Shane Reiner-Roth is a writer and co-founder of Tall Work (Instrumental Plausibility). Through publications, exhibitions and speculative projects, his work examines the means by which certain objects appeal to an economy of expression by communicating higher values than their own on the cheap. He is currently a research fellow at the MIT department of architecture.

R P, RE OP, RES TOP, REST STOP

R P, RE OP, RES TOP, REST STOP

Zoning out is common on an American road trip. On the ones between the palm trees and the blizzards, these moments significantly outnumber those committable to memory.

“Thanks to the Interstate Highway System,” Charles Kuralt declared after the last portion of the I-40 was laid down in 1956, “it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.”[1] Many hold the same opinion that under the web of highways, America is no longer majestic; it is now vast.

Of course, this would be true if not for the many small businesses that try their best to falsify this claim. Roadside attractions of various scales and levels of absurdity lurk just outside the interstate’s right of way, all in an effort to relieve travelers of their boredom with a new type of majesty: The World’s Tallest Thermometer, Foamhenge, Enchanted Highway, Hole n’ The Rock, and, the most mysterious and self-aggrandizing of all, The Thing. Each one has its own unique qualities, but they nearly all draw attention to themselves in the same way: on oversized billboards, plastered along the highways for miles in each direction. They demonstrate what Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown stated as clear fact: “On the highway, the symbol is more important than the building.”[2]

But there is one speculative project, virtually swept under history’s rug, which took this pop truism to new heights of grandeur and subversion. Proposed for a stretch of I-80, SITE’s 1974 project, “REST STOP, would have been both a symbol of a roadside feature and a main attraction in itself, unsettling the typical American relationship between sign and building. James Wines’ description of the proposal is worth quoting here in full:

“Developed as part of a Bicentennial Project sponsored by the State of Nebraska, the proposal by SITE was intended to be perceived by the motorist at high speed. The stenciled words REST STOP were to be painted on the roadway as though metamorphosized from the dotted roadway divider lines. Beginning several miles before the actual rest area, the letters would grow in definition until the words REST STOP were completely formed (about one mile before the site). Upon reaching the grass gore area, the letters would become three dimensional―beginning with the letter R and continuing in both two- and three- dimensional form. At the center of the gore the concrete letters would begin to drop away until they disappeared at the opposite end of the land surface. The stenciled highway letters would reverse as well and return into the dotted paving divider. These reversed letters could then be red through the rear view mirror by the passing motorist.”[3]

For a project so deceptively simple in images, REST STOP belongs in a field of its own. It is an elegant response to a handful of parallel advancements of the twentieth century, including those in interstate infrastructure, consumerism, and automobile culture. Its unusual nature and relative obscurity demands a renewed, speculative appraisal; what would be REST STOP’s impact on the American landscape had it been completed?.

First, the obvious should be stated: no site is more appropriate than an open stretch of Nebraska for a project this self-involved. The multitudinous advertisement is plainly more suited to a plot of the Cornhusker State than the flashing lights and sounds of Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip. Because its unique brand of spectacle is defiantly non-electronic, it likely could not garnish attention when set amongst its more conspicuous alternatives. Nebraska has famously few towns, roadside attractions, or significant landscape features along I-80, allowing REST STOP to speak to its itinerant audience without competition.

And, because its intended effect is only legible by the steady highway speed of a moving vehicle (and would otherwise appear as absolute gibberish to the pedestrian or the Oregon Trail pioneer), it is a project that challenges, yet is intimately related to, the conventions of automobile culture. Like so many other highway advertisements, its presence is too enveloping to ignore. Yet it is also not for the passive spectator. Its precise message can only be observed by a motorist more observant than the typical, zoned-out American traveler.

Or, more accurately, it has to be activated by an observer with an unshakable control over his or her steering wheel, accelerator, and capacity for engagement―all at once and never flinching. If dedicated, this observer would synchronize the faint whooshing sound of each frame with the cyclical hum of their car engine, and, after a few miles, the whisper of their own breath. While cruise control might make paying attention easier, the minute variations in depth between frames, implemented either by incidents in the topography or by design, would be irrevocably lost. The proper method of driving through REST STOP would require one’s foot to tap between the gas and brake pedals with the fluency of morse code.

Whether or not I-80 travelers wish to participate in REST STOP, they are within its visual scope for nearly ten minutes. Like a mirage in the plains or a consumerist apparition, REST STOP could have been a roadside attraction (maybe the first roadside challenge) more captivating than the country’s largest toilet and George Washington’s preserved footsteps put together. Its singularity and difficulty of approach would have allowed it to perform a quiet magic for its viewer, yet its role as an activating spectacle runs the risk of being so engrossing as to undermine its original role as an advertisement for a secondary object: the rest stop.

REST STOP’s rest stop is nowhere to be found in the images or text provided by SITE. It is likely not worthy of documentation, and bears little distinction when placed aside any other rest stop in America. The symbol is not only more important than the building; it is more important than its own message.

The work goes beyond the standard of contemporary American architecture that Venturi and Scott Brown once [1] identified. As mentioned earlier, REST STOP does not compete against other elements of the built environment, as other scenographic architectures have before it, but rather against the expanded field of the Nebraskan plains. A more accurate antecedent is found in Robert Smithson’s proposal for the Dallas Fort Worth Airport in 1966. Eight years prior to the development of REST STOP, Smithson began to develop DFW into what he described as “aerial art,” a set of sculptures in the clear zones surrounding the runways that were not intended to be observed on the ground, but rather by pilots ascending from and descending into the terminal. They were to be made of many materials only comprehensible as a sequence from high above and at a very fast pace, with compositions as large as, according to the artist, “about the length of Central Park.”[4] Like Smithson’s DFW, REST STOP is a response and a challenge to the modes of visuality that modern technologies of mobilization engender. It is an infrastructural missive to the bigness of America and its consequential excess, for the monumentality of its presence against the relative insignificance of its message.

REST STOP does not make an idle fool of its close observers. Though its exact message  is not nearly as accessible as those of neon billboards or rotating spotlights, the effort required to activate it could challenge drivers to fall out of their stupors and pay attention to something much greater than their next destination. Next to making it across the country in one piece, deciphering REST STOP would have been one of the American traveler’s greatest achievement[2] s.

 

 

 

[1] Charles Kuralt, On the Road (Douglas Edwards with the News, 1956).

[2] Venturi and Scott Brown, Signs of Life (Washington: Aperture Press, 1976), 8.

[3] James Wines, SITE: Architecture as Art (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), 25.

[4]  Robert Smithson, Aerial Art (California: University of California Press, 1996), 92.

You Don’t Need a Door on a Formica Kitchen:  Richard Artschwager and the Celebration of Imitation

You Don’t Need a Door on a Formica Kitchen: Richard Artschwager and the Celebration of Imitation

The Great Imposter: Mythologizing Clean Labor, Practical Ethics, and Adorable Authenticity

The Great Imposter: Mythologizing Clean Labor, Practical Ethics, and Adorable Authenticity