Beyond Buildings


Rest Stops Make Us American

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Minnesota rest stop. Courtesy: Panoramio


By the time this blog post is up, the rest stops in Minnesota will probably be open. Thank heavens. Not only will the truckers have someplace to pee, but so will the patriots and the perverts. Those are the three people groups we associate with such conveniences: the stops are places where truckers converge not only to relieve themselves, but also to rest and perhaps socialize. It is where families stop not only to take care of business, but also to learn about the state through which they are traveling. And it is where people with certain needs and desires that they feel they cannot meet at home or in a more traditional setting go to find sex.


As a piece of architecture, rest stops, which many of us will be visiting for many reasons during this summer season, are something between infrastructure, civic representation, and (inadvertent) stage set. They are a necessary part of the interstate highway network that tied this country together starting under the Eisenhower administration, although there does not seem to be a uniform standard for them I could find, in the manner that there is for minimum height of bridges or curves of exit ramps. As spaces, they are generally completely cut off from their surroundings, appearing as bulges in the canal of asphalt, median, signs and other paraphernalia that make up interstate highways. That makes them into strange mixtures of a landscape that is part of the surroundings, and an area shaped by the curves of the on- and off-ramps, the parking areas, and other utilitarian concerns.


Functionally, rest areas go from the grand to the grotty: they can be fully equipped service areas with restaurants and even hotels, a veritable Edge City node without any influence on the neighborhood; they can be fueling areas as well as rest areas, or they can be just places for toilets. The rest area strictly speaking is the latter: a place to rest, with a toilet facility, vending machines, and information such as maps or a way to reach the highway police.


Virginia rest stops. Courtesy: Richmond Times-Dispatch


When I first arrived in this country after growing up in Europe, I marveled not so much at the rest areas, as the type is much more sophisticated in Europe, as at the manner in which many of the structures, especially in New England, tried to discipline their utilitarian functions with brick, white-painted wood trim, gabled roofs and even vestigial turrets. They were a cross between George Washington’s home and a church of convenience. The anonymous designers working for the highway departments of Connecticut or New Jersey had tried to make them into calling cards for what they felt was the historic character of the state, spreading Neo-Colonial architecture along with the ribbons of transportation as the lingua franca of the American state.


Few states, notably ones in the West, such as Colorado and California, have experimented with modern architecture for their rest areas. Minnesota, from what I can see in news reports and what I remember from visits, is firmly in the Neo-Colonial camp. What that style has to do with the vernacular or the geography of that great state, I have no idea, but it confirms that rest areas, no matter what use we make of them, or where they are, aim to be part of something we share and believe should be provided to us. This summer, we should remember that such humble structures also make us Americans.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.