Petrol Station Culture Within The Global Architectural Landscape

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Fill’er Up: petrol station culture within the global architectural landscape

Abstract: (concise summery – no more than 10 sentence)

Just as man’s ability to multiply text and distribute it around the around the world bore a new era so did his ability to refile gasoline and globalized it 4 centuries later.

With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilisation – that is, in spiritual civilisation. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men’s souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect.

"I'm not sure he's wrong about automobiles," he said. "With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization—that is, in spiritual civilization. It may be that they will not add to the beauty of the world, nor to the life of men's souls. I am not sure. But automobiles have come, and they bring a greater change in our life than most of us suspect. They are here, and almost all outward things are going to be different because of what they bring. They are going to alter war, and they are going to alter peace. I think men's minds are going to be changed in subtle ways because of automobiles; just how, though, I could hardly guess. But you can't have the immense outward changes that they will cause without some inward ones, and it may be that George is right, and that the spiritual alteration will be bad for us. Perhaps, ten or twenty years from now, if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn't be able to defend the gasoline engine, but would have to agree with him that automobiles 'had no business to be invented.'" ~Booth Tarkington, The Magnificent Ambersons, 1917

In 1942 Orson Welles wrote and directed an acclaimed film adaptation of the book

Bourgeois enthusiasm

1950 - 60 s fuelling station design was inspired by a bourgeois enthusiasm for travel speed, freedom, highways and new automobile design lent novel attributes to travelling, making it an exciting exhilarating experience. Today excitement about the freedom of independent travel in one’s own car has changed to indifference and irritation. Congestion and long boring distances along a monotonously efficient highway, as well as the total dependency upon the car as a means of effective travel have changed the psychology of travel from adventure to frantic rush from point A to point B. This change is also reflected in the design of fuelling stations. Rather than outposts mainly servicing the car (usually with an associated workshop), ultra cities attempt to provide super efficient points of repose serving commuters. In an attempt to evolve the design of highway stations, with the changing psychology of travel, fuelling companies have responded by maximising efficiency of service and amenity in an effort to provide a ‘calming’ environment in which to spend money. The workshops, grime and oil have disappeared, clean and sanitary toilets, shading plants and lawn aim to create oases along ‘inhospitable’ terrain.

I will refer to this type as ultra city, since this term speaks of the. as yet. unrealised potential it holds.

Ultra Cities

This type has held my attention, since it depends strongly on the high flows along another global phenomenon - the freeway, Autobahn, highway - strips of virtual urbanism cutting through rural and urban landscape. In the South African context the highway has diverted flows from the high streets of towns and small cities. The business and informal enterprise responding in part to the visitors and commuters passing through have lost their patronage, which is now catered for by 'ultra cities’ vying for attention along the highway.

Having none of the dynamic and character of the high street, this type performs as an artificially implanted mini-urbanity. In rural areas the most up to date consumer items in a 200km radius are offered. The ultra city's strictly regulated transience, however has prevented it from becoming a node around which local enterprise could grow and benefit in a meaningful way. Owing to the highly competitive nature of the fuel industry, certain interesting developments have taken place, laying bare a range of potentials to be explored.

  • the standardisation of a particular image
  • continuous modification of additional programme in the face of high competitiveness
  • the perfection of a certain scientifically-based layout to ensure smooth traffic handling and sales
  • additional amenities such as restaurants, telephones, local home-made food industry and jumping castles
  • local industry and markets are incorporated in certain cases
  • 'Sky decks', suspended restaurants, etc have been developed to minimise doubling of program and instill interest in users
  • different food franchises and local business cater for a diverse clientele (tourists, locals, taxis)

Contemporary developments include more programmatic options, creating a wider range of commercial functions for the commuter to engage with, as well as limited opportunities of individual local enterprise. Transience is foisted on the commuter through a neglect in place making. This transience, in part is enforced by regulations, but also through the high turnover requirements in pumping fuel. Any place making effort or additional program can be understood as devices aiding higher fuel sales. This view is held by fuel houses, since it is their business to sell fuel only. Thus the ultra city has deserved as little enthusiasm as contemporary travel.

A realisation is dawning: better amenity and wider programmatic choice (in the form of franchises), ultimately benefit fuel sales in the face of high competition. It is also for this reason that a site along the N1 on the edge of Bloemfontein has been chosen, where several fuelling stations already thrive on high commuter flows. This scenario puts pressure on the premise to innovate the ultra city type.

The potential of the ultra city as implanted highly accessible mini urbanity can now be realised. In a sense a limited area or rather one point along the highway becomes a congested pedestrian urban circuit (accessed by car); an alternative development to the congestion of the old high street. In a periphery condition of a city, an interruption along a limited access highway becomes an interesting point, where the potentials of periphery, highway, and high commuter flows become concentrated In Bloemfontein's case, a civic, political and cultural ambition needs to be taken into full account, since this building will inevitably in its singular existence as urban evidence along the N1 become an icon to the city of Bloemfontein.

Hybrid vigour

It has become accepted, that most ultra cities cater in a bland manner for conventional middle class commuters caught up in holiday, business or daily rituals in which travel is a necessary burden. People are prepared to stop at the venue affording most convenience in fuelling, using ablutions, eating fast food and pulling out again, - a short interruption on their journeys Can a new excitement be created where people choose to linger for a while, take notice of a landscape, engage with a programme not purely commercial, but one which allows for repose of mind and body before leaving refreshed and stimulated, not irritated? Could such a place be very successful commercially as well, and attract a wider range of people for different reasons?

A certain ultra city near Harrysmith is frequented by locals. It offers an environment set in a beautiful landscape and various shopping, good eating and relaxation facilities. Some South Africans take their wedding photographs in front of ultra cities, since, in certain areas, they sport the only piece of accessible landscaped garden as setting A new fuelling station in Midrand proposes a diner over the highway as a meeting point for executives. These observations point to place-making potential achieved through the programmatic expansion of fuelling sites and an integration with landscape and acknowledgement of a wider context. This approach no doubt begs for an all inclusive, long term vision, which fuel consortiums seem to be tenuously developing towards in collaboration with various local enterprises and national franchises.

In global speculative trends - programmatic bombardment is employed to create concentrated, diverse enclaves in which the different functions are mutually sustaining to generate large user attendance.

Interesting speculative projects like the one in Kempton Park, where a mega-casino and hotel complex includes the provision of a cultural facility - a theatre and museum. (This vision was put forward by Caesar's Palace from Las Vegas, who have the resources to colonise the site.)


The ultra city has everything to do with performance. It has to present a highly visible option in fast moving traffic. Large flows of commuters need to be handled efficiently and smoothly. Commuters need to be safely guided on and off, through and out The highway needs to remain efficient in its limited access.

Today the performance of architecture has become more important than its form. Efficiency in handling large flows of traffic or users, access, services, etc., are criteria, which dominate architecture of a certain scale The resulting form is then often dad in a particular way (e.g. in historical garb), in total antithesis to its contents. Alternatively the scientific factors of design often become aesthetic generators in their own right, paying homage to our machine and information age. What is often forgotten is human experience, which is thought enough to be reduced to the answering of a set of NEUFERTS data.

The most powerful potential of architecture, to my mind, is the power it has in proposing future ways of life in our world. Informed by the present status quo, New programmatic combinations can be set up enabling various functions and different users be brought together in new living, working, recreational and learning relations. Since we, and everything around us are constantly evolving, so should we as designers in order to not merely answer to complex contemporary demands In our projects we can incorporate an understanding of a projected future reality. In this way we become proactive instead of reactive in playing out the part we have in shaping our environment.

The car

Today cars are designed as smoothly moulded capsules enclosing their users, protecting them on the inhospitable terrain of high] speed travel. In the same sense a building next to or over the highway shelters its users from noise and danger while responding to the fascination of watching ‘the world shoot by*. The building performs on a number of other levels; opening up to protected landscapes, responding to climate, views, expanding and contracting to allow for various events, etc This premise aids in constructing a building which performs a duplicity of functions, triggers associations, creates awareness - here architecture’s performance transcends that of the car in creating responsive places. Its construction reflects these potentials in the same manner as does that of the car, but also reacts to its context with which it ties in and at the same time separates itself from.


Since dealing with a national, even global phenomenon, it became apparent, that this type can ‘land’ anywhere, where high traffic flows warrant it The higher these flows the more radical innovations are justified, in order to compete with the, inevitably, already existing stations or possible future competitors These scenarios proved fascinating to me and pointed in the direction of a future vision of the type and an investigation into the nature of the highway.

I decided to embark on a number of explorations of different possible context for the ultra city type. I anticipated, that these exercises would inform each other and help me find a specific site and develop a brief