Words And Photos By: Emma Johnston
A Dilophosaurus is perpetually frozen in the act of busting through the brick facade of Jurassic Car Wash on South Congress. A group of pigeons bounce on the rubber fins around his neck. The entrance is framed by a Stonehenge-esque structure sporting a T-Rex head and arms. Is the dinosaur made of stone? Is he coming out of the stone? What do dinosaurs have to do with car washes, anyway?
Automotive architecture like this is an advertisement. The design needed to grab the attention of drivers zooming past the carwash and differentiate each company from their thousands of competitors. There is a plain frankness with which they admit to seeking patronage. Subtlety is not in their lexicon. Furthermore, their ploys at gaining customers smash the sameness that threatens Austin’s new-built landscape.
We’ve all seen this sameness: five to six stories of bottom-floor-retail/upper-floor-residential complexes. Maybe these complexes are covered in light stone or an unadorned concrete for a more “industrial” look. Sections of the building protrude slightly, clad in a contrasting material like tarnished steel. Austin’s exploding population and rising property values have made developer-run projects like these spring up in all corners of the city, morphing Austin’s celebrated counter-culture eclecticism into a fundamentality twenty-teens view of urban fabric. Even on campus, the noble aspiration of preserving aesthetic unity created a relentless sea of limestone blocks, orange brick and terra cotta overhangs.
Furthermore, their ploys at gaining customers smash the sameness that threatens Austin’s new-built landscape.
Backlash against the encroaching Pottery Barn Teens and New American Bistros has materialized in the form of an obsessive search for the mythical “authentic” Austin of a bygone era. Maybe authenticity is a garishly painted gas station from the ‘50s, quietly decomposing down the street. Maybe it is the car wash that is screaming for attention with roaring plastic dinosaurs or the buzzing neon sign of an auto repair shop. Maybe it is J Colunga’s Body and Paint on East Cesar Chavez, whose owner apologized for not having more of his vintage cars out for my photographs besides the mascot of the place: an ancient rusted car with a waving Mexican Flag antenna. The authenticity is the abandoned and forgotten buildings, too.
Austin is home to dozens of notable gas stations, self-service car washes and auto repair garages. Their variety and personality is an antidote to the stress accompanying the city’s expansion. The best case for this style of architecture sits on the corner of 15th and San Jacinto. The abandoned gas station with the ketchup, mustard and relish color scheme was recently leased to Megabus to become their Austin stop, supplanting the 20th and Whitis location. While much of the character of the building was quite literally whitewashed for its new purpose, it is a preservation triumph that this building still exists at all. A tiny, run down gas station taking up less than 10 percent of its lot in Downtown Austin is frankly remarkable.
It is easy to lament the corporatization of buildings like this whose authenticity comes in part from their wear and age. Yet as they are, these buildings are living on borrowed time. We can appreciate the quirk and beauty of an auto shop mural and criticize gentrification as much as we want, but our cities need to change to accommodate growth, density and modernization. Austin’s automotive architecture does not have to be relics of an Austin culture that is dying out, but a lesson in the importance of growing while retaining uniqueness. The 15th and San Jacinto station gives hope that Austin can create a future with a watchful eye to its past.