- American Autopia: An Intellectual History of the American Roadside at Midcentury by Gabrielle Esperdy
The number of registered automobiles in the United States grew from 200,000 in 1908 to 52 million by 1955 (15, 123). By the middle of the twentieth century, the automobile had become fully enmeshed into the American cultural landscape. An era of individual mobility amplified the nation's infatuation with feelings of freedom and comfort as settlement patterns across the country responded to its immense reach. Residential and commercial development followed the new roads as cities stretched into long horizontal bands, establishing what Jean Gottman calls a "new order in the organization of inhabited space" (121). From the outset, scholars and critics grappled with the consequences of and imagined the possibilities for a fully mobile American society. Architectural historian Gabrielle Esperdy surveys this midcentury discourse on the automobilized cultural landscape in American Autopia, part of the University of Virginia Press's Midcentury: Architecture, Landscape, Urbanism, and Design series. Stitching together an interdisciplinary lineage of theory, criticism, and history, she finds fertile ground within the midcentury roadside.
The portmanteau of automobile and utopia—autopia—was first coined in the 1920s. Esperdy emphasizes a distinction [End Page 138] between lowercase autopia, the quotidian condition of architecture and urbanism affected by the automobile, and uppercase Autopia, the one-off indulgent idiosyncrasies and idealizations based on automobile culture. In the introduction, she delineates the canonical approaches of Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Learning from Las Vegas as capital-A Autopian works and argues that they have "largely overshadowed" the contemporaneous (and perhaps more significant) work of many others (11). Esperdy focuses instead on the larger discourse of the lowercase autopia and its new and uniquely American cultural landscape. A tension between autopia and Autopia occurs throughout the book; mostly an extension from the inherent privileging of the texts which drove the discourse above commonplace roadside fabric. Esperdy puts into conversation a range of scholars, writers, and professionals whose work engaged the landscape of the automobile, many of whom are little known beyond their disciplines. In American Autopia she traces the history of autopia across three chapters loosely organized around its central elements—automobilerelated buildings, the highway, and the roadside. These are followed by two chapters that reflect the pre- and post-1973 oil crisis discourse.
In the first chapter, "The Car and What Came of It," Esperdy briskly recounts the origins of the car and its early footprint in the first and second decades of the twentieth century. The year 1907 brought the first highways and gas stations; however the nascent culture of automobilism remained the domain of the affluent alone. She introduces the initial auto-related building typologies—gas stations, drive-in markets, parking garages, commercial strips, auto camps—and handles each with an example or two, maintaining a focus on typological discussions rather than built iterations. This remove promotes the broader cultural and aesthetic conversations which interpreted the changing landscape. Esperdy features the writing and editing of Knud Lonberg-Holm in Architectural Forum, which often promoted the integration of the automobile into architecture. His dedication to economy and functionality connected a modernist design philosophy to the speculative commercial architecture of the period. In this approach, Lonberg-Holm recognized the future of the roadside architecture. Esperdy interweaves a series of contemporaries, such as Clarence Stein, Catherine Bauer, and Frank Lloyd Wright, who also contended with the growing demands of the automobile.
In chapter 2, "Roadside Metropolis," American Autopia becomes mobile as the focus shifts to the expansive dimensionality of the highway. Paved roads proliferated from coast to coast as car ownership grew exponentially. Distant places were newly within reach. In the eyes of many observers, the unspoiled countryside grew pockmarks of commercial exploitation as entrepreneurs catered to the mobile population. Closer to town, middleclass families migrated beyond the streetcar, making...