Roadside Architecture and Fried Seafood

by Matt Bushey, August 22, 2011

Right now, we are all enjoying our summer in Vermont, otherwise known as “August”.  For these last few weeks of the season, we may find ourselves spending our days on the lake, or heading to the New England coast, boating, swimming, or simply sitting in the sand, watching the horizon.  Summer is the time for road trips, campgrounds, and country fairs.  It is casual and light-hearted.
Through all of this, I’ve been wondering: Is there an architectural structure that best epitomizes this summer state of mind?  Something that speaks to us on the more base level that we put ourselves in when the mercury rises, but is still consciously working to influence our built environment?
And then it hit me: while driving along Massachusetts route 133, through the town of Ipswich on our way to Crane Beach, we passed this local landmark and popular tourist spot:
The Clam Box is known to serve up the best fried clams this side of the North Shore.  There is always a long line out the door, as there was when we drove by. (No doubt, I figured, these people are drawn to the architecture.)
The sides of the building fold back at the top, forming an open box that looks just like the to-go container you use to carry out your clams.  But this architectural folly is rendered in the same wood shingles that face every other beachfront structure on the coast, so it’s actually sympathetic to the local vernacular.
The Clam Box is a duck.
A duck is a building that does not adorn itself with applied symbols, but rather distorts itself to become the symbol.
Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour coined the term in their 1972 landmark book Learning from Las Vegas, updated in 1977 with “Part II: Ugly and Ordinary Architecture, or the Decorated Shed”.
By studying the buildings along the 1970s Las Vegas Strip, they described the two predominant ways of incorporating signage and iconography in buildings:  the duck and the decorated shed.  The ‘duck’ label was a literal reference to the Long Island Duckling, but it was in more general terms applied to any structure that was a symbol of itself (or something else).
Venturi and company actually wrote of ducks with a fair amount of disdain, and threw the term around in a rather derogatory way.  (No surprise, in their architectural practice, their designs fell more into the ‘decorated shed’ category.)  Spoiler Alert: the conclusion of Learning from Las Vegas is a pretty clear criticism of this approach:
When Modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament.  In promoting Space and Articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck.  They substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck; minimegastructures are mostly ducks.  It is now time to reevaluate the once-horrifying statement of John Ruskin that architecture is the decoration of construction, but we should append the warning of Pugin: It is all right to decorate construction but never construct decoration.
Las Vegas has come a long way in the 35+ years since we were first Learning.  There have been countless reinventions and seemingly endless growth spurts.  Last summer, I picked out the Aria hotel in Las Vegas as one of my Top Five and said this about its character:
Aria’s most notable feature is the fact that it represents a radical departure from the themed approach of Las Vegas’ recent past.  Instead of reconstructed Italian piazzas or Egyptian tombs, the architecture of Aria is firmly based on unadorned modernism.  This is its strategy for achieving authenticity: it is not trying to be anything that it’s not.
The Clam Box is doing the same thing.  It is not representing something outside of itself.  It is representing itself.  The building is the sign and the sign is the product: the box of clams.
Next time I’m back, I’ll order the special.

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