“Less is a bore,” American architect Robert Venturi once stated, cheekily challenging Mies van der Rohe’s famous modernist pronouncement that “less is more.”
Mr. Venturi and colleague Denise Scott Brown took that theory to extremes in the 1990s with a garishly decorated McDonald’s restaurant in Buena Vista, Fla., whose cartoonish “Pop” elements include a giant Happy Meal box, fries and a googly eyed soda cup.
For some observers, this jubilant salute to kitsch is to be savoured, viewed with the requisite postmodern ironic detachment. To others, it is simply an affront to good taste and a wallowing in crass commercialism.
Whatever their merits, the McDonald’s and similar vernacular-inspired buildings by high-profile architects underline the fact that genuine kitsch architecture – such as roadside attractions, exotically themed motels, giant signs shaped like donuts or hot dogs – has acquired a certain cachet. It may be maligned by some architectural snobs who wouldn’t mind seeing it go by the wayside but also boasts a corps of passionate aficionados keen on preserving it.
Take Roxanne Arsenault and Caroline Dubuc, two Montrealers who recently launched an interactive website cataloguing Quebec’s “kitsch heritage.”
The site – patrimoinekitsch.com – pinpoints on a map of the province dozens of kitsch structures, either still standing or that no longer exist. It asks visitors to contribute their own favourite places, providing a photo and description if possible.
The two women are unapologetic and unironic in their love of kitsch. They created the site out of a sense of mission based on the notion that kitsch buildings and decor are worthy of serious attention, reflecting a certain popular tradition of vernacular expression.
“Kitsch has always been something that interested me, the ability [of its creators] to make you travel somewhere else or forget everyday life,” said Ms. Arsenault, who wrote her Master’s thesis about Quebec’s exotic commercial kitsch landscape.
“There’s a certain individualism in many of these places that goes counter to the commercial standardization [such as chain restaurants],” said Ms. Dubuc, a design commissioner with the city of Montreal.
Many of the people who built kitsch roadside venues, motels or fast-food stops in Quebec’s postwar era were modest entrepreneurs, often immigrants from Europe or Asia or migrants from rural areas, Ms. Arsenault said.
In Montreal, the classic example of kitsch architecture – the “crown jewel,” for some – is Gibeau Orange Julep, the giant sphere on Décarie Boulevard that looks like an orange and is lit up at night, dispensing its famous frothy orange-juice, hot dogs and other fast foods.
Another Montreal icon of kitsch is the 10-metre-tall Guaranteed Pure Milk Co. bottle/water tower in the downtown, refurbished several years ago at a cost of about $200,000.
Among Ms. Arsenault and Ms. Dubuc’s favourite Quebec kitsch venues are the Hotel-Motel Coconut in Trois-Rivières and La Baleine, a souvenir boutique in the shape of a white whale at an RV campsite in Matane, the gateway to Gaspésie. The Coconut motel is famous for its tiki bar, a category all its own in the kitsch universe.
Indeed, the tiki-bar concept has enjoyed a big comeback over the past few years, with classic old venues being refurbished or new ones popping up. But the revival has also intensified a debate over cultural appropriation, with critics saying tiki bars are crass caricatures of Pacific Islanders’ customs and culinary traditions. Proponents say the tiki style is actually a nod to cheesy Americana and makes no pretense to being authentically Polynesian.
Ms. Arsenault – a co-ordinator of programming at a contemporary art centre as well as a rapper – and Ms. Dubuc say they hope their interactive map will encourage local and regional tourist bureaus to promote worthy examples of kitsch located in their area.
The duo is also keen on inspiring their website visitors and contributors to plan road trips that include visits to kitsch sites.
It’s early days and the two kitsch curators have yet to establish a strict definition of what is eligible to make the cut on their website. But they want the emphasis to be on architecture and location, including interiors, and not on roadside venues.
In the United States, websites on the subject abound. RoadsideArchitecture.com, for example, displays more than 60,000 photos of buildings, signs and statues from across the country.
Another group, the Society for Commercial Archaeology, bills itself as “Advocates for America’s Roadside Heritage” and is devoted to saving “North America’s most endangered roadside places.”
Then there is the “Large Roadside Attractions of Canada” website, founded in the 1990s by Sudbury geologist Ed Solonyka and listing over 1,500 places. Among the landmarks on display are the giant goose in Wawa, Ont., Kenora’s 12-metre Husky the Muskie leaping fish and – recently making headlines – Moose Jaw’s Mac the Moose. Proud residents of the Saskatchewan city launched a campaign to reclaim the title of “world’s tallest moose statue” after Norway erected a sleek silver moose that is about 30 centimetres taller than Mac’s 9.80 metres.
For Ms. Arsenault and Ms. Dubuc, raising public awareness about the importance of preserving what’s left of the province’s kitsch heritage is a key part of their mandate.
“It’s important to explain, show and convince people that it’s a worthy topic,” Ms. Dubuc said.
Ms. Arsenault was actively involved 12 years ago in efforts to save the beloved Canada Motel on Montreal’s South Shore, considered by fans as the ne plus ultra of kitsch: garish neon sign, rooms with themes such as “lumberjack” – complete with log walls – and “garage.” Efforts to preserve it, however, failed.
One example of worthy kitsch preservation work cited by Ms. Arsenault is the heritage designation given to a strip of mid-20th-century motels in Wildwood, N.J. The initiative launched several years ago, has been good for business, helping spur the revival of an area that had fallen on hard times and was losing many of its choice kitsch buildings to redevelopment.
Ms. Dubuc and Ms. Arsenault are pleased with the interest their project has generated so far.
There are no plans at this point to extend the interactive map beyond Quebec’s borders. But, “we’ll see,” Ms. Arsenault said.