Away from Home: A History of the Garage

View of a garage door from Garage, 2018. © John Divola.


As you flip through Garage (MIT Press, 2018), a book by American artist Olivia Erlanger and Mexican architect Luis Ortega Govela, beguiling layered images of suburbia, the garage, and entrepreneurial icons jump out at you. Some feature Erlanger’s sculptures, such as Slow Violence (2016), a pair of oversize snake tongues hanging side by side; according to the caption, it’s a reference to the ouroboros that comments on the boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism. Other illustrations show domestic architectural renderings by Govela, a cofounder of the London-based collective ÅYR (formerly known as AIRBNB Pavilion). There are also photographs of collaborative installations by the authors addressing the changing context of the home. If the images seem esoteric, that may be the point: the authors frame the central argument of the book as an attempt to decipher what they call “the conspiracy of the garage.”

Erlanger and Govela’s analytical history is an expansive follow-up to their self-published Garage: Hate Suburbia (2017). That project grew out of their personal experiences of Americana and the suburban home. Born in New York City, Erlanger spent her teen years in the suburbs, and Govela grew up in northern Mexico harboring romantic images of suburban life from US sitcoms and movies. Garage: Hate Suburbia features image collages, discussions between founders of galleries run out of garages, and a fictional conversation between Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and singer Gwen Stefani of No Doubt. Garage is a refreshingly unpretentious, narratively nimble continuation of their inquiry, charting the structure’s relationship to subcultures, Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, and the workings of neoliberal capitalism.

Erlanger and Govela begin with the garage’s original role as a humble shelter for the automobile. Built in 1908 in Chicago by Frank Lloyd Wright, the first attached garage was a response to a changing industrial era, heralding the seamless coexistence of car and human that would come to orchestrate daily life in the US. Before that, automobiles were stored in stables, away from the house, since city officials and the insurance industry deemed the attached garage too risky.

As an architect, Wright aimed to fashion a uniquely American vernacular that would replace Victorian values of family and status with an Emersonian ethic of self-reliance. The garage was to a play an integral part in this scheme. Erlanger and Govela psychoanalyze Wright, reading his ideological orientation as an outcome of his family life; he was abandoned by his father as a child and raised by his mother.

It took a while for the attached garage to catch on. For decades, cars were either left outside or kept in a carport, a simple wall-less, roofed structure that Wright introduced with his Usonian houses of the 1930s. This small, single-story housing model was later mass-produced in the 1950s by real estate developer Joseph Eichler, who Steve Jobs cited as a major influence. Jobs’s childhood home in Mountain View, California, was based on Eichler’s ersatz Usonian typology. In a 2012 interview published in Smithsonian magazine, Jobs said that Eichler’s clean, distinctive, and simple homes inspired Apple’s first marketing slogan in 1977: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Govela and Erlanger note that it wasn’t until the garage was “deprogrammed” from its intended purpose of automobile storage in later years—when people left their cars outside to free up the attached garage for other ends—that it became an abstracted, polyvalent space for its users (primarily white men) to live out their fantasies. The windowless garage provides a space to perform a drag incompatible with other rooms of the house; it allows its inhabitants to detach identity from the strictures of the kitchen and the bedroom. It’s where bands like No Doubt and Nirvana would project an image of alternative family structures, to sell an appealing otherness. In the garage, one can temporarily “escape the prison of domesticity” and experiment with alternative identities.

In a similar vein, young entrepreneurs such as Stanford graduates and HP founders Bill Hewlett and David Packard ushered in new “labor subjectivities,” Erlanger and Govela write, by resisting the conventions of domestic life and transforming the garage and the home into an ad hoc site of capital production. They coopted risk as an edgy marketing currency. The garage became a “cultural marker exposing the displacement of domestic feelings attached to the home toward contemporary modes of production.” This symbiotic overlapping of home and work is made available for public consumption in what the authors call “garageification of space.”

Erlanger and Govela assert that the process of garageification maps suburban familiarity onto urban environments by recreating some of the comforts of home. Commercial buildings and lofts often appropriate aspects of garage aesthetics, such as open floor plans, bare pipes, and unfinished walls. The replication of intimacy is ostensibly meant to expand the appeal of urban spaces and office architecture. But the suburbs were never made for the multitudes; in fact, the automobile, the driving force behind the suburbs’ proliferation, was marketed against a spirit of collectivity. Companies like Airbnb and WeWork capitalize on blurred boundaries between spaces of work and leisure, but the openness and inclusiveness they claim for their platforms doesn’t quite jibe with the history that informs their rise and popularity. In our dominant economic and ideological paradigm, individualism and conformity, governed by platform capitalism’s terms of service, form the framework for any semblance of intimacy.

Govela and Erlanger ask: “What is the subject being modeled in the new image of the home?” This is difficult to answer for a few reasons, and none more salient than the relative accessibility of housing today, compared to the period following the first economic crisis of the 1930s when home ownership was limited by redlining. Speculating about a universal subject is perhaps unwise given the nature of global neoliberalism and its cross-fertilization of various subject positions. Erlanger and Govela overlook the similarities between garageification and the professionalization of forms of affective labor once performed by women at home without pay. All this leaves me wondering how exactly, then, garageification can be differentiated from gentrification without relying on the narrative of displaced identities and histories, from Wright’s garage to Airbnb. As compelling as Erlanger and Govela’s conspiracy theory may be, attempts to square its central narrative with other kinds of experience threaten to unravel its threads altogether.