Americans on the Road: Research seminar and exhibition

ARCH 279: "Americans on the Road 1950-1980"
3 units
Instructor: Margaret Crawford

During the period from 1950 to 1980, new highway programs, the spread of automobile ownership, economic growth, and more people on the move produced a uniquely American roadside landscape. Roadside strips appeared, lined with monumental signs and billboards, with buildings and parking lots designed to capture automobile traffic. Cultural commentators from Lewis Mumford to first lady Ladybird Johnson were appalled by these chaotic landscapes, an attitude summed up by Peter Blake’s 1964 diatribe, God’s Own Junkyard. Well-known geographers analyzed “Visual Blight in America.” With a few exceptions such as the work of J.B. Jackson, such negative readings dominated until the 1972 appearance of Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour. They argued for a newly positive and analytical perspective on mobility and the commercial vernacular. Replaced by limited-access Interstates, these roadside landscapes are now objects for retrospective nostalgia.

This research seminar will explore the cultural, social, and spatial contexts and significance of these landscapes, focused around a series of documentary photographs of roads and roadside scenes taken by J.B. Jackson, David Lowenthal, Richard Longstreth and Chester Liebs from 1950 to 1970 and recently exhibited in in an exhibition in Montpellier, France.

After several introductory classes surveying the genealogy of the topic, ranging from Jackson, Blake and Venturi, Scott-Brown and Izenour to Vladimir Nabokov, students will select their own related research topic. Possible topics include novelistic and filmic representations, ‘New Topographic’ photography, mobility, tourism, architecture, etc. The information and interpretations students produce will become supplementary material for an exhibition based on the collection of photographs, to open in Spring, 2018.

This course qualifies as an elective for the Graduate Certificate in Global Urban Humanities.