This week, we’re taking an art road trip across the United States via these three films about odd structures, malls and a small town that became an architectural mecca.
A restaurant made out of a hot dog, a humongous ketchup bottle set atop sky-rising legs, a Mother Goose house: these unusual buildings are all fodder for this film surveying “goofy” roadside architecture.
Usually built alongside highways, the structures have, over the years, remained a fixture of a certain exaggerated Americana. Some of the buildings captured in the documentary allow visitors to enter into the belly of the beast (or the fish), while others maintain their quirkiness in a more decorative fashion (a giant donut placed on a roof like a hat, for example).
“I think the mainstream architects think of this as the architectural equivalent of junk food,” a man says in front of one of the featured oddities. “But as far as I’m concerned, it’s still tasty nonetheless.”
The film begins its journey in Pennsylvania with the Haines Shoe House. Built from wood, mesh and stucco in 1948, the structure began as an advertising gimmick and is a functional living space. Visitors can still tour the shoe to see, as the site says, what it’s “really all a-boot.”
Stopping in Wisconsin and Los Angeles along the way, the trip ends at the Big Duck in Long Island, New York. After entering through the duck’s breast, you’ll find a museum and a gift shop. Built in 1931, the duck has moved over the years and has changed purposes from time to time (at one point it sold eggs), but one thing has remained the same: the whimsy.
“The duck really represents Americana at its best and most whimsical,” says Babs Bixby, who identifies herself as the “Duck Lady” and curator of the Big Duck in the film. “And people love whimsy.”
Continuing our roadside odyssey, next let’s consider the shopping mall and, in particular, its distinct uniformity across the American landscape. Though a dying breed, the expanses feature signature markers, leaving their beige and gray footprint on towns and culture without much deviation.
This short film looks into why.
Tracing the story back to the 19th century when department stores like Bloomingdale’s and John Wanamaker’s “The Grand Depot” first opened, the investigation takes a turn in 1956 with Victor Gruen, who came to set the archetype for the buildings as we now know them.
Columbus, Indiana, is the final stop on our art journey. Located an hour south of Indianapolis, the small town is teeming with architectural surprises dispersed across the quiet municipality. Here, you’ll find the work of acclaimed modern architects Eero Saarinen, IM Pei and Gunnar Birkerts, among others.
Saarinen was commissioned by J. Irwin and Xenia Miller to design their home in 1953 (landscape architect Dan Kiley created the gardens). The structure is a centerpiece in the town’s architectural tour and is also where the film begins its survey of how Columbus came to be the mecca it is today.
If you enjoy learning about town, we also recommend the film “Columbus,” directed by Kogonada and starring John Cho, Parker Posey and Haley Lu Richardson.
Top Image: Big Duck, located in Flanders, New York.