune. Like those parodies of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting, they drip with yuppie irony. Their vast portions produce satiation at first sight; simply reading their immense menus can leave you feeling as full as if you’d already eaten a whole meal.

Most Underrated Roadside Architecture:

Modern gas stations. Exxon and Mobil in red, white, and blue, Texaco in black, BP in green—they’re pure modern architecture, kits of translucent light boxes and enameled panels, assembling simple geometrical units into stage sets. Beneath hovering canopies, they create a national package for the invisible products of service and gasoline.

Eliot Noyes’s Mobil is the best, but they all were done by major design firms. Whether or not Raymond Loewy really doodled linked x’s on the back of an envelope at his Palm Springs home, as legend has it, he did give us Exxon as well as Shell.

They pop up in distant, isolated places like post offices or embassies of the modern. Now that Exxon has merged with Mobil, what is revealing is how easily the red and white and blue color schemes—the hues of the flag!—and the sans serif Swiss-style letters of the two liveries fit together. They are simple and subtle. Look closely at the Exxon sign, with its double x like a tilted telephone pole or a cross of Lorraine, and you will note that the letters swell almost imperceptibly at their ends to fool the eye into seeing their lines as straight, counteracting parallax like the columns of the Parthenon.

These stations, and not faux moderne diners , are the true heirs to the romantic streamlined tradition. Future generations will venerate them as the real successors to the classic stations Henry Dreyfuss and Walter Dorwin Teague designed in the thirties and forties.