Other Non-Places

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In her contribution to the catalog for the upcoming exhibition “Highways and Rest Stops: Passages in Current Practice,” co-curator Allison Hewitt Ward explores the history, architecture and anthropology of highway rest stops in the United States. Juxtaposing the distinct theories of space and place presented by Marc Augé and Michel Foucault, she proposes a dual character for rest stops as both non-places and spaces of representation. (image)

Commodore Perry Travel Plaza, Milepost 100 Eastbound, Ohio Turnpike

The rest stops along the Ohio Turnpike are singular events, each announced by a spire jutting out of the flat patchwork of farms. Officially, and perhaps more accurately, termed travel plazas, theses brightly lit and perfectly sodded sites each offer gasoline, a sleek food court hemmed by a generous selection of fast food franchises, well-stocked gift shops, a game arcade, a business center, free Wi-Fi, landscaped outdoor space, a farmers market, vendor kiosks lined with sunglasses and service facilities for truckers tucked neatly out of view. Among the 14 facilities paired along the east and west-bound side of the highway Commodore Perry is unique only in name (for a naval commander who triumphed in a battle nearby during the War of 1812) and particular selection of franchises: Starbucks, Burger King, Cinnabun, Carvel, Einstein Bros. Bagels and Sbarro.

Commodore Perry is the result of a massive improvement project deployed by the state of Ohio in 1994 that replaced its mid-century rest stops—small campuses populated by gas pumps, auto repair facilities, a small shop and a family-style restaurant—with new models designed to position the “travel center stop as experience.”1 No longer content to be a necessary and accommodating stop along the way, the travel plazas of the Ohio Turnpike now aim to be destinations in and of themselves. 

The travel plazas punctuating the Turnpike are accommodating, to be sure, but unsettling to the traveler in the sameness of their architecture (the design of each facility, purportedly modeled after Frank Lloyd Wright, is identical) and the unplaceability of the familiar sights and smells of fast food joints found everywhere but nowhere in particular. Defined as nothing other than “traveler”—an ambiguous and incomplete identity—the individual here is a stranger in a strangely familiar land. Referring to this odd sense of placelessness, French theorist Marc Augé characterized rest stops—along with interstates, airport terminals and supermarkets—as non-places: “spaces of circulation, consumption and communication” uninscribed with social bond or collective history.2 They are constructed spaces that are not quite places, ambivalent arrangements of infrastructure that an individual may pass through but never labor upon or dwell in, uncanny sites untethered to socio-historical networks.

Bear Lake Rest Area and Outlook, Mile Post 493, State Road 89, Utah

The earliest rest stops, developed privately and by states in the 1930’s, were little more than roadside parks, some furnished only with a parking spot and picnic table.3 In 1938 the federal government codified them as “such sanitary and other facilities as deemed to be necessary to provide for the suitable accommodation of the public” and made federal funds available to state for their construction.4 These were sites of necessity. The highways and interstates that began to appear in the mid-20th Century bypassed the towns that once served the needs of travelers and early motorists found themselves in need of basic amenities. These simple stops sprung up not at the intersections of roads but at the intersection of the technology of travel and the limits of the human body. 

It was not until the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, which spurred the construction of thoroughfares across the nation, that rest stop construction hit its full stride. While the rest stop infrastructure of routes like the Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey Turnpikes is made up of commercial services, stops elsewhere took on a distinctly different character. Subject to a prohibition on commercial enterprise in roadside facilities constructed after 1960, these rest stops, designated safety rest areas in federal code, continued in the vein of the roadside park.5 Under the influence of 1965’s Highway Beautification Act their mandate was expanded to offer more than simply “suitable accommodation.” A late 1970s revision to United States Code specifies defines a safety rest area as

A roadside facility removed from the traveled way with parking and such facilities for the motorist deemed necessary for his rest, relaxation, comfort and information needs. The term is synonymous with “rest and recreation areas.”

The statute goes on to designate the “scenic quality of a site” as a primary consideration in its selection.6

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A traveler poses at Bear Lake Rest Area and Outlook

Utah’s Bear Lake Rest Area and Outlook is modest in architecture and amenities: it offers a parking lot and small restroom building situated between the road and the eponymous outlook. The traveler walks down a 25 meter sidewalk from the parking lot to a small pavilion that points the gaze across the lake below. The distance and action serve to separate the space of observation from the space of travel. Information panels offer natural and cultural context. Another panel memorializes Utah poet Mary Swenson and reproduces one of her works. The placement of poetry alongside landscape underscores the site’s efforts to engender an experience of “beauty.” Aesthetic pleasure appears here as a variant of the rest, relaxation and comfort prescribed from rest stops. The rest stop is reoriented as not only a site of necessity but a site to enjoy and a site from which to see. It is positioned as porous point at which the landscape is made visible from the road, carefully framed for the traveler’s eye. The observation and contemplation of natural beauty is choreographed into the traveler’s journey.

Walt Whitman Service Area, Milepost 29 Southbound, New Jersey Turnpike

While rest stops are not as loudly contested as other public institutions they are nonetheless loci of contradictory sentiments and imaginations. They call to mind at once images of family fun, the roadside picnic and pleasant relief; the triumph or monstrosity (depending upon your point of view) of a vast and efficient network of commerce and exchange; the promise of the open road; the specter of deviant sexuality; a fear of robbery or bodily harm. 

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A traveler outside New Jersey’s Walt Whitman Service Area

A New York Times review of Looking for America on the New Jersey Turnpike recounts the observations of its authors, a pair of Rutgers University professors, at the New Jersey Turnpike’s Walt Whitman Service Area.

In a particularly entertaining chapter titled “Rest Area Culture,” the authors explore that most anonymous of American meeting places. They visit the Walt Whitman Rest Area near Philadelphia in search of an employee who knows who Whitman was - in vain. They examine the purposefully bland rest area environment in its seldom-discussed function as sexual trysting ground: a place that has been the site of everything from back-seat student romances to alleged prostitution rings operating out of the snack bars. Unfortunately, Mr. Gillespie and Mr. Rockland rely mostly on vague hearsay reports or rather tame interviews to flesh out their vision of the turnpike’s secret eroticism.7

While the seediness and deviancy attributed to rest stops would appear to exist far more in rumor than in fact, the suspicions and fears cannot be entirely unfounded: a news search for “rest stop” turns up a grizzly dossier of crimes and discoveries. 

The fact that rest stops are sites of such contradictory sentiments is bound up in their constitutional strangeness, in other words, their character as non-places. They evade the familiar grammar of cities, towns and dwellings and remain ever suspended between here and there. They host crowds but no community: no system of social relations exists among the atomized travelers. While places create the “organically social,” Augé writes, “non-places create solitary contractuality.” Rather than forming relations with each other, travelers pausing at the rest stop only to the rules of the road and the prescriptions of the stop. He continues: “The link between individuals and their surroundings in the space of non-place is established through the mediation of words, or even texts.”8 At the rest stop the traveler is choreographed by signage instead of the social. Rather than entering into relations with other travelers, the monadic traveler follows these textual dictate and exists in singular relation to abstract institutions that issue them: the state, the nation, the highway commission. 

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Rest Area Guide in Arizona

The space of the rest stop is tenuously and precariously tied to the social. It is no wonder, then, that fears of supposedly anti-social, anarchic behavior cluster around these sites. It is not simply that the traveler feels himself to be a stranger at the rest stop, the rest stop, this disorienting and disoriented non-place, is a stranger among places.

Oklahoma Tourism Information Center, Milepost 9 Eastbound, Interstate 40

In addition to compensating for the lack of local services along the interstates, rest stops attempt to compensate for the lack of locality itself, to punctuate the monotony and anonymity of the passage with the specificity of place. Most offer racks of leaflets for local attractions and many offer signage and displays that represent the region to the passing traveler. Stops closest to the state line often double as “tourism centers.” Local history, geography, biology and culture are colorfully announced somewhere between the entrance and the bathroom. Some, like Iowa’s welcome center on Interstate 35, fashioned after a red barn, use regional architecture as a method of local placement. 

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Iowa Welcome Center on Interstate 35

The otherwise unremarkable Oklahoma Tourism Information center on Interstate 40 offers a row of picnic pavilions in the form of minimalist teepees for hungry motorists. Each structure hosts one family-sized picnic table, creating a sense of privacy and solitude for the picnickers while at the same time leaving them fully visible; alone but over-exposed the family completes the tableaux. These pavilions, like the scenic views offered by other stops, indicate an aesthetic motive at work in rest stops: they are sites that exist not merely to be used but to be seen. 

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Oklahoma Tourism Information Center

Variations on the tee-pee pavilion are somewhat common throughout the rest stops of the planes states. Though presumably intended to create a sense of place-specificity along the interstate, these structures tell the traveler very little about the region. They pleasantly adhere to the forms the American imagination had already assigned it. The traveler is offered precisely what she would expect to see. It should be noted as well that these roadside teepees certainly do not speak to, and in their silence obscure, the troubled history of American westward expansion and the displacement, genocide, and continued disenfranchisement of American Indians. 

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Teepee Pavillon, location unknown;Teepee Pavillon, location unknown;South Dakota Rest Stop on Interstate 90

In these structures the reality and history of a place is disposed of in an image; “there is no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.” The spectacles on display in non-places, Augé notes, serve not to make the past present but to assert the “urgency of the present moment.”9 The babble of tourist information, ostensibly intended to draw the traveler off the road, serves only to represent an abstracted idea of  “place” confined to vitrines and glossy tri-folds and deployed as a marking post of movement.

The Rest Stops

“If a place can be defined as relational, historical, and concerned with identity,” Augé writes, “then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.”10 In rest stops the individual is replaced by the anonymous; relations between people are displaced by the implicit contract of use between traveler and infrastructure; history is annihilated by spectacle. The vast network of rest stops has enabled a new method of travel that does not pass through town and country but through the institutions of travel itself: structures to be passed through but never occupied, un-integrated with the “real” spaces of everyday life. 

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Pavilions modeled after oil rigs at a Texas rest stop

Yet the characterization of a rest stop simply as an iteration of non-place is incomplete. It fails to account for the aesthetic function of rest stops, sites to be seen and from which to see. The national network of rest stops is not a void; it is teaming with images. Be it on one trip or another, the traveler is bound to pass through several of these spaces and while some, like Commodore Perry or Walt Whitman, may remain displaced and forgettable, others, like Oklahoma’s tourism center or the Bear Mountain are more notable. While the traveler may never leave Oklahama’s highway an image of the place—albeit a spectacular image of a fictionalized place—has been inscribed in his memory. Each stop can be characterized not only as a non-place but as a space of representation.

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Corn installation at Iowa City rest stop

It is useful here to turn away from Augé to a different characterization of spaces entirely: heterotopia, as outlined in Michel Foucault’s 1967 essay “Other Places.” Heterotopias, he writes are “counter-sites” in which

…the real sites, all other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted. Places of this kind are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality.11

In the floating and placeless place of the heterotopia it is possible to juxtapose “in a single real space several places, several sites that are themselves incompatible.”12 The heterotopia is the amalgamation of all sites in a culture presented outside the confines of ordinary institutions. If a rest stop is a non-place, the rest stops make up a sort of impoverished heterotopia: the history, geography and diverse localities of the United States are all represented in this transcontinental institution, albeit only as depthless images of themselves. Rest stops display the idea of a particular place as it functions in the idea of the nation. In Texas the traveler is presented with oil rigs; in Iowa corn. Each carefully framed scenic view and local display is entered into a catalog of the nation’s cultural, material and geographic riches. A rest stop is a non-place, a pause, a nice view, a rejuvenation. The rest stops are a vast picture show of “America”: harmonious and two-dimensional images of a nation laid overtop its stubbornly dissonant and three-dimensional terrain.

Geraldine Kiefer, “Revolutionizing the Rest Stop,” Along the Ohio Turnpike 31, no. 4 (April 2001): 49.

Marc Augé, Non-Places (London; New York: Verso, 2008), vii.

“Rest Area History: History,” Rest Area History, n.d.

Daniel T. Blomquist and Jodi L. Carson, “Investigating the Needs and Expectations of Rest Area User: A Critical Step in Long-Range Rest Area Planning,” ITE Journal 72, no. 7 (July 2002): 44–48.

Thomas M. Corsi, Robert J. Windle, and A. Michael Knemeyer, “Evaluating the Potential Impact of Interstate Highway Rights-of-Way Commercialization on Economic Activity at Interchanges,” Transportation Journal 39, no. 2 (December 1, 1999): 16–25.

E-CFR: Title 23: Highways, Electronic Code of Federal Regulations, vol. Title 23: Highways, accessed March 3, 2015

Edward Allen, “Meet Me At the Walt Whitman Rest Area,”The New York Times, November 19, 1989, sec. Books

Augé, Non-Places, 76.

9 Ibid., 83.

10 Ibid., 63.

11 Michel Foucault, “Other Spaces,” in Utopias, ed. Richard Noble (London: Whitechapel Gallery, 2009), 63.

12 Ibid., 65.