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Saturday, October 1, 2022
Arch-i-text: The history of garage dominance
Dealing with a garage, circa 1925.
Dealing with a garage, circa 1925. Brian Marshall

In his 1928 seminal book “Propaganda,” Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations,” wrote:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of … It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”

In the decades since, Bernays’ techniques and methods (refined many times over) have been used to shape the socio-political-economic predilections of people the world over. A quick google search on Bernays himself will yield multiple examples of publicity campaigns which he authored that demonstrate just how powerful his methodology was and is.

Consider his “Dixie Cup” campaign in which he took a loss-leader product from obscurity to market dominance by convincing a generation of North American parents (duly endorsed by medical/scientific experts and government agency) that “only” disposable paper cups were sanitary and safe.

This newly created trend in public opinion perfectly dovetailed with the new fast-food industry –and the rest is history.

Interesting, you may say, but how is this relevant to architecture?

Well, the automotive industry was an early first adopter of public relations techniques. Using this methodology, these companies were able not only to change the early description of gas-powered vehicles from a general nickname of “stink-pots,” but actually establish ownership of an automobile as a status symbol.

And, by the mid-20th century, this status association was so firmly a part of the North American psyche that real estate tract developers saw it as an opportunity to augment their sales by making the garage a dominate feature of every home’s facade.

Why would it be the dominant feature? Well, quite simply, if one creates a proportionally giant bay (typically nine feet wide or larger) with a black topped driveway pointing directly at it, there is no chance it can do anything but dominate the facade.

And then, of course, the developers’ drive to build more units per square acre took this to the extreme by pushing the garage proud of the facade. It is, after all, a status statement … No?

As a result, we have vast suburban deserts with street after street on which largely identical houses are made even more vanilla by the nearly unbroken ranks of garage doors fronting onto the road.    

Now, if we go back to the early advent of the automobile, it was far more common to find a detached garage behind the house in the historical tradition of coach houses. In fact, it was often the case that these garages were actually converted coach houses. 

At that time, no architect worth their salt would have contemplated introducing a garage door onto the facade of their designs. And, when the client insisted on an attached garage facing the street, they went to great lengths to disguise the door and integrate the opening in a compatible fashion.

Consider the image shown here, reproduced from “The Book of Artistic Homes” published in 1926. Not only did the architect set the garage back from the facade, he designed to it to present as a garden room on the side of the house. 

As my regular readers are aware, I believe the institution of architectural design guidelines across NOTL is vital. However, in the meantime, can the town not commit to consistently enforcing the existing garage bylaw?