Nightwatch: An Afterword

Published in Foreign Architecture / Domestic Policy (Humboldt Books, 2022) by Hamed Bukhamseen and Ali Karimi of Civil Architecture.

The gas station may not even be architecture; it might just exploit one of its elements: the canopy. (Even if a gas station doesn’t have a canopy, that absence is a kind of presence.) Stretched over pump islands and sheltering windshield squeegees, the canopy today is usually some kind of space frame, concocted out of steel and plastics. Its lightness is not buoyance but the means by which to lay claim to the footprint on a chintzy budget. Underneath the canopy, each pump island impersonates a caryatid, concerned less with holding up the roof than with guarding the false ground and the reservoirs below. Architecture, if it’s actually there, conceals the real landscape of underground tanks below.

Suspended from the canopy is its own shell—a sky of LEDs that cascade a lit forcefield of containment—like a snow globe, or more precisely, an acrylic terrarium that encases oil-saturated concrete, luminous plastic casements, and rubbered curbs. Its staging is not of nature but of the assertion that there is no nature. The only thing organic comes out of the pumps.

The procurers of gas-station lighting profess that the luminescence conveys a sense of safety. But it also overwhelms human clients with a dreary eeriness. Look up at the source, and you light up like the prey of alien ships. This canopy illuminates its realm, engulfing its patrons while shunning nearby garages, shuttered chain restaurants, and any surviving flora. A figure outside the light is a threatening silhouette until it is under the light, where it becomes a welcomed consumer.

The gas station’s aesthetic originated in North America, where an unsettling merges with nostalgia (from Edward Hopper to Matthew Barney). The gas station is at once threatening and sheltering, alienating and banal, essential and wasteful with troughs of gasoline for the car, Styrofoam chalices of high-fructose syrups for the riders, and always one for the road.

I set this scene to visualize the business deal that Civil Architecture has traced across the European continent. As if we could ever leave it, Hamed and Ali bring us back to the gas station, roadway services designed to inhabit us. It’s not so surprising that American obsessions, yet again, get formulated somewhere else. But it feels explorative to think about OAPEC and oil scares, racist caricatures, and manufactured wars at a gas station while thumbing through soiled magazines and admiring the rhapsody of cigarette brands behind the counter.

In his recent treatise Oilcraft, Robert Vitalis offers a play-by-play account of how the 1973 oil crisis unfolded—not as an embargo, but as a US corporate device to profit from the simulation of a crisis. We learn from Civil Architecture’s interview with Nader Sultan that Q8 originated as a riposte to such pernicious geopolitical maneuverings. Or, maybe, Q8 was not so much a riposte as it was a deflection, the shifting of the blow made by imperial misinformation to another story told about petroleum. This story is a mythology, still based on money but buoyed by the fantasy of driving cars: the pull of horizons, the push from restlessness.

At a gas station, a handful of bills or the slide of a credit card secures a fill-up. There is the ritual of sounds—steel on steel, indicative beeps—and then the evidential, and lulling, waft of benzine, the affirmation that the deal will be rounded and movement will soon resume.

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and then the evidential, and lulling, waft of benzine, the affirmation that the deal will be rounded and movement will soon resume.

Foreign Architecture / Domestic Policy reveals how Q8 was a pursuit of autonomy—an economic policy, even a survival strategy during the Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait. It is an autonomy based on others’ addiction, not necessarily an “addiction to oil” but rather the need to be moving—the sensation of freedom designed into the automobile. There is the rapture that infects drivers, and then there is also the delirious abandonment by the passenger to another’s whims and mettle. Wind through the hair is a euphemistic cover-up for the unbearable realization that flesh hurtles dangerously close to asphalt.

Hamed and Ali mention the works of Venturi, Scott-Brown, Izenour, and Ruscha, iconologists obsessed with surfaces and signs. In this book, we learn that Q8 got its name from British marketeers, its catchiness relying on some vestige of colonialism. The logo, the colors, the sails, they’re all ruses. Q8’s founders feign no inventiveness; their genius lay in taking cover in an already unfolding mythology. Hamed and Ali have not indexed “typologies.” They’ve published a map with no physical geography required. It’s a coordinate system of settings, atmospheres, and experiences.

Every gas station across Europe is calculated on a geodetic canvassing of Earth, in strategic relation to other gas stations. The result is an omnipresence masked as an evanescence. Maybe more than any other kind of built structure, gas stations are indistinguishable. The logo rises above the canopy as a beacon, the branding less significant than the universal expectation. “Q8” means something, not because it’s distinguished from Shell or BP or Repsol, but because, like them, it offers the same standardized expectancy in both aesthetic and function. Arriving customers, who are addled, tired, hungry, agitated, and in a hurry, don’t typically care that Repsol once hired Norman Foster to design signature canopies (flitting upwards like blown-out umbrellas). Consumers seek out the bare essentials: the canopy, the light, the petrol, the perceived safety. Architecture, at least in the strictly material sense, doesn’t matter.

I’m left to wonder what will happen when the need for fossil fuel ends and petroleum no longer charades as electricity for the batteries in Teslas. What will become of these familiar, mesmerizing places? Will their embedded nostalgia and addictive dread be sustained by new meaning? Might they extend a welcoming hand, a wet saloon on a dry road? Could there be a domestic policy hinged on hospitality? And if so, might it be injected like embalming fluid into these expired veins of a prior generation’s dreams and profits?

Gas stations are not icons, but inscriptions like punctuation marks on land converted long ago into human meaning. Foreign Architecture / Domestic Policy reveals how this script got written and leaves us with a question—can it be rewritten?