Ugly America

From the pages of Life, a complex view of the mid-century commercial landscape.

Left: from Life, June 27, 1938, photos by Margaret Bourke-White. Right: Life, July 24, 1970, photo by Michael Rougier.

In Motel of the Mysteries, the illustrator-author David Macaulay narrates the epic tale of an archaeological excavation that happens two millennia after a 20th-century cataclysm has buried North America under a toxic stew of consumer detritus and junk mail. As a result, the artifacts of our civilization are preserved, like Pompeii, for discovery. With Piranesian precision, Macaulay’s drawings portray the now-familiar commercial landscapes of the automobile as an illegible and perplexing environment of infrastructural ruins, while his intrepid archeologists speculate wildly on the meaning of what they are uncovering. The vast network of stripes that covers the continent from coast to coast: surely these were extraterrestrial landing strips. The old signage mounted on giant poles that occur in regular clusters, relics of the quotidian honky-tonk of U.S. 1 or the pulsating grandeur of Nevada 604: obviously these are inscriptions demarcating ceremonial or processional routes.

Much of the book follows a Howard Carter-like figure digging away at a site which the 20th-century reader will immediately recognize as a typical strip motel, with its massive sign, parking lot, standardized rooms, plastic ferns, and chipped Formica all astonishingly intact. Macaulay’s 25th-century archeologist is convinced the place is “a vast funerary complex.” Clearly the toilet seats are headdresses; the cars are “freely interpreted metal sculptures of animals … inscribed with such names as Cougar, Skylark, and Thunderbird.” 1 As Reyner Banham noted in a 1980 review, much of the book’s humor (when it’s not based on potty jokes) rests on the apparent absurdity that the 20th-century roadscape would ever be considered worthy of serious, scholarly, and systematic attention —though (as Banham knew) a Society for Commercial Archaeology had recently been organized and was already conducting field work along U.S. highways. 2 So let’s take Macaulay’s fictional archaeologist seriously, and remove tongue from cheek long enough to consider what sort of Rosetta stone would render the Motel of the Mysteries — and the innumerable and extensive auto-oriented landscapes that we have constructed in the past century — comprehensible to some future explorer.

Life depicted the rapid expansion of postwar consumer culture and its dramatic impact on the landscape.

For several decades in the mid 20th century, Life served as a “show-book of the world,” in the words of publisher Henry Luce. Luce launched the magazine in 1936 as a pictorial complement to Time, the pioneering newsweekly he had founded in 1923, and his goals were ambitious: to present to a national audience a “complete and reliable record” of all “seen events,” ranging from politics to art to design, from industry to sport to religion, from celebrities to ordinary citizens. In recent years scholars and critics have illuminated the ways in which the magazine fell short of this grand goal: Luce’s own editorial mandates, informed by his personal conservatism, limited what parts of the “dynamic social world” were actually shown in the pictures that dominated Life’s pages. It’s not surprising that Life attracted a largely white and middle-class readership throughout its thirty-four-year run. But if Life never quite became the “convincing reporter of contemporary life” that Luce once envisioned, it nonetheless offers us today, decades after the last issue appeared, a compelling historical and visual record of certain aspects of mid-20th-century “contemporary life.” 3 In particular, in its coverage of the American scene, Life depicted the rapid expansion of the consumer culture of the postwar United States and its dramatic impact on buildings, landscapes, and cities.

To be sure, the coverage was hardly objective; Life, like Time, followed Luce’s dictum to give “both sides” of an issue, but also to “clearly [indicate] which side it believes to have the stronger position.” 4 In its commentaries, articles, and photo essays, the magazine sought to influence attitudes and shape perceptions of popular culture; and if Life sometimes betrayed a profound ambivalence, and many outright contradictions, this was because its critical attitudes were as fluid and fickle as popular culture itself. Nowhere is this clearer than in its coverage of the built environment: even as the magazine documented the emergence of new typologies and the evolution of new styles, it also sought to mediate conventional and longstanding distinctions between the elite and the everyday, the monumental and the quotidian — especially as these were embodied in the American highway and its commercial architecture.

Life, June 3, 1957,”Ten Buildings in America’s Future,” at the National Gallery.

These conventional and longstanding distinctions were fully on display in a 1957 exhibition organized by the American Institute of Architects to celebrate its centennial. Held at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, this was the first show in the museum’s history devoted to architecture and also the first to feature photography. Although the ostensible theme was “one hundred years of architecture in America,” its real focus was contemporary U.S. architecture as manifest in “Ten Buildings in America’s Future” 5 — ranging from such well-known structures of the 1950s as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, to Matthew Nowicki’s North Carolina State Fair Arena, in Raleigh, to Minoru Yamasaki’s St. Louis Airport Terminal. According to guest curator Frederick Gutheim, the buildings were selected to “embody trends and characteristics … significant of the future development of American architecture.” 6 For Gutheim, these had less to do with form, style, or material — though the buildings exemplified the standards of mainstream modernism — than with such supposedly “national characteristics” as “the love of personal freedom, egalitarianism, mobility, leisure,” and related socio-economic trends such as the broadening scale of business, commercial, and civic enterprises and the increasing organization of urban life. 7

In essence Gutheim is describing what we now understand as the extended — if not attenuated — urbanism of the postwar decades; he is referring to that shift in cultural and architectural focus then underway — the shift from center to periphery, from downtown to suburb, from skyscraper to ground-scraper. His curatorial choices make this clear: he ignores postwar urban landmarks like the Equitable Building, in Portland, or Lever House, in Manhattan, in favor of SOM’s Connecticut General Headquarters, in suburban Hartford, and Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center and Victor Gruen’s Northland Center, both outside Detroit. Likewise Gutheim includes two new low-rise, residential subdivisions: Charles Goodman and Dan Kiley’s Hollin Hills, outside the District of Columbia in suburban Virginia, and Vernon DeMars, Donald Hardison and Lawrence Halprin’s Easter Hill Village, in the East Bay beyond San Francisco. Thus was the AIA tacitly endorsing a future for architecture not in the traditional city but instead in the highway metropolis — in the developing territories of the automobile whose proliferating presence was creating a new variety of metropolitan settlement and a new kind of popular culture.

As presented at the National Gallery, the new precincts of the car had an undeniably seductive beauty. These projects occupied the largest gallery of the exhibition, a chronological and visual climax consisting of twenty-one backlit transparencies, with wall-sized Kodak Colorama murals displaying those ten buildings in America’s future. Not surprisingly Life devoted several pages to the exhibition, with a text both descriptive and didactic; Nowicki’s State Fair Pavilion, a structure notable for its boldly parabolic form, was not only “a futuristic fantasy in a world’s fair,” but also a “solidly practical building.” Yamasaki’s St. Louis Terminal created a “spacious, dramatic effect” that was symbolically appropriate for the “air age,” even though its “simple structure” — defined by the repetition of its peaked, glass-filled concrete vaults — was designed specifically (and sensibly) to accommodate future expansion.

Life, August 30, 1954, feature about the Northland Center, outside Detroit.

By the time Life showcased the “airport arcs” and “shining shops” of the AIA exhibit, many of these “notable modern buildings” were already familiar to readers of the magazine. 8 For instance, when Gruen’s Northland Center opened, in 1954, its status as the largest shopping center in the nation had warranted splashy coverage. Life dubbed it a “20th Century Bazaar” and detailed every aspect of its design, from the circulation planning to the commercial art, from the extensive storefronts to ample parking. Northland was, the magazine concluded, a “fantastic combination of modern efficiency … fine architecture and pure gaiety.” 9 At the dedication of the General Motors Tech Center, two years later, Life was even more effusive, hailing the Saarinen-designed complex as a “Versailles of Industry” — a famous conflation of the palatial and corporate meant to emphasize the scale and grandeur of the new campus. 10 The magazine presented this merger of art, architecture, and landscape as manifestation of corporate prestige, and ticked off the impressive statistics: twenty-five buildings incorporating fifty-six miles of fluorescent tubing and 378 miles of wiring surrounded by a landscape featuring eleven miles of roads, eighty-five acres of parking lots, and 13,000 trees — all occupied by 4,000 GM designers, engineers, and executives. And more: Life predicted that the Tech Center would transform U.S. building practices through its innovative deployment of new materials and techniques, including glazed masonry, enameled steel spandrel panels, and neoprene window gaskets — all of which the it did in fact popularize.

In the careful pairing of text and image, these photo-essays reveal the subtle but insistent agenda being promulgated by Life’s editors, one that sought to teach the American public — or at least the magazine’s six million readers 11 — how to comprehend a contemporary landscape that seemed to be changing with dizzying speed, everywhere spawning new building types and infrastructures and producing new forms and spaces. In the prospectus for Life, Luce had argued that the magazine’s purpose was to give the U.S. citizen the opportunity “to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.” 12 In the postwar era, this meant instructing the U.S. citizen to appreciate modern architecture and design, to value master planning in commercial and corporate endeavors, to equate private development with the civic realm, and to discern quality and not just quantity in the built landscape.

For Life, the tawdry state of the American highway had long been an editorial obsession.

That this was a fraught, if not quixotic pursuit in postwar America did not go unnoticed by the editors of yet another Henry Luce publication. Architectural Forum was one of the leading periodicals of the day — it was the magazine of building much the way Fortune was the magazine of business, with progressive editorial content matching innovative graphic design. Forum highlighted architecture, as well as real estate development and construction, as a distinctly modern enterprise; functionalism was as much an editorial credo as an aesthetic position. Though its readership was largely professional, Forum’s editors recognized that the audience for architecture was broadening, and the magazine occasionally addressed what it saw as the field’s new public. Douglas Haskell, Forum’s editor, was an early defender of both popular building and popular taste, and when he posed the question “what do people really want?,” he was unafraid of the answer. Even “roadside honky-tonk,” he argued, had value and vitality because it responded to the public desire for decoration, drama, and improvisation. 13

Haskell’s effusive populism was rare, however, even in the pages of his magazine; contributing editor Mary Mix Foley expressed a more typical ambivalence when she dissected — and dismissed — what she called, in a 1957 essay, “The Debacle of Public Taste.” Foley begins with a leading question: “Why are there so many bad buildings in America?” And although she criticizes architects for ignoring the “mass market,” she lays the blame squarely on “public taste, or the lack of it.” From Foley’s perspective, “the people who build, buy, sell, live, and work in the suburbias, the Main Streets, and the roadtowns of America are eminently satisfied with the established ugliness. They do not even know it is ugly.” In her view such willful ignorance, born of too many hours “watching I Love Lucy,” was difficult to overcome, and her analysis was as unrelenting as it was condescending. 14

Life, June 3, 1957, display ad for Ford Fairlane.

It is tempting to see the contrary views expressed in Architectural Forum and Life as the manifestation of a larger dialogue between profession and public, between elitism and populism, playing out across the fourth estate, or at least within the empire of Time Inc. In that same 1957 issue that showcased the “Ten Buildings in America’s Future,” for instance, readers would find also an unsigned commentary titled “America – the Beautiful?” — a prickly litany of concerns that the nation was failing to realize the grand potential that Luce had articulated when he famously declared that the 20th century was to be the “American Century.” “15

Indeed, the editorial references a veritable who’s who of ‘50s socio-cultural critics who decry the physical and emotional wastelands of mid-century America: John Keats on the lack of cohesive community in suburbia and Vance Packard on the rise of manipulative advertising; Russell Lynes on the nervous social strata of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow; C. Wright Mills on the new “power elite”; and William H. Whyte on the conformity of “the organization man.” All this angst in a one-page editorial! “Undoubtedly,” the editorial concludes “a revolt is needed” — something to jolt Americans into “developing higher standards of taste to make them question the “jukebox baroque of their row-houses, the pistachio, puce and anodized-gold color combos of their three-toned cars with nonfunctional airplane fins” — lapses of aesthetic judgment that were, so the editorial argued, the inevitable result of postwar prosperity and the growing consumer society. (Unsurprisingly, Life’s editors overlook their own complicity in the jukebox baroque; observant readers would have noted that the display advertisement following the editorial depicted a three-toned car with nonfunctional airplane fins — a ’57 Ford Fairlane 500 Sunliner; a juxtaposition undoubtedly beyond the editors’ control but which nonetheless underscores the magazine’s myriad internal contradictions.)

Life, June 27, 1938, with photos by Margaret Bourke-White taken on U.S. Highway 1 between Washington and New York.

But actually it wasn’t so much the cars that bothered Life’s editors; it was the roads they drove on. In fact, the tawdry state of the American highway had long been an editorial obsession. In the late 1930s, for example, Life observed that

The U.S. auto highway system is the finest in the world, but its roadside is the most unsightly.  No other country has permitted its scenic beauty to be marred by such endless mileage of hot-dog stands, signs, shacks, dumps and shoddy gas stations. … The ‘nation that lives on wheels’ … has the dubious honor of having created … the Supreme Honky-Tonk of All Time.

The magazine illustrated the point with a dozen photographs by Margaret Bourke-White showing an “unsightly” stretch of U.S. Highway 1 between New York City and Washington, D.C. “Coca-Cola is everywhere,” the editors noted with mild exasperation. “16

From the vantage point of history, the editors’ perplexity comes perilously close to obtuseness: they seem unable to acknowledge the obvious relationship between, on the one hand, the proliferation of affordable cars so essential to the identity of the mobile modern American, and, on the other, the profusion of commercial architecture — all that “roadside junk” — that served the ordinary needs of motorists. In that same issue from 1938, the Dutchland Farms franchise is scorned by the editors as an example of commercial blight, while a display ad for the seaboard attraction promotes its “32 flavors of ice cream.” This unintentional irony would be played out across Life’s pages for decades, with editorial screeds decrying the American propensity for unregulated roadsides — “making way for a custard” — underwritten by colorful advertisements for corporations like Howard Johnson’s and Tastee-Freez. Such double standards may have resulted from lack of communication between Life’s editorial and marketing divisions or from contradictory interpretations of the contemporary built environment. Nonetheless they suggest an ideological gap — or perhaps what Henry Luce’s vision of corporate liberalism would have viewed as a delicate balance between the ideals of an orderly, planned environment and the pragmatic acceptance of the free-market economics.

By the end of the ‘50s, Life’s attitude toward the American roadside and the growing territories of the automobile was becoming decidedly unambiguous. By this point, of course, the Interstate highway system, authorized by Congress in 1956, was rapidly expanding, and the advocates of highway beautification were becoming more vocal and better organized. In “A Plan to Save Vanishing U.S. Countryside,” published in the magazine in August 1959 , William Whyte deplored “the disease of urban sprawl.” (This was the very first use of the term sprawl in the magazine.) Whyte condemned the usual commercial suspects — “billboards, neon signs … frozen custard spas” — but he also focused blame: the expansion of the “American standard of living,” rampant development as a synonym for progress, the “speculative land rush” set off by the federal highway program. After articulating the causes of sprawl and its effect on landscapes both natural and built, Whyte proposed a program of conservation easements and land trusts, carefully explaining their implications for taxes and real estate development. Whyte ended by exhorting Life’s readers to look again at the American roadside: “Your instincts will tell you that anything that looks this terrible cannot be good economics, that it is not progress, that it is not inevitable.” 17


Top: Life, August 17, 1959. Bottom: Life, July 24, 1970.

For Life, urban sprawl would remain a pressing problem throughout the 1960s. In December 1965, just two months after Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Highway Beautification Act, the magazine published a double issue on the city. The issue featured a piece by guest columnist Peter Blake, then editor of Architectural Forum and author of the recent book God’s Own Junkyard — a blistering attack on the landscape of the commercial strip. In “Astride the Open Road,” he challenged architects “to come to terms with the automobile and the highway, to create an entirely new kind of city,” and charged readers to evaluate the ethics and aesthetics of the “throwaway architecture” of “a permanently ‘Unfinished Country.’” 18 In that same issue Paul Ylvisaker, director of public affairs at the Ford Foundation, took equally sharp aim at the ever-sprawling landscape, which he dismissed as grubby “slurbs and junk.” And in the title of the piece he identified the culprits: “the villains are greed, indifference — and you.” 19

Five years later Life sent a team on the road to see what, if anything, the highway beautification movement had wrought. But on 12,000 miles of American highways, the magazine’s correspondent and photographer found little of the angst and outrage that had informed the earlier issue; indifference, it seemed, had become resignation or obliviousness. “Nobody we met seemed to care much about the problem,” wrote Life editor Ralph Graves. “They didn’t even seem to notice.” 20 But Life still cared, and it devoted eight full-color pages to what its reporters had discovered on the American road. Framed by the headline “blight blossoms on the American highway,” the images, by Michael Rougier, captured a spectacular panorama of excess: the physical congestion of cars, the visual congestion of signage, the stark contrast between the expanding commercial domain and the shrinking natural realm. As poetically interpreted by staff writer Loudon Wainwright, these were the “idiot marks of man’s passing” and “the plastic homogeneity of trash and hucksterism.” 21

By 1970 a new generation was looking at the strip and seeing the genius loci of America.

But as we know now, from the distance of history, it was already late in the day for this sort of diatribe. By 1970 a new generation was looking at the landscapes of the automobile — at all the blossoming blight— in an entirely new light. It was at this moment that painters and photographers like Ed Ruscha, Allan D’Arcangelo, and Stephen Shore, and architects and planners like Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Stephen Izenour, were beginning to scrutinize the expansive roadsides and to see, for better or worse, the genius loci of America. Today this seems unexceptionable; so it’s useful to be reminded how startling the new attitudes were at the time. In its 1972 review of Learning from Las Vegas, Life was skeptical; “anyone who sets out to beautify banality is an interesting type,” wrote critic Walter McQuade, revealing the degree to which he utterly misunderstood the book’s polemic. 22 By the time the broader culture grasped what it meant to learn from Las Vegas, and to accept the ugly and ordinary on their own terms, Life had already published its final issue.

At the height of its popularity in the 1950s and ‘60s, Life magazine not only reflected cultural attitudes toward the burgeoning territories of the automobile, it also actively shaped them. In numerous articles and photo-essays, as well as in countless advertisements, Life showcased the good and the bad: it heralded shopping malls and corporate campuses while decrying the sprawling roadsides connecting them; it celebrated an expanding consumer culture while ignoring the connection between car-centric landscape and intensifying environmental blight. That all this was at once intentional and inadvertent underscored the complex ambiguities of the everyday built landscape as well the clashing editorial and marketing agendas of a popular magazine. Unapologetically and utterly without irony, virtually every midcentury issue of Life embraced the nation’s drive-in culture while condemning Ugly America.

Ultimately it was just as well that Life wasn’t around to chronicle the changing attitudes towards the roadside that emerged in the 1970s and even today remain fractiously in flux. The complex and — of course — contradictory debates about high art and mass consumption, elitism and populism, Pop and Postmodernism, would have been difficult to capture in photo spreads and witty captions. As for the archeologist laboring on the side of the highway a few millennia hence, we needn’t worry. Thanks to institutions like the Smithsonian, the Henry Ford, and the Neon Boneyard, the artifacts of the American roadside have become museum pieces. The motel is no longer a mystery.

Editors' Note

“Ugly America” is adapted from a chapter in Archi.Pop: Mediating Architecture in Popular Culture, edited by Medina Lasansky and just published by Bloomsbury. It appears here with permission of the publisher and author.

  1. David Macaulay, Motel of the Mysteries (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), 39-40.
  2. Reyner Banham, “The Haunted Highway,” New Society, 52 (June 19, 1980), 297-99.
  3. Henry Luce and Archibald MacLeish, “Prospectus for Life,” 1936, 1, 3.
  4. Alden Whitman, “Henry R. Luce, Creator of Time-Life Magazine Empire, Dies in Phoenix at 68,” The New York Times, March 1, 1967.
  5. Jacob Deschin, “Group Exhibitions” The New York Times, June 9, 1957, Arts & Leisure section, p. 136.
  6. Leslie Judd Portner, , “Growth of Architecture Told in Exhibit,” Washington Post, May 14, 1957, p. B1.
  7. Frederick Gutheim, One Hundred Years of Architecture in America, 1857-1957 (New York: Reinhold Publishing, 1957), 13, 64.
  8. Life, June 3, 1957, 59. Photojournalist W. Eugene Smith shot each with great theatricality, in extreme close-ups or lit from within at night, emphasizing the formal drama and glassy modernity we now readily associate with mid-century architectural glamour, an effect enhanced by the fluorescent tubes that illuminated them in the AIA show.
  9. Life, August 30, 1954, 82.
  10. Life, May 21, 1956, 102–107. The accompanying photographs, by Andreas Feininger, documented the building and its materials, revealing the ways in which the Center was “like the automobile itself”: mass-produced, colorful, efficient, stylish and pleasing to the eye. The photos also portrayed the Center as a coherent composition of “unusual beauty,” best explained, the editors suggested, by reference to modernist abstraction such as “a complex creation” of painter Fernand Léger.
  11. See James Baughman, Henry R. Luce and the Rise of the American News Media (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001)
  12. Henry Luce and Archibald MacLeish, “Prospectus for Life,” 1.
  13. Douglas Haskell, “Architecture and Popular Taste,” Architectural Forum 109 (August 1958): 104-109.
  14. Mary Mix Foley, “The Debacle of Public Taste,” Architectural Forum, February 1957, 104-109. Foley’s piece provides some historical context for Robert Venturi’s later critique: “When they see the magnificent and precisely machined General Motors Technical Center in Life magazine, they are momentarily impressed. But the esthetic it embodies touches their daily life no more closely than the unearthly beauty of a jet-propelled rocket. If they see a modern house they call it a chicken coop.” See Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: MoMA, 1966).
  15. Unsigned editorial, Life, June 3, 1957, 34. The commentary was most likely written by chief editorial writer John K. Jessup, who would have been well aware of Henry Luce’s evangelizing views on the “American Century,” a socio-political construct Luce introduced in an 1941 Life editorial. Luce argued that the 20th century was the American Century due to the nation’s emergence as a world power and its inevitable leadership across a spectrum of world affairs, from the political to intellectual to scientific to artistic.
  16. Paul Peter, Life, June 27, 1938, 5. Elsewhere in the same issue is a photo essay promoting summer tourism. Color photographs of man-made and natural landmarks like the Taos Pueblo, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon accompany a series of regional maps suggesting “what to see in America.” In an act of willful graphic denial, the maps depict the monuments as floating freely above invisible highways, while the editors cheerfully proclaim: “With his roads and automobiles the modern American is the world’s most mobile man.
  17. William Whyte, “A Plan to Save the Vanishing Countryside,” Life, August 17, 1959, 88.
  18. Peter Blake, “Astride the Open Road,” Life, December 24, 1965, 49.
  19. Paul Ylvisaker, “The Villains Are Greed, Indifference — and You,” Life, December 24, 1965, 92-93.
  20. Ralph Graves, “Nobody we met seemed to care,” Life, July 24, 1970, 1.
  21. Loudon Wainwright, “Blight Blossoms on the American Highway,” Life, July 24, 1970, 1.
  22. Walter McQuade, “Giving them what they want,” Life, April 14, 1972, 17.
Gabrielle Esperdy, “Ugly America,” Places Journal, November 2014. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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