Gaz Bar Blues

Norfolk petrol stations

This is the abstract of a paper I submitted to the forthcoming Visualising the Rural conference at the University of Cumbria in July. It describes some new research I’ve been conducting in rural Norfolk. I’ll post a link to the full paper when it’s finished.

Edit (2 July 2013): this research is now part of collective project being crowdfunded on Kickstarter for an exhibition in Norwich this autumn. Click here for more info.

Gaz Bar Blues: architectural resilience and re-use in East Anglia
James Benedict Brown, Norwich University of the Arts

This paper presents a body of emerging visual research and architectural speculation about the changing uses of the petrol station forecourt in the British countryside. Notwithstanding a few examples of the petrol station as architectural ‘high art’, the petrol station forecourt is an under explored architectural typology. Representative on the one hand of a particular rural dependency on the automobile and on the other of a particular form of rural economy, the petrol station is an architectural trope whose many forms and varied adaptations represent an important and largely overlooked narrative of rural life.

In 1970 there were approximately 37,500 petrol stations in the UK. In 2012 there were fewer than 9,000. Approximately 6,000 petrol stations closed between 1998 and 2012, with 400 closing in 2011 alone. [1] Major supermarket chains now operate 15% of all forecourts, but sell almost 40% of all fuel. [2] But while the independent petrol retailer may be disappearing, the architectural form of the rural petrol station forecourt remains widespread. The process of removing underground fuel storage tanks and decontaminating the land is costly, making whole scale demolition and redevelopment into alternative uses (such as housing) uneconomical, especially during in the light of the ongoing recession. The horizontal canopy of the petrol station is now shelter to alternative economic activities that do not require decontamination or demolition. Whether sheltering second hand car sales, hand car washing or the bereaved customers of a funeral home, the petrol station forecourt resists erasure from the rural landscape, supporting instead the emergence of new economic, social and cultural activity in the countryside.

The paper begins with a brief overview of the architectural and planning discourse that has considered the impact of man’s oft-cited “love affair” with the car on the built environment. [3] It contextualises key moments in the genre of photographic critiques of the built environment [4, 5] and acknowledges the importance of early architectural surveys [6] and their later critiques. [7] Acknowledging the tendency of architects to use the camera as a means to capture uncritically, it presents a selection of photographs from a new body of research into the changing uses of a resilient architectural form in the rural landscape of East Anglia.

Notes

1. Retail Motor Industry Federation. 2013. Press releases . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.rmif.co.uk/press-room/press-releases/thousands-of-small-independent-petrol-stations-call-on-the-government-to-scrap-onerous-and-ill-considered-regulation-27-11-12/. [Accessed 10 March 2013].
2. BBC. 2013. BBC News – ‘Big drop’ in UK petrol stations as fuel reserves fall. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-20791871. [Accessed 10 March 2013].
3. See, for example. Borden, I. 2013. Drive: Journeys through Films, Cities, and Landscapes. London: Reaktion Book.
4. Blake, P. 1964. God’s Own Junkyard: the planned deterioration of America’s landscape. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
5. Nairn, I. 1965. Your England Revisited. London: Hutchison Educational.
6. Venturi, R., Brown, D. S., Izenour, S. 1977. Learning from Las Vegas, 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
7. Ostwald, M. & Chapman, M. 2010. The Erotics of Fieldwork in ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ in Ewing, S., McGowan, J. M., Speed, C., Bernie, V. C. (eds) Architecture and Field/Work. Abingdon: Routledge

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