Road to Ruin

Vernacular Roadside Architecture as Artifact in Postmodern Culture

By Dusty Altena

Perched atop a pole in Strawberry Point, Iowa, population 1,279, rests a fifteen-foot fiberglass statue—“the world’s largest strawberry.” Thousands of miles west in Washington, a milk bottle houses a dairy stand. In South Dakota and California, herds of giant long-necked dinosaurs smile contentedly at passersby. Elsewhere, motels are shaped like tepees and lemonade stands are built into giant lemons; there are colossal cows and Paul Bunyons and Jolly Green Giants and a coffee hut inside of a tea kettle. All over America, these monstrosities dot the roadside, ruins of a primitive American advertising age that now seems hopelessly out of date, frozen in time. Variously derided by critics as garish, gaudy, tacky, or perhaps with slightly less vitriol, as retro kitsch, this vernacular architecture is nevertheless tremendously popular with American tourists. Indeed, these eccentric curiosities are the subject of dozens of television programs, websites, and guidebooks.

An uncomplicated narrative concerning American roadside architecture would posit that these strange structures are merely advertisements left over from a simpler time, built to attract motorists with dollars in their pockets in an era when the automobile was still new and Americans had a thirst for the road. Yet this does not account for the intrinsic allure that these attractions hold—both then and now. Vernacular roadside architecture has developed into a web of symbolic landmarks with roots much deeper than its advertising façade would suggest. These structures have become living artifacts—connecting modern day tourists to a romanticized past through postmodern conceptions of irony and simulacra. In a sense, vernacular roadside architecture has taken the place of natural ruins in an America with an imperialist past that has been forcibly forgotten and repressed. The gigantism of this architecture offers a revealing glimpse into man’s desire for security and sense of place in the vastness of America’s roadside landscape.

The style of vernacular roadside architecture began innocently enough. Barbara Rubin has traced its roots to the construction of the Midway at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where amusement was distinctly separated from civic buildings. By the 1900s Midway-style architecture had become increasingly commercialized. Then, when officials at the 1915 Exposition in San Francisco declared that Midway concessions be self-identifying—thus disallowing the use of billboards and signs—vendors were forced to begin advertising their products by using methods such as representational three-dimensional forms or by attaching façades to the front of their buildings. Rubin notes that the Midway at San Francisco consequently became a “zone of out of scale ‘signature architecture.’” In the ensuing decades this style of signature architecture was disseminated widely throughout America, naturally finding a home on the vast American roadside, which Fortune magazine dubbed a $3 billion industry in 1934.1

The American roadside, according to James Agee in Fortune that year, was “the greatest road the human race has ever built.” Its travelers, noted Agee, “casually [moved] in numbers and by distances which make the ancient and the grave migrations of the Celt and the Goth look like a smooth crossing on the Hoboken Ferry.” Agee described the American road as part of a living, sprawling organism, exclaiming that the “900,000 miles of hard-fleshed highway that this people has built. . . . is incomparably the most hugely extensive market the human race has ever set up to tease and tempt and take money from the human race.” The vastness of this roadside, however—its boundless and sweeping size—also has the uncanny ability to transform humans into insignificant specks of nothingness underneath the limitless sky above. As author Wright Morris once observed: “There is too much sky out there, for one thing, too much horizontal, too many lines without stops, so that the exclamation, the perpendicular had come. Anyone who was born and raised on the plains knows that the high false front on the Feed Store, and the white water tower, are not a question of vanity. It’s a problem of being. Of knowing you are there.”2

As Morris lamented, the reasoning for so many gigantic roadside attractions was mainly a problem of being. More than merely building business or product advertisements, the towns and townspeople that built these attractions did so in part because the vastness of America had left them invisible—swallowed up by the bigness of it all. David Lowenthal has argued that American pride “paved the way for a cult of bigness,” further explaining that “the dinosaur became emblematic. Americans soon boasted that they had the largest animals, the longest rivers, the highest mountains, the tallest trees. And they created gargantuan structures to match.” Quoting one visitor, Lowenthal noted that “the whole of American life is tempered by the threats of . . . overwhelming natural excesses. . . . In almost every state there are turbulences of scenery, grotesque formations or things of feverishly exaggerated size.” This applied to roadside architecture as well. To compete with the enormous open landscape of America’s roadside, as well as to grab the attention of speeding motorists, roadside architecture needed to be necessarily colossal. As Gertrude Stein explained, “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”3

The gigantism of roadside architecture, then, provided both townspeople and motorists with a sense of place. These structures, remarked Karal Marling, were “a stupendous place marker, a landmark setting this place on the prairie apart from all others. . . . Heroic scale calls attention to the inherently theatrical and dynamic character of the American dream of a frontier without limits of time or space. Great size comes to stand for America, and size per se becomes synonymous with American superiority.” For one business owner in Madison, Minnesota, “the problem we’ve got with attracting more tourists than we do is that when you look at a map, Madison doesn’t leap out at you. We don’t have any rivers in town or any mountains. . . . we want to slow some of these people down. We don’t think you can very well ignore a 25-foot codfish.”4

And so these monstrosities were built to turn the heads of tourists at thirty or forty miles an hour. As the relentless parade of time progressed, however, roadside structures concomitantly gained a life and experience of their own. In doing so, they became simultaneously America’s natural ruins and living artifacts—relics of the past that connect modern day motorists to the idea of a romanticized frontier. Yi-Fu Tuan writes that people cannot “simply live, savor, or endure each moment as it passes.” Artifacts, notes Tuan, “have the power to stabilize life. Transient feelings and thoughts gain permanence and objectivity in things.” Tuan explains that even though problems are left at home on vacation, “an important part of ourselves has also been left behind; we become specialized and unanchored beings, sightseers who sample life effortlessly.” Thus the roadside, the most transient of American spaces, offers feelings of permanence through its relics. Motorists are bestowed not only a sense of place, but a sense of time as well. Roadside architecture, with its gaudy colors and forms, offers the motorist a sense of the present, allowing him to see that he is no longer where he was. Marling points out that “The landmark is a frontier; and that frontier creates the fleeting and comforting illusion of a stable present, the illusion of now.”5

Moreover, the gigantism of roadside architecture provides a sense of security. As Marling has observed, the scale of these structures is the same as the relationship between a child and an adult. Thus, she opines, “the doorway they bid us enter is a time-tunnel back to our own past—not, perhaps, to the world of childhood, but to memories of the delights, security, and illusory bogeymen of a perfect childhood, recalled or imagined.” This architecture, then, becomes the matriarchal, motherly tour guide of life itself. The adult who seeks pleasure in the fantasy architecture of the road can do so through the romanticized notions of both a perfect childhood and an idealized era of the American past. Put more simply, the connection to the past in roadside architecture is more than just historical. This motherly relationship provides a sense of security amid the frightening uncertainties of the open road. 6

In addition to the security and stability they offer, the structures of roadside America also function through the lens of the postmodern experience. These structures have been transformed from a garish reminder of the early years of American mass culture to the living embodiment of postmodern architecture—revered with a wink and a nod for their campy, kitschy qualities. As the antithesis of high culture, kitsch has come to signify bad taste and blatant excess; it is, quite simply, a reaction to the highly serious hubris of modernism. Its “most damnable quality,” according to Marling, is “its popular origin and its hard-to-define but unquestionable appeal to mass culture. Steven Best and Douglas Heller note that kitsch is a recognizable part of postmodern architecture, which is part of the postindustrial culture of consumerism and aestheticization of everyday life. The postmodern architectural spectacle, according to Best and Heller, uses various combinations of humor, quotation, and irony to rebuke the self-serious rationality and utopian characteristics of modern architecture.7

In this way, vernacular roadside structures, by means of their very survival through time, have procured the characteristics of postmodern architecture; these roadside attractions have in effect been transformed into a postmodern simulacrum. Its modern visitors are not sold through the clever use of advertising or convenience, but rather through the ironic, humorous connection and allusion to romanticized notions of early-20th century America.

Jean Baudrillard has observed that “our entire linear and accumulative culture would collapse if we could not stockpile the past in plain view,” and the architecture of roadside America is stockpiled abundantly indeed. Roadside architecture has attained a paradoxical hyperreality through its campy construction. Because of their creations as tacky simulacra in the first place, these structures have ultimately, by simply surviving the toll of time, entered the realm of Baudrillard’s “hyperreal.” The hyperreal, Baudrillard believed, occurred when the “real” became artificially produced and was no longer directly represented. Or as Best and Hellner describe it, when “the real dies only to be reborn, artificially resurrected within a system of signs.” Though Baudrillard is mainly discussing the idea of an infinitely reproducible, serialized reality, I argue that the campy construction of relics such as “the world’s largest pheasant,” “Albert, the world’s largest bull,” “the giant walk-thru musky,” and “the world’s largest strawberry,” has produced a selfsame experience that is divorced from present reality but resurrected through notions of postmodern irony. In this way, these artifacts are able to transcend their original purpose and enter the world of hyperreality. In other words, rather than the straightforward representation of the objects they resemble, these simulacra have instead come to symbolize an ironic nod to the past. The sheer number of vernacular roadside structures has in effect assured their artificial resurrection within the sign system of postmodern irony.8

As the lens of travel has shifted toward a postmodern viewpoint, roadside architecture has taken on new meanings. Travelers no longer enjoy these relics for their original purposes of convenience or materialism, but to ironically relish their campy, kitschy existence—a winking nod to the garish style of an antiquated time. The monumental size of roadside architecture also offers both tourists and townspeople a sense of place in the vastness of the American landscape. Their massive size is scaled so as to allow adults to feel like children, allowing them to imagine a perfect childhood whilst being protected with a motherly grasp from the landscape’s boundless uncertainties.

And perhaps most importantly, roadside architecture reifies a linear timeline in the transient space of the roadside. By existing ambiguously in both time and place—in other words, with a locus that is simultaneously between physical destinations as well as between the past and the future, the roadside relic is able to offer a sense of the present. As Karal Marling explains, “regardless of its particular purpose, the colossus is always a place in itself—a stopping place in time, where the everyday rules of reality are suspended and an idyllic dream commences. Grotesque scale demands a pause.”9

As waypoints of the roadside, these living ruins—with their gaudy tawdriness—calmly direct motorists through a boundless, uncertain landscape, offering them a sense of space and time, despite possessing neither.


  1. Barbara Rubin, “Aesthetic Ideology and Urban Design,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69, no. 3 (1979): 351-53; James Agee, “The Great American Roadside,” Fortune, September, 1934, 53.
  2. Ibid.; Morris quoted in Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 109.
  3. David Lowenthal, “The American Scene,” Geographical Review 58, no. 1 (January 1968): 18-19, 22; Gertrude Stein, The Geographical History of America (New York: John Hopkins University Press, 1936), 17-18.
  4. Karal Ann Marling, The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 24, 55.
  5. Yi-Fu Tuan, “The Significance of the Artifact,” Geographic Review 70, Issue 4 (October 1980): 463; ———, Space and Place, 146; Marling, Colossus of Roads, 74.
  6. Ibid., 101.
  7. Ibid., 102; Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford Press, 1997), 156.
  8. Baudrillard quoted in Ada Louise Huxtable, The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion (New York: The New York Press, 1997), 27; Best and Kellner, Postmodern Turn, 102.
  9. Marling, Colossus of Roads, 101.