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Mimetic Architecture, Our Roadside Buddies

Posted on 29 March 2016

Mimetic architecture is the (largely lost) American craft of irritating stuffy aesthetes and enraging architects by making a building resemble an object or creature. Always designed with form rather than function in mind, these (usually homegrown) architects were making tacky, barely habitable buildings 40 years before Frank Gehry was even born. The purpose of mimetic buildings was to get a passing rube's attention. The heyday for these novelty buildings was the 1920s through the 1950s, after the advent of the automobile, but before the modern interstate system.

The brother of the tourist trap, restaurants often inhabited mimetic novelty buildings with the hopes that a building in the shape of a bird or a burger would persuade folks to come in. It was an ideal form of advertisement when cars traveled relatively slowly along highways and fast food was but a glimmer in Colonel Sanders' eye. Often if the establishment was a coffee shop, the building was shaped like a coffee pot. If it was a fried chicken restaurant it was shaped like, well, a chicken. 

By the 1950s, mimetic architecture was dying out. Most Americans fancied themselves as being more tasteful, which was one thing the aging hat or shoe shaped buildings had against them. The interstate highway system was also a harbinger of doom for the novelty building. Billboards were largely eliminated and exits were infested with chain fast food restaurants. 

Most of our finest examples of mimetic architecture have been lost, but there are a few examples left, usually no longer supporting the business they were intended for. Portland's most significant novelty building left is The Sandy Jug, now known as The Pirates Cove "Gentlemans" Club (be careful with those Google searches, kids). Most cities of descent size still have at least a few examples.

Normally I am a bit snooty about architecture, particularly when its a poorly executed building designed by someone claiming to be a pro, but there is something of the best part of our country in mimetic buildings. It's like if your grandpa who built his house with his bare hands had decided to build a gas station shaped like a duck instead. Perhaps it is the clear-eyed earnestness, which has become so rare, that I appreciate about these odd structures. 

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