Jeff Taylor and B. Alex Miller of Taylor and Miller Architecture. The Great American Garage will be published by MIT Press in the fall of 2012.
Images from The Great American Garage
Sanctuary Salon, Brooklyn, NY
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Great American Garage
Friday, December 2nd, 2011
by Nalina Moses
portrait by Dusdin Condren
What do Apple, Google, Barbie, Mickey Mouse, the pacemaker, and the Ramones have in common? They were all created in garages, of course. In addition to our cars, the ordinary American garage has sheltered ideas, ambitions, and inventions that don’t fit so neatly within the confines of middle-class American life. Brooklyn-based architect and writer B. Alex Miller, a principal at Taylor and Miller, takes a closer look at this unsung space in his forthcoming book, The Great American Garage.
Miller began researching the suburban, residential American garage for his master’s thesis in architecture school, and then, still fascinated, took up the study again six years later. What first grabbed him was the way the garage was pictured in pop culture, like the scene in American Beauty when actor Kevin Spacey, who portrays an upstanding family man, retreats to his garage to lift weights and smoke pot. “When you start to question why this space is portrayed this way, you begin to more fully understand the critical role that the garage plays in suburbia,” Miller says. “It is the space that is meant to be in the shadows—hidden for the most part. But it also happens to create this huge gash in the suburban house’s façade. When the large door is opened, a whole world of secrets is revealed.”
“The garage is the release valve for a lot of things that are not allowed in the home."
In addition to movies, Miller examines the role of garages in TV sitcoms, ad campaigns, and popular music, showing how it gives unique expression to the private, the repressed, and the deeply creative. It’s a space that nurtures high-tech startup companies and garage bands alike, freeing them from the pressures and proprieties of adult life. “It’s interesting because you can’t talk about the garage as an incubator for these creative endeavors without also talking about the context in which the garage is embedded,” Miller explains. “The garage is the release valve for a lot of things that are not allowed in the home; it is better suited to make a mess in because it doesn’t have the living room’s carpet that can be stained, or the drapes that can be smudged. It doesn’t adhere to the social conventions implied by these elements.”
The garage often serves as a final outpost for masculinity, with Miller noting that both Batman and Iron Man retreat to their respective garages to tinker with tools and assume their true identities. “They found a space that provided them with a suitable sanctuary,” Miller says. “Combine this with the fact that the garage has always had a relationship with technology, perhaps because of its original relationship to being an ‘outbuilding’ of the domestic site used for storing farming implements or tools, or to the fact that it is intended to be the storage place for the automobile; and you get this interesting social mix…a mix that only the garage could provide a context for. In either case, the technology helps to empower and protect Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark.” Even as the structure of the American family becomes more fluid and the home becomes increasingly gender-neutral, the garage offers special freedoms. Miller notes, “The garage isn’t just one thing. It’s a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”
Miller does foresee the design of the garage shifting with changes in automobile technology, like the increased use of electric cars, yet he’s hopeful that the room will retain its special character. There’s just something about the ordinary American garage that seems to quietly and powerfully subvert conventions. To understand the true power of the space, Miller believes, we need to look beyond its humble form. “Now, aesthetically, it’s ugly as hell, slapped onto the face of some formulaic façade of a suburban house, I will admit,” he says. “However, the idea of the garage—its myth and its promise, those are very beautiful things.”