Wednesday 31 March 2010

Architect designed petrol stations

If a petrol station can ever be said to respect its location Iseppi-Kurath’s award winning design surely does with the irregular angularity mirroring the mountainous Swiss backdrop. But why no branding apart from the station name and a red stripe on the pump? No doubt the tough Swiss planning laws would have played their part but a distinct lack of branding inside too suggests it's more to do with the architect's disdain with such 'Ephemera'.

Why taint such a crafted building with tawdry graphics? If that was in Iseppi-Kurath’s mind then surely provide us with more to please our senses than such utilitarian materials as profiled steel sheet. Is such 'purity’ honesty or just plain ugly? Is the interior restaurant spartan minimalism or just one level above institutional?

The world certainly does not have to be painted McDonalds red or Shell yellow to be beautiful but in rejecting retail vernacular at least engage with the customer through thoughtful ergonomic considerations, imposing lighting, and sensual materials. Why is the utopian world architects would have us live in so devoid of texture? Is architectural utopianism another word for elitism and snobbery? Do architect’s balk at graphics because it is unashamedly mass market?

The great contemporary architects Calitrava and Foster have both designed a petrol station but neither would lower themselves to apply graphics. At least Foster applied colour in an ingenious way for Repsol’s mushroom canopies but Calitrva only gave us pointless and gratuitous arches superimposed on to a regular petrol station that serve no function than to waste material and money, a familiar criticism of Calitrava’s work. Come on guys, cannot graphic design live elsewhere than the printed and virtual world?

Texaco’s highway site outside Antwerp and BP’s ‘Eco’ site in Los Angeles are further examples of noteworthy architect designed petrol stations that have sought to push the boundaries of  accepted physical forms but totally reject branding in favour of silver /grey.

The counter argument is that great buildings do not need graphics, they speak for themselves. A well designed building is a collaboration of form and function and should to an extent express to the user how to interact with the building, where to enter, where to exit where to circulate and so on. But here’s the key, a well designed building is here to last, a 100 years or more, a good 50 more years more than the most robust petrol station that will be outdated technology and fashion wise before the steel rusts away or the plastic disintegrates.

So are petrol stations buildings at all? Perhaps petrol stations are just a three dimensional sign to which you just apply a logo and coloured stripe. This would explain why petrol stations were predominantly 2 dimensionally 'designed' by graphic designers and they all looked very much the same which is no doubt why architects saw it as their duty to redefine petrol stations according to their own sensibilities. More accurately petrol stations are mass produced lego sets to suit different site sizes so in some ways they are more akin to the cars that visit the petrol station rather than a conventional building. It's no surprise therefore neither graphic designers nor architects design the most successful of the current petrol station designs but product designers who have the most appropriate skill set.

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