Apple, Google, Amazon, Hewlett-Packard and Walt Disney. What do they have in common? Multibillion dollar turnovers? Rapacious capitalism? Sure. Yet perhaps more interestingly, every one of them started off in a suburban garage.
The garage is the most prosaic, the most functional, the least insulated and probably the messiest place in a house. Yet perhaps precisely because it is so marginal a space, it has been able to accommodate an almost limitless range of uses. A garage can be adapted, adopted and reimagined as anything from workshop or music studio to fetish dungeon and it has become, in a way, the nexus of contemporary culture and commerce. Disney and Hewlett-Packard’s original unassuming sheds are now museum pieces, preserved and restored as cultural artefacts.
This cultural status is counter-intuitive. When we think of creativity we tend to think of cities, of the serendipitous collision of classes and races, the sparks of inspiration that occur when people are crammed together in diverse communities and the most brilliant minds are drawn to the multicultural magnet of wealth. That, at least, is the contemporary urbanist consensus.
Yet, weirdly, it may just be the suburbs — the bland, boring, ecosystem of identical houses and undifferentiated closes — that have been the engine behind the developments in tech, music, film and engineering which have been driving growth all these years.
I’m writing these very words from a space that was once my own garage. Its walls are now lined with books but behind those spines are the 1960s-era, bare engineering bricks that once contained a car and an oily concrete floor. In fact, it was the reason I bought this house, the idea that this unloved space would make a perfect office.
Oddly, at exactly the moment we are potentially realising the value of the garage, it is going out of fashion. New urban developments (at least in the west) tend to disdain the car in favour of public transport.
It is an angle that developers can hold up as a virtuous commitment to walkability and urban intensification but one which, coincidentally, saves them a huge wad of cash. Meanwhile, suburban development of the type that drove huge postwar growth in the US and Australia but also on the edges of most historic European cities, is frowned upon as sprawl. The result is an unprecedented housing crisis in popular cities such as London, New York, Paris and elsewhere.
This is not a defence of the suburban, rather an elegy for the idea of a space that can be anything you want it to be.
The title of a small new book by the artist Olivia Erlanger and architect Luis Ortega Govela is Garage: Hate Suburbia. The lovely, slightly whimsical (self- published) book proposes the garage as “the silent hero of the 20th century”. Erlanger and Govela bring together an illustrious cast of characters to illustrate the garage’s status in contemporary culture, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Lester Burnham, Kevin Spacey’s character in American Beauty. For Burnham, they say, the suburban garage is a place where he can “light up, work out, jerk off”, the ultimate man cave to accommodate a midlife crisis.
Frank Lloyd Wright enters the story as perhaps the first major architect to recognise the life-changing potential of the car. His Robie House (in Chicago, Illinois) of 1908-1910 was, according to the authors, the first to integrate a garage into the structure of the house itself. Cars had previously been stored in separate outhouses more akin to stables as they were considered a serious fire risk. Work started on Robie House in the same year that the first Ford Model T rolled off the production line, so the history of the suburban garage and of avant-grade architecture are surprisingly intertwined.
Yet other characters roll in and out of the story, too. There is Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs’ hairy early partner, who is said to have developed Apple’s early products in a garage, even though he himself relates that the garage was mainly used for warehousing (sometimes the myth becomes stronger than the reality).
There is Gwen Stefani and Kurt Cobain and the rise of garage bands. And, of course, there are garage sales, home gyms, recording studios, artists’ studios and galleries. The garage, it seems, is an empty vessel, capable of accommodating almost any fantasy.
Architecturally, even when they are integrated into the highly finished, commercial product of the modern house, the garage tends to have a raw, unfinished quality at odds with the domesticity of the dwelling that engulfs it. With its exposed brick walls, concrete floors, steel-rack shelving and heavy mechanical door systems, it represents the encroachment of industrial space into the domestic.
Appearing unfinished, a place where the structure of the house is frankly revealed rather than obsessively concealed, it remains one of the few spaces (perhaps together with the cellar and the loft) which allow the imposition of imagination and the boundless possibilities of reinvention.
If the garage is the space of invention, it is also a site of existential angst. Lester Burnham suffers his midlife crisis in his man-cave garage. There are countless other films in which the garage becomes a transformational space, such as Back to the Future, where it doubles as a lab. It is also the scene of real-life tragedies, with people using this hidden space to kill themselves by leaving the engine running and slowly letting the fumes overcome them. The garage is the one room in the house that has no windows, it is the most private and, consequently in a strange way, the most intimate room.
It can become the space of obsession. There is the almost sexual desire for the car in the garage, think of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or another, older but just as magically transformational version in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Or even Batman’s bat cave — the essential high-tech man cave and a glorified suburban garage and space of transformation.
The reason the garage is so open to adaptation is that it is, effectively, redundant. Designed for an era when cars would rust and leach oil when left out in the open, they are not really needed for modern cars.
Perhaps that redundancy chimes with the contemporary crisis in masculinity. What was once the male space is now defunct. It needs to be reappropriated and what was once the site of the male midlife crisis is now having to adapt to another kind of crisis altogether.
The surge in property prices across many cities has led to young adults staying far longer than ever before in their parental homes. Garages are now being adapted and expanded as accommodation for grown-up children. A sort of diametric opposite to the granny flat. The baby flat, perhaps.
As garages themselves are adapted, their very substance has become the stuff of architecture.
Architect Teddy Cruz, working on the urban cross-border phenomenon which is San Diego/Tijuana, pointed out to me how many Mexicans, often involved in the construction industry over the border, have taken the detritus from demolished and defunct garages from the postwar suburban building boom in the US and repurposed them south of the border as elements in remarkable self-built dwellings. Colourful, distinctive mid-century garage doors now appear as walls and lean-tos, as gates and porch shelters in some occasionally brilliant examples of adaptive and inventive reuse.
The suburban garage truly is, it seems, the gift that keeps on giving.
• This article was originally published by the Financial Times. Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017