04 January 2006

- Road of Escape -

While on our trip, we obviously visited a number of rest areas. I took an interest in the architecture.

Here we have a relatively typical example of the genre. Note the alcove, which bisects the building into two blocks—his side and hers. Sexual difference is inscribed architecturally, representing the cultural power of the difference. Whatever the difference inside the walls of the blocks, however, the external distinction is merely formal: the blocks are equal size. The jutting roof over the entrance joins the two blocks, giving the otherwise utilitarian building a sense of architectural distinction. This distinctiveness is supported literally by the two block buildings, but also figuratively in the sense that distinctiveness appears founded on the difference between the sexes.

Most rest areas include "picnic areas." Though seldom used, their symbolic importance is not to be under- estimated: they help define the space of the rest area as a refuge from the road. The simple, rustic quality of most of picnic shelters reinforces our sense of the road as a means of escape from urban life.

The appearance of multiple architect- urally identical shelters reveals this experience of escape as merely apparent. Not only is our experience of escape shared, it reproduces our place in society. The number of shelters are a sublated sign of the traffic to which we contribute even as we would escape it. The rest area demonstrates that the road of escape offers no escape.

Often set at some distance from the highway, the rustic quality of many shelters evokes the feel of the campground, the commodified space of nature. The vehicles in the background and constant hum of freeway traffic nevertheless undermine the illusion: this refuge is apparent, at best momentary.

With the forest-like setting, this represent- ation of nature seems somewhat more complete. The social regulation of nature here is never- theless enforced by the large block at the front of the shelter—it conceals a trashcan. Even as it seeks to hide its function as a collection point for unwanted signs of social presence, this block dominates the setting. Whereas the shelter itself appears slight, somewhat vulnerable to the forces of nature, this receptacle for social debris is solid, immovable. The social imperative to the individual not to litter the landscape so as to preserve an image of nature not identical to the culture that produced it appears by littering the area with this representation of social force. None of this is to condone littering, of course, but merely to note that the order not to litter is socially produced, that is, part of an ideology that constructs a certain kind of individual.

This is a different sort of design. Modest and suburban, it gives the impression of simple comfort. It recedes comfortably into the landscape, inviting us in, rather than thrusting forward as if to dominate us. While still present, symmetry is not articulated here. If a division of the sexes persists, it is no longer reified in architectural form: the division is housed, its terms negotiated under one roof.

A new fixture of the rest area and one that necessarily reveals its urban character. There is no attempt to disguise the presence of the bars through artistic ironwork or other architectual detailing. The bars simply are, nakedly emphasizing functionality. Their regularity is broken only by places to insert money to feed the the machines, delivering the ideological message that commerce must be protected even at the cost marring the otherwise pastoral image of the rest area.

The bars here have been painted, apparently in an attempt to soften their appearance. At the same time, the grates are completely regular, giving the odd impression of commerce being contained, even jailed. Whereas the previous example seemed to protect commerce from us, this one reverses that appearance: The cage now seems to protect us from commerce. I imagine that the bars—in either form—will not long persist. For their presence denaturalizes capital: this setting does not permit commerce to appear natural.

This is the quint- essential rustic look—a sort of country lodge. As noted above, the deep recess of the alcove is an architectural articulation of the divsion of the sexes. The force of the architecture here, however, is not the representation of power but its naturalization.

This is a detail of the water fountain, which stands out strikingly against the rustic building. As can be seen here its shadow leaves the sign of the cross. Perhaps this shadow is a simple contingency of the design, but its three-tiered design might be read as evoking the trinity. If this religious reading seems somewhat strained, the fountain certainly offers an architecturally prominent sign of refreshment and renewel, which entices us to accept the ideological terms of its nourishment.

Evocative of Frank Lloyd Wright, this design does not present the rest area as natural refuge; but neither does it give into pure functionality. It both sits placidly within the space and stands out monolithically against it, defining a space that is not that of the road without offering the illusion of natural escape. Yet its poignant loneliness, the image of reconcilliation it offers, remains an image, the sign of an unfulfilled promise in an generous interpretation, hopeless nostalgia for a lost age of rugged individualism on the other.