roadside architecture: sweeping out the old twerps

by Art Chantry (

i say – “fuck frank gehry and philip johnson and rem khoolhaus, etc. etc. ad naseum.” i say those guys are total ass clowns wasting everybody’s time and dime on their masturbatory fantasies of power. “lookie! lookie!! i’m an URBAN SCULPTOR!!!!” even the most very sophisticated of us have quiet doubts about the authentic qualities of their output. we all look at their buildings and wince a little inside. how much of those things are snide jackoff and pure power tripping hubris? this ‘new’ architecture’ reminds me of those mad ‘tomb/palaces’ built by the likes of emperor qin, the first emperor of china. instead of all those terra cotta soldiers lined up to do battle, it’s all those horrid little buildings all done in their own personal architectural theories of TASTE and VISION that are lined up to do sterile non-battle.

AC:robert venturi also drives me up a wall. his book about las vegas reminds me of slumming. most contemporary architects make dross based on surface impressions of past styles. and their engineering skills (how to make buildings easy and cheap and safe to build) are horrid. there were some buildings built in seattle by some of these 'famous' guys that were nightmares in construction - really really stupidly designed. the cost over-runs made for lawsuits that lasted decades.

i have this theory about architects. almost all of them came from wealthy or at least upper middle class families. when they were young, they rebelled and wanted to become poets and painters and artists following their “muse” (aka their own cheap childish fantasies). however, mommy and daddy wouldn’t let them (it would be so embarrassing!!) and forced them to get an ivy league edumacation. so, instead of becoming starving artists of note, they became the only alternative that was still acceptable to their social class (and their rich parents) – architects. all those architects out there doing the leading edge work are frustrated whiny fake artists yearning for their garrets and absinthe and self-destructive lifestyles. they are aesthetes without a country. upper middle class twits trying to be bohemians.

ok, so, i gather you think i am some sort of working class snob who hates the rich. well, in all honesty, that’s true. however, i have to point out that many of my closest friends are rich and they are extremely nice people. so, i don’t hold that against them personally. i’m an equal opportunity asshole first and foremost. i still think we need to EAT THE RICH. my rich friends? i would eat them quickly and first (fast and painless). however, i would save the architects for a nice lazy relaxing dessert over conversation.

i much prefer architecture created by real people. i love architecture that is also signage (cuz i’m a graphic designer and all). i live very close to the old alaskan highway 99 that used to run all the way up and down the west coast from alaska to the baha peninsula. the interstate freeway system chopped that up pretty good. but, in it’s heyday it was like a west coast ‘fantasy island’ tourist drive that stretched not across the american dream like route 66, but up and down the american dreamLAND. as a result, dotted all up and down the general route are wonderful examples of “roadside architecture” built (and usually designed) by common folk to attract drivers on their long journey.

california is famous for it’s crazy buildings and all – tails o’ the pup, all that ‘googie style’ stuff, giant donuts on buildings, disneyland, etc. etc.. but, not many folks realize that washington and oregon had more than their fair share of wild neon signs and novelty buildings and giant roadside attraction objects as well. if you ever try to follow the old highway system (it’s difficult) you can still trip across the rotting remains of some of these amazing buildings. however, most of that has been torn down – especially in the recent population explosion of american suckers moving here for that ‘seattle lifestyle’ and all. the last 30 years in the northwest has been brutal in it’s erasing of it’s own past.

as a kid i remember many buildings with airplanes mounted on top, tall poles with automobiles spiked on top, huge figures of giant lumberjacks and blue oxes, crazy totem poles, buildings shaped like teepees, elephants, boats, castles, igloos, eiffel towers, farm animals, arks, even space needles. after the seattle world’s fair, there were literally thousands of proud amateur backyard tinkerers who decided to “build their own damn space needle.” all over the northwest you could often trip across home made space needles of unbelievable crazy imagination. giant yard art icons depicting the future for all of us. in fact many of them were actually turned into real signs for future businesses. but, most of them are gone now. as rare to see as all those strange home made ‘flying saucers’ the yard artists made in the late 50′s (yeah, there were a LOT of those up here, too.)

the great grandaddy of all the surviving local roadside architecture is tacoma’s ‘java jive’ (originally called the ‘perky pot’). it’s a bizarre oversized giant teapot sitting across from the atlas foundry (that one that blew up a few years back) and just down south tacoma way (the old ‘alaskan highway 99′ route) from the former ‘darigold castle’ (their old ‘fake castle’ corporate HQ) and the old ‘nuthouse’ (where you bought your nuts). this ignoble edifice, strangely, has a beautiful history of music in the region. tacoma native bing crosby actually used to hang out there and listen to jazz. early r&b and all sorts of locals played there regularly – including most of those old early northwest rock bands (the ones that gave us ‘louie louie’) like the wailers, the sonics, little bill & the bluenotes. in fact, RNR HOF inductees, the ventures, started their career there as a house bands of sorts. even today, the good old java jive manages to survive (just barely) and presents local homemade rock bands just starting out, eager for a place to show their stuff. it’s great and largely ignored.

i miss crazy beloved roadside architecture. it’s the real stuff, not that elitist fancy pants crap you have to have an advanced degree to appreciate. “object architecture’ is the real deal – buildings that sell, buildings that beguile, buildings that we remember. probably the very very first ‘object architecture’ ever built is still deeply wedged in our collective mythological subconscious – the trojan horse. to deny the influence and importance and success of even that early effort would be foolish.

this photo i show is of what looks to be a big yellow crane sitting next to interstate 5 up near mt. vernon (the city that also gave us glenn beck). but, if you look closer, you’ll see it’s not a crane at all – it’s an office bu

ng. it’s the home HQ of a company that builds and rents out cranes to construction workers all over the region. that whole contraption – larger that the ‘cab’ style office building itself! – is all mere signage. this is not an old roadside architecture building at all. ii remember when it was built, what? 25 years back?

you see, billboards are illegal next to the interstate freeway in washington state. buildings have to be set back a great distance. so, these guys had the brilliant DESIGN solution of making their building look like a giant crane – exactly like the product they sell. that i-beam it’s lifting has the name and phone number of their business on it. smart. you can see it for miles and it doesn’t violate any state laws. try to THAT, that mr. philip johnson!


AC:i.m.pei built a building in seattle, too. not many people ven know its his work. it’s the old ‘rainier bank tower’ downtown (it’s been sold so many times, i don’t know what it’s called now). it’s that ‘building on a pedestal.” when it was built, everybody thought it would come down in the first earthquake. it still make folks nervous to stand under it. it’s general referred to as “the building built upsidedown.” with his obsession with upsidedown architecture (think of that pyramid he built in the louvre), i. m. pei managed to create the only piece of roadside architecture styling in downtown seattle. and he did it by accident with his really lame concept. UPSIDEDOWN!?! geez….

…are designed by some famous guy of the past (i forget who). they are considered tre chic and any obsequious twit who has self-important and high ambitions HAS TO WEAR THEM. needless to say, there are a LOT of graphic designers wearing those things. when you comment on them, they eagerly tell you the history of them and the pedigree and why they have such great taste and vision to actually possess them – even though they look so stupid. it reminds me of yuppies and their pure bred dogs – they always want to tell you why they are the best most special important breed in the world and why they are so smart to have bought one and how they are raising it in a montessori school, etc… i usually run away screaming….

…try to separate the design from the engineering when it comes to architecture. it can’t be done. that’s like saying that the architect has no responsibility toward the finalization of his work. if that were true, architects would be demanding floating cities by now. i mean, it’s not like THEY have to figure out how to build it, how to ‘make it so’, right? when robert venturi ‘designed’ the seattle art museum, he built one hell of a staircase (that went from one exit to another exit) and the galleries and shop space actually got smaller. the building was so complex to build that every single piece had to be custom fitted by hand. the budget ran so many times over the original budget that everybody sued each other endlessly (including venturi, who got sued by the builders and (i think) the city.) totally stupid. but, dang! that’s a hell of a nice staircase for his portfolio, ain’t it?…

…when i first saw the drawings for the mlk monument when all the controversy was raised back a year or more ago, i thought it was sort of inappropriate – like superman cartoon emerging through solid rock. goofy looking. but, now after seeing in in context with the metaphor of moving the mountain, well, i get it now. and i think it’s pretty darn great. we won’t talk abut those misquotes, though. sheesh….

…one of the strange things about my career is that those asshole designers of taste and breeding all have problems with me (har har). whenever i’m in their presence, they snub me and ignore me and treat me like shit. that is, until they NEED me for some prestige or name-dropping or fund raising. then, i’m suddenly their dearest oldest friend. when that moment passes, it goes back to the snub. my entire career has existed in direct opposition to the academic/textbook ‘fine design’ subculture. i ignore them now. sometimes i just laugh at them. since the advent of the new world (the internet and DIY) those ‘fine design’ twerps really mean nothing. that old world is virtually gone. we won….

…we tear down that mall crap every few years (and fill up our landfills with them. over 90% of the crap in our landfills is demolition debris. not plastic bottle, diapers or newspapers. OLD BUILDINGS). the precious icky “art” architecture stuff will end up being carefully re-built and preserved for generations to come. it’ll be SO embarrassing!…

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