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28th of May 2017

Automotive



This list of beautiful gas stations has one glaring omission from America’s most famous architect

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The architecture hounds at DesignCurial just put together a list of the world’s 10 best (or at least most visually interesting) filling stations. It’s a fairly standard-issue listicle, but the subject is intriguing. Gas stations are as humble as they are ubiquitous; you probably don’t even notice them until the low fuel warning light comes on, so it’s interesting to see what architects can do when they’re tasked with elevating them into statement pieces.

And wouldn’t you know it: There are some really killer stations out there, from a soda-themed modernist pit stop on Route 66 to strange concrete structures in Georgia (the country). Some include art galleries; the one in Finland, naturally, has a sauna.

But there’s one glaring omission by the man who is likely America’s, if not the world’s, best-known architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wright wasn’t all about houses perched on waterfalls and moody hillside ziggurats; he was also an early pioneer and promoter of the automobile-enabled concept we came to know as suburban sprawl. His pet project, Broadacre City, envisioned families ensconced on 1-acre lots connected by a grid of roads. In this utopia (autopia?), gas stations weren’t just places to fill up -- they were community gathering places.

Broadacre City didn’t happen, at least not as Wright planned it, but one of his swanky gas stations was built during his lifetime. Located in Cloquet, Minnesota, it might not be the centerpiece of Wright’s never-realized suburban dream, but it still serves its function as a fuel stop.

R. W. Lindholm Service Station Frank Lloyd Wright gas station in Minnesota

The R. W. Lindholm Service Station in Cloquet, Minnesota. Photo by Wikimedia/Jonathunder

That’s not the stunning Wright gas station we’re talking about, though. No, the one we're talking about was designed in 1927. It was planned to be built in Buffalo, New York.

And indeed, it was built in Buffalo, New York, but not until 2014, and not at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Cherry Street. Rather, it's sitting inside the Pierce-Arrow Museum, a few of the storied company's offerings parked below its coppery cantilevers. According to the Pierce-Arrow Museum:

“Frank Lloyd Wright called his design 'an ornament to the pavement.' It was ahead of its time, featuring a second-story observation room with fireplace, restrooms, copper roof, two 45 foot poles (Wright called them “totems”) overhead gravity-fed gas-distribution system for fueling cars, and attendants' quarters with a second fireplace. The second-story observation room provided patrons a comfortable place to wait as their vehicle was serviced.” 

The overhead fuel-pump system is one of the station’s most striking and unconventional features (aside from the fireplace-equipped design itself), but it’s not as farfetched as you’d think: it reminds us of the real estate-economizing stations we’ve seen in Tokyo, and it would have made sense in the era of big, often cumbersome, cars it was designed to serve. No fuel pump islands to navigate around, see.

Jay Leno's column about his Pierce-Arrow Jay Leno: My Pierce-Arrow is a class act

Imagine a century-old car that can keep up with modern traffic and runs as well as it did when new. That's my 1918 Pierce-Arrow.Built in Buffalo, New York, from 1901 to 1938, Pierces were among ...

Frank Lloyd Wright gas station design Pierce Arrow museum

If exposed to the elements, the copper roof of this Frank Lloyd Wright-designed gas station would develop a nice greenish patina. Photo by Pierce-Arrow Museum

Maybe the fact that it's essentially a museum piece precluded it from DesignCurial's list, but the FLW's station is worth a second look. Even if the thought of flammable hydrocarbons raining down from above in the event of a malfunction scares you away from overhead gas pumps, this design is almost tailor-made for electric cars. Imagine chargers dangling from the underside of those canopy roofs, plugs dropping down like robot snakes as they sense a car approaching: It’s a shelter, charging station and experience all in one.

Wright’s station even has a built-in remedy for EVs’ extended charge time, which are longer than refueling times even under the best circumstances: Pop inside and work (or just relax by the fireplace) in the observation room for a half-hour while your battery tops off. Heck, you could even swap out the copper roof for solar panels, if only for the sake of symbolism (we doubt the sun could supply a fraction of the juice necessary for a rapid charge).

It’s almost eerie how well the idea translates to the present day. Then again, that’s Frank Lloyd Wright for you: not always practical, but usually ahead of his time. Even when it comes to the humble gas station.

Graham Kozak

Graham Kozak - Graham Kozak drove a 1951 Packard 200 sedan in high school because he wanted something that would be easy to find in a parking lot. He thinks all the things they're doing with fuel injection and seatbelts these days are pretty nifty too. See more by this author»

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