HOW AMERICA’S OPEN ROAD HAS BECOME THE FRONTLINE FOR INDIVIDUALISM

“America is a giant hologram”, wrote French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, in his 1986 book America. “Take the tiniest little place in the desert, any old street in a Mid-West town, a parking lot, a Californian house, a BurgerKing [sic] or a Studebaker, and you have the whole of the US – South, North, East, or West. Holographic also in that it has the coherent light of the laser, the homogeneity of the single elements scanned by the same beams.”

In 1986, Starbucks operated just six stores in their hometown of Seattle. How that homogeneity has marched forward: today, Baudrillard’s hologram is frighteningly sharp, and a metaphor capable of accurately describing a world way beyond the United States. Earphones in and WiFi-connected, people choose automated interfaces over human interaction… Have we become the hologram?

Replicated like for like, city after city, cookie-cutter franchises now dominate America’s expansive roads of urban sprawl – where ‘mom-and-pop’ establishments once thrived, chains indistinguishable from continent to continent now run rife. Few enduring symbols of the American Dream at their most buoyant can epitomise the analogy of changing times like the family-owned roadside motel: as their garish neon lights fizzle out, another interchangeable brand with loyalty points and a smartphone booking system moves in on their turf.

Jeff Brouws, Franchised Landscape 8, Tennessee 1997
Jeff Brouws, Franchised Landscape 8, Tennessee 1997

The debasement of the American dream is a constant source of inspiration for artists, and the world witnesses motels’ stock in popular culture rise as steadily as their fortunes fade. The two are as desperately intertwined as Bonnie and Clyde, their reputations just as unsavoury as their cinematic counterparts. Still, in the sense of seediness that travels hand in hand with the mid-century motel, there is an insatiable romance. A romance that artists, musicians and filmmakers find impossible to resist. After all, the unpalatable is a perfect rebuttal to homogenisation.

Jeff Brouws, Motel, Fresno, California 1993
Jeff Brouws, Motel, Fresno, California

“Many of the motels I’ve chosen to photograph – older building stock representing the remnants of 1950s two-lane road culture – have seen better days”, says artist Jeff Brouws, explaining his fixation with photographing abandoned motels and strip malls. “Instead of being overnight housing for a vacationing family as they once were, they are now sites of prostitution, drug dealing or temporary shelter for society’s marginalised: the near-homeless, single mothers with children on government aid, or disabled veterans who are underemployed.”

“This scenario is far from the road trip ideal depicted in those happy road movies from the 1950s and ‘60s. These images, made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, don’t reflect the optimism of that prior era, but rather speak more about the failure of expectations, and the slow demise of the American dream – where something has gone awry.”

Steeped in the loneliness of Edward Hopper’s anonymous night crawlers, the haunting solemnness of Springsteen’s Nebraska and cinema’s conduit for illicit activities and criminal collusion, the allure and mystique that pop culture has bestowed upon the roadside motel has created an irreversible bond. As the culturally savvy among us seek to erode the giant hologram, homogenisation becomes a byword for all that is wrong with today’s hyperconnected society, and the romance we hold close for the damaged grows. For damage consists of imperfection, and in imperfection there is a beauty that the precision of laser cannot render.

Jeff Brouws, I-40 Business Loop, Tucumcari, New Mexico, 1993
Jeff Brouws, I-40 Business Loop, Tucumcari, New Mexico, 1993

Let’s try something: use your preferred music streaming platform to dig out Bruce Springsteen’s claustrophobic 1982 homage to Alan Vega and Martin Rev’s Suicide, State Trooper; next, gaze deep into Brouws’ 1993 photograph, I-40 Business Loop, Tucumcari, New Mexico. See the disquieting shadows, the lone telephone, the emptiness and the paranoia felt by Springsteen’s protagonist, and imagine fugitives, from the likeable Thelma and Louise to Tarantino’s loathsome Natural Born Killers, holed up on the edges of society… Now tell me you don’t feel anything.

Here we are, though, in 2017. Another chain. Another robotic drill. In Andrew Wood’s 2009 book City Ubiquitous: Place, Communication, and the Rise of Omnitopia, he redefines Baudrillard’s hologram for the contemporary age: “my internet tendrils connect me to distant beds, secured with credit and opened through key combinations when the lobbies have closed”, writes the communications and culture professor of an experimental road trip, in which he challenged himself to cross America without speaking to a solitary soul.

“Upscale hotels have begun to employ the same kiosk technology to provide plastic keys that open multi-hundred dollar doors to a night’s rest. But all manner of hotels have begun to acknowledge that folks don’t want conversation after a day on the highway; they want cable TV and wireless internet access. I awaken to Cable News Network and USA Today. One day I am in Omaha, the other I am in Cheyenne; another, I am in Salt Lake City, but I am never really there.” So in the age of homogenisation, is anyone ever truly there?

Austin Motel
Austin Motel

The ground between hyperconnected disconnection and a romance for its opposing imperfections is the ground upon which acute entrepreneurs should be looking to operate. Broken the American Dream may be, but alive and well is the romance that flows freely through its cracks.

It’s that observance of blemished authenticity that has turned Liz Lambert into one of the world’s most celebrated hoteliers. Leaving a job as a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 1994, Lambert returned to her native roots in Texas and became the creative force behind her hospitality company, Bunkhouse Group. When hanging out at the Continental Club on South Congress Avenue with her friend, she would fantasise about the rundown 1930s hotel across the street. Then, despite buying the hotel with a view to renovate it one room at a time, its unsavoury comers-and-goers made for a less idealistic reality: Lambert ran the San José in its existing state for some years while she worked on the funding needed to transform it in one go.

Hotel San José
Hotel San José

A dicey neighbourhood on the brink of change when it reopened in 1998, Austin’s Hotel San José is a blueprint for gentrification done good – Lambert’s eye-opening experiences during the renovation process shaped a community-minded attitude that runs prominently through her projects that have followed. Hotel Saint Cecilia and Austin Motel, joining Hotel San José in Texas’s hippest city, along with Hotel Havana in San Antonio and El Cosmico in Marfa are next in her portfolio, with each of them sharing a common denominator: whether expressed through design and perspective or quintessence and culture, each embodies the individualistic spirit that the hologram has wiped.

The Austin Motel has its landmark signage that dates back to 1938, and its 65 years of continuous operation that has built a relationship with its local community; hippy-inflected El Cosmico prides itself on simplicity and nomadic, back-to-the-land modus operandi; and Saint Cecilia has its rock and roll principles and nods to counterculture icons like William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson. In their honest connection to authenticity before ‘authenticity’ became a buzzword, Bunkhouse Group’s properties revel in their refusal to adhere to homogenisation. They are free-spirited and capable of evoking emotion, just like Brouws and Springsteen, and they have spearheaded a wave of motel revivals that are challenging the conformity of ‘omnitopia’.

Native, Malibu
Native, Malibu

Set amid the lush greenery that backdrops the Pacific Coast Highway, the infamous Malibu Riviera welcomed hallowed names that have shaped the very definition of Americana: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Bob Dylan; the latter having penned his 1975 classic, Blood on the Tracks, there. Owned by the same family since 1947, its mid-century gloss had worn, and was sold for some millions in 2015. A couple of short years later and Native is an icon reborn.

With its overhaul overseen by LA-based creative agency Folklor, the old Malibu Riviera is now the peak of Los Angeles cool – it is all hammocks and exposed white wood beams, Dutch doors and statement design pieces. The character remains in abundance, but Native is a place for dreamers who don’t want to be rudely awoken. This is decadent style in place of decadent behaviour, a drop-dead update that shows a different balance can be struck between embracing the romance of the road and ensuring pampered style junkies needn’t rub shoulders with real junkies.

Brentwood Hotel
Brentwood Hotel

From Marfa’s Thunderbird, where work from emerging contemporary artists adorn the walls and design pieces punctuate the austere simplicity of the rooms, to the leafy charm of former New York State motor lodge, Brentwood, which resides on the grounds of the storied Saratoga Race Course (the track where racing icon Seabiscuit was discovered), passionately individual reinterpretations of roadside stopovers are being taken to new heights: the all-pervasive rise of cookie-cutter homogeneity fuelling a desire to be different. As uniformed franchises strip the atypical personalities of urban neighbourhoods, the great open road is slowly being reborn as a place where individuality reigns.

Brentwood’s owner-designers, Brooklyn’s Studio Tack (the creative talents behind the aesthetic of Barcelona’s lauded Casa Bonay), are somewhat of a go-to for hoteliers transforming the fortunes of old motels. California’s The Sandman; Scribner’s Catskill Lodge in Upstate New York; Delaware’s Dogfish Inn; the Coachman Hotel in South Lake Tahoe; Jackson, Wyoming and its exquisite ‘Alpine Modern’ Anvil Hotel; and Sound View in Greenport, Suffolk County, New York. These roadside layovers turned destination hotels (the former motels abandoned by the march of urbanisation and budget air travel), are now gracing the pages of glossy design magazines.

The Sandman
The Sandman

From destitute to design awards, America’s vast highways offer super-sized family meals for hungry imaginations. And they are a place for idiosyncrasies to breed. Palm Springs’ 1957 Orbit In; The Safari Inn in Burbank, Los Angeles (a kitsch backdrop to movies like True Romance and Apollo 13); Kate’s Lazy Meadow and Kate’s Lazy Desert, retro hideaways created by Kate Pierson of the B-52’s and her partner, Monica Coleman… The singular appeal of motels in 2017 does not begin and end with design-led updates – for this renaissance is as much about rediscovering the beauty of imperfection as it is about achieving it.

America might be a hologram, and ‘mom-and-pop’ establishments might be struggling where they once thrived, but there is a flicker of neon light on the open road. Trends come and go, but if we can relocate the individualism within, the laser-sharp beams that make up that hologram can be blunted.

Dare to dream.

Anvil Hotel lobby
Anvil Hotel lobby – photo by Read McKendree
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James Davidson
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.