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Reviewed by:
  • Garage by Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela
  • Peter Ekman (bio)
Olivia Erlanger Luis Ortega Govela
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2018.
224 pages, 52 color illustrations.
ISBN: 9780262038348, $19.95 HB

On its face, Garage is almost irresistibly appealing to those of us accustomed to writing broader cultural histories by means of artifacts, no matter how humble, serialized, or anonymous. The book promises to recast twentieth-century America— its aesthetics, its morals, shifts in its political economy, and the subjectivities that uphold or contest all these — by way of one peculiar room. The garage is the only portion of the modal American house, the authors claim, to blur interior and exterior spaces, productive and consumptive functions, masculine and feminine codes, as it does. Through a small space, then— an “aboveground underground” shrouded in darkness most of the day— the largest possible histories just might be on offer. Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela, both visual artists, seem to have ambitions for Garage as a popular book in the vein of other recent interventions on work and domesticity that have taken, for instance, the cubicle as modern rune (Ortega Govela is also an architect). The book has received some attention in high-profile venues. Nikil Saval, himself the author of Cubed (2014), treated it in The New Yorker, and MIT Press has kept the price low on a hardcover rich with color images.1 The authors have developed a documentary film to accompany the book, which began its life as an architecture thesis called “Hate Suburbia.” Throughout, they sustain an assertive tone that carries the taste of the polemic: the garage is a galvanic “space for fluid otherness” (11), they wager, but it is also, and inseparably, “a vessel for the current crises in masculinity” and “an icon of the American [End Page 112] delusion” (14). Various forms of “deconstruction,” decoupled from that term’s Derridean roots in linguistic theory and here used more generically to designate any rebuke to common sense, are proposed: of the individualist credo, of entrepreneur worship, of “the” suburbs (all of them?), of the postindustrial condition writ large (4). The stakes of this vernacular space, we sense, could not be higher.

The nine chapters, which are not numbered, address disparate historical moments, uses, reuses, and tensions. The garage, their through line, receives some close scrutiny as a physical space, with dimensions, materials, atmospheres, and affects all its own. Too often it recedes from view, functioning only as a symbol or vehicle for the authors’ larger theses on transformations in work, gender, and selfhood. The case studies are eclectic, the juxtapositions at times pleasingly counterintuitive (though never truly surprising given how aggressively the authors telegraph their dark argumentation from the outset). The first two substantive chapters trace the genesis of the attached garage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie house (1906) and dwell on the stakes and legacy of this early attempt to allot interior, quasi-domestic space to a machine as large and unruly as an automobile. The next pair of chapters turn to post– World War II Silicon Valley and critique the mythos that (still) surrounds technology companies, such as Apple and Hewlett– Packard, proud to have “started in a garage.” The authors cleverly discuss how such uses of the garage as a space of production effectively rezoned the home in unforeseen ways, and they parlay this fact into a broader, mostly convoluted set of claims on its standing as a “monument to the creation of new labor subjectivities”— eventually signed “neoliberal,” in epithet— and as a liminal space that prefaced the more general blurring of work and (masculine) play of which the contemporary “tech” office, festooned with snack bars and game tables, is only the dilation (72). This process they dub the “garageification of space.” An ensuing chapter considers several versions of the postwar garage as “deprogrammed” by a diverse range of users: husbands constructing modern growleries that would afford them, and only them, some refuge from the nuclear family; teenagers articulating resistant identities that might run afoul of the same; suburban garage bands performing in several genres; hoarders; and operators of garage sales (albeit without mentioning the growing literature in...