The Modernist Gas Stations of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe


Just a few miles from where I live on Los Ange­les’ Olympic Boule­vard stands the Helios House, which, the name notwith­stand­ing, is a gas sta­tion — and quite a strik­ing one. Made of stain­less steel tri­an­gles, it looks like a piece of very ear­ly com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed imagery brought into the mod­ern phys­i­cal world. The Helios House intro­duced me to the con­cept of the archi­tec­tural­ly for­ward gas sta­tion, but, built in 2007, it actu­al­ly came late to the game: wit­ness, for instance, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1956 R.W. Lind­holm Ser­vice Sta­tion in Clo­quet, Min­neso­ta (above and below).


“In the ear­ly 1930s, Wright began devel­op­ing con­cepts for Broad­acre City, a city spread out to the point where it would be ‘every­where and nowhere,’” we wrote when we first post­ed about the build­ing in 2011.

“The design for the Lind­holm gas sta­tion came direct­ly from this con­cep­tu­al project.” Alas, writes The Atlantic’s Daniel From­son, Wright’s ambi­tious design did­n’t catch on: “Cer­tain ele­ments, such as gas pumps hang­ing from an over­head canopy—intended to boost effi­cien­cy and save space—were pro­hib­it­ed by Clo­quet fire bylaws (although, coin­ci­den­tal­ly, hang­ing pumps even­tu­al­ly became pop­u­lar in Japan). The unortho­dox sta­tion was also esti­mat­ed by one trade pub­li­ca­tion to have cost two to three times as much as a stan­dard design.”


But Wright does­n’t stand alone among the mod­ernist mas­ters in hav­ing done gas-sta­tion work. Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe, anoth­er archi­tect with a pen­chant for reimag­in­ing the ele­ments of the city, put his hand (or at least those of some­one in his office ) to the task in 1969, com­ing up with the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly stripped-down Nuns’ Island gas sta­tion in the mid­dle of Mon­tre­al’s Saint Lawrence Riv­er. Unlike the Lind­holm Ser­vice Sta­tion, it no longer per­forms its intend­ed func­tion, but it does have a repur­posed future as a com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter. His oth­er gas sta­tion, put up at the cam­pus of the Illi­nois Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy where he head­ed the depart­ment of archi­tec­ture, has­n’t sur­vived at all.

Nuns Island

But Oob­ject includes it in their list of the top fif­teen mod­ernist gas sta­tions, which fea­tures build­ings by Nor­man Fos­ter and Arne Jacob­sen and should make fine fur­ther read­ing if you’ve enjoyed this post. See also Fla­vor­wire’s list of the world’s most beau­ti­ful gas sta­tions, which names not only Wright and Mies van der Rohe’s work, but the Helios House, a few pieces of swoop­ing mid­cen­tu­ry glo­ry in Los Ange­les and Scan­di­navia, and a “Teapot Dome Ser­vice Sta­tion” shaped like exact­ly that. If you’re going to pay today’s gas prices, after all, you might as well fill up under an aes­thet­i­cal­ly notable struc­ture.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Frank Lloyd Wright Reflects on Cre­ativ­i­ty, Nature and Reli­gion in Rare 1957 Audio

The His­to­ry of West­ern Archi­tec­ture: From Ancient Greece to Roco­co (A Free Online Course)

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling­wa­ter Ani­mat­ed

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­maFol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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