With the car’s proliferation came a litany of new urban spaces. Street photography, a genre dedicated entirely to the vehicle’s domain and the adjacent pedestrian realm that forms around it, documents some such conditions, as can be seen in Garry Winogrand’s photographs New York City, New York (1969) and Beverly Hills, California (1978). At the same time middle- and upper-class, predominantly white Americans began to leave crowded city centers and migrate to the rapidly sprawling suburbs. Automobiles made this possible, but not in isolation; a significant infrastructural expansion facilitated their success. With the development of the US Interstate Highway System, supported by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, new arteries came into place. Individuals could travel greater distances from home to work, creating populous suburbs around cities throughout the country. Relocation to the suburbs was not universally accessible, however, with Black Americans being widely denied suburban home loans by the Federal Housing Administration.

Within cities, urban planners introduced highways that not only paved the way for the outflow of people and their tax revenue to the suburbs but also created barriers that divided neighborhoods and destroyed communities, often tearing down entire swaths of cities along racial and economic lines. The construction of public highways and the policies tied to them ultimately facilitated the privatization of mobility, further entrenched systemic racism, and instituted another layer of social inequities.

Ed Ruscha’s series of photographs of the Sunset Strip and of parking lots (published in Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles, 2nd edition, 1974; first published 1967) feature LA, the US city perhaps most informed by the car, resulting in its suburbanesque decentralized sprawl enabled by and dependent on highways. Architect Reyner Banham’s reading of the city describes it as one in which “mobility outweighs monumentality.”[2] Ruscha highlights this dominant quality of LA, turning his focus to its ubiquitous parking lots. Though designed to facilitate movement, the lots are notably still and empty. The photographs show “a geography of blank spots” throughout the city, vacant in the early morning with only their super-graphics, striping, oil stains, and tire marks signaling use.[3]

These collections of images encapsulate the documentary nature of Walker Evans’s photography, the bleakness of Edward Hopper’s paintings, and the clean typological indexing of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographic series, infused with Pop graphics and the bravura of the Hudson River painters. In its avoidance of strict categorization and focus on the vehicular landscape, Thirtyfour Parking Lots disrupts our distracted perception of that landscape, yielding parallel examinations of the banality of these functional constructions and the sublimity of their magnitude.

Although infrastructure is in the service of function and rapid transport, that very immensity that Ruscha captures has a different relationship to time, one that sits between an architectural and a geologic scale. Characterized by a resistance to change, these enormous networks are intractable and immovable for decades or even centuries. The damage that highways have done in cities and society exemplifies that what determines the success of these instruments of mobility is not objective and that their ramifications should be examined before implementation. Infrastructure requires futurity that accounts for its political motivations as well as its social and ecological impacts.

Image credits:
Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984), New York City, New York, 1969, and Beverly Hills, California, 1978, from the portfolio Women are better than men. Not only have they survived, they do prevail., published 1982. Gelatin silver prints, 54/75, 11 x 14″ each. Gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Ruderman, 1985.

Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937), Parking Lots (Century City, 1800 Avenue of the Stars) #23, (State Board of Equalization, 14601 Sherman Way, Van Nuys) #19, (Fashion Square, Sherman Oaks) #24, (May Company, 6150 Laurel Canyon, North Hollywood) #7, 1967/1999. Gelatin silver prints, ed. 35, 14 7/8 x 14 7/8″ each. University purchases, Charles H. Yalem Art Fund, 2000. © Edward J. Ruscha IV.

Ed Ruscha (American, b. 1937), Thirtyfour parking lots in Los Angeles, 2nd edition, 1974 (first published 1967). Artist’s book: offset printed, 10 x 7 7/8″. Published by the artist, Los Angeles. Kranzberg Art & Architecture Library, Washington University in St. Louis. © Edward J. Ruscha IV.