Garage is a book not worthy of the garage

Scattershot

Garage is a book not worthy of the garage

Garage collage (Courtesy Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela)

The garage is one of the most fascinating and misunderstood spaces of the American home. Unfortunately, it is ill-served by the pretentious and scattershot Garage, a combination of loosely organized essays and vague art projects put together by Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela.

It doesn’t help that the duo has a fondness for using trendy concepts and terms to project their own narratives on the garage rather than actually analyzing the complex history of the typology, or that they declare on the first page of the book that they have discovered a “conspiracy.” What that plot actually intends to accomplish or who its perpetrators are is not completely clear, but they link Frank Lloyd Wright, Steve Jobs, and many others in an effort to affirm the nuclear family in its exclusive, racist, sexist, and classist ways, while using financial and regulatory methods to exclude the car, the very emblem of American technological achievement and freedom, from the bosom of the home.

This is a shame because the authors are perceptive and have a deft way with small revelations that apparently neither they nor the editors at the otherwise rigorous MIT Press sought to connect or discipline. They start with a beautiful description of what is so important and so confounding about the suburban home’s garage:

Unlike the bedroom or kitchen–which sheltered static pieces of furniture like the emotionally charged monogamous double bed or the enslaving oven—the car was never truly at home in the garage. Once the machine was taken outside, onto the street, the garage was cleansed of its original purpose, leaving an emptiness behind that was waiting to be occupied. Physically it is the only room in the household that reaches out onto the street, a threshold between the heteronormative space of reproduction and the productive spaces of the city, a semi-domestic chamber away from the emotional pressures of the private familial realm and the social demands of professionalism.

That void, they go on to show, was first filled with the large surplus of stuff the suburban home produced (although the source and character of that surplus is one of the many avenues left unexplored in this slender volume), and then with teens and non-conforming adults seeking to escape the restrictions they found in the house. Finally, they were workspaces for musicians, who started garage bands in them, a very few of which were their vehicles to stardom, and entrepreneurs, ranging from Walt Disney to Hewlett and Packard, who used the empty space to start their companies.

While there are a host of ways to find significance in the garage, Govela and Erlanger keep coming back to this one: “Ultimately Garage is not a book about garages but about the power of constructing a space for fluid otherness.” Unfortunately, they do not really explain what that means, other than finding idiosyncratic moments in popular culture, such as the way the figure played by Kevin Spacey in the film American Beauty uses the garage to escape from his family to live out his sexual fantasies and define his self-worth. Along the way, they make claims that are intriguing, such as that the garage is “less punk than queer;” even though we associate the garage with rebellious punks who either play music too loudly or drop out of school and invent computers. But they claim that somehow it is a place that poses as one thing but is another, that is odd and elegant rather than rebellious. I just don’t see it, but I would have loved a bit more explanation or, heaven forbid, proof.

The authors also claim that the conversion of the garage, was the prototype for the “garageification” of America. But they fail to include such factors as the move to the suburb, where there are less fears about leaving the machine outdoors, and the improvement in the car’s mechanics. Furthermore, they trace the conversion back to an obscure Italian art gallery, a commercial facility, and fail to include the long tradition of lofts that were designed for flexibility. These, in truth, were the true source of the emergence of such hybrid spaces for living and working.

Part of the issue is that the book is just too fast and impressionistic. Govela and Erlanger note the emergence of the Ford Model T automobile and the first purpose-built garage at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in roughly the same year (which are not the same, as they claim), and make some interesting claims about the equivalence in size between the house’s place for social gathering and for storing cars, but they move very quickly onto other issues. While others have studied the implications of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) rules mandating enclosed garages as a prerequisite for guaranteeing mortgages after the Second World War, describing how such rules shaped the nature of sprawl, the development of transportation systems dominated by cars, and the homogenizing of zoned neighborhoods, Govela and Erlanger note this only to reinforce the notion that the garage is part of a racist and classist attempt to strengthen the middle class.

I wish the authors had zoomed in on the actual nature of the garage: the way it combines storage, technology, and, indeed, escape; the ways in which it is where the outside world enters into the otherwise closed world of the single-family home; and the fact that it did indeed bring the workshop back into the home through—not the back door—but the garage door.

To do so, they could have spent a bit more time looking at the actual characteristics of the garage and less time speculating and building moody collages (truth be told, MIT Press’s perennial low-rez and clunky production does Erlanger’s work absolutely no favors). But they have an agenda. They see the garage as a “temple to the self,” albeit a self that is “fluid” and seems to always be slithering away from norms. They also see it as “a space in which to hate suburbia!” (their emphasis). They say little about actual social structures, let alone physical ones, and even less about the activities or even the machines that have inhabited the domestic garage.

The good news is that the suburban garage is a wonderful topic that is still available to someone willing to invest the time and effort to give it the analysis it truly deserves.

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