Gas Stations, The Australian, April 1995

Monday 18 April

Ross Harley

Gas Stations

They glow on the horizon like giant navigational beacons. We watch as they pass silently by the homeward side of our most well-travelled roads. These 24-hour shrines to a dying modernity assert their bold horizontal lines and standard geometrical form against all odds. Like it or not, the service station is one of the great industrial icons of our time.

Just think about it. Unlike any pre-twentieth-century architecture, they are landmarks designed solely for the driver. From behind safety-glass they appear in a motorised stream of motion, looming against the clutter of mere pedestrian-scale objects. Some might even claim a certain perfection of spatial communication: a commercial economy of means and singularity of expression.

You can spot a petrol station at great distance and even greater speed. The wafer-thin illuminated canopy that hovers over rows of multi-product pumps is signage and roadside protection all in one. With monolithic san-serif type and clean logos towering to the side, the driver is lured to one petrol company’s station at the expense of another’s.

That’s the bottom line in petrol station design — getting the motorist off the road. After that it’s easy. It’s also why corporate identity and standardisation of image have become the most important part of the petrol station game. Brand loyalty is about instant speedy recognition. If you can’t tell which station you’re about to drive into in a flash, chances are you won’t.

It wasn’t always that way. The old servos, with full driveway service and resident mechanics, had a much more varied and localised identity. Indeed, up until the mid 1950s most petrol stations carried more than one brand. The motorist would make their choice after crossing the line. The local garage had the mystique and romance of the unreliable automobiles they somehow managed to keep running. But let’s not get nostalgic.

The real problem was how to efficiently store and sell fuel. Ever since the American inventor Sylvanus F. Bowser came up with the idea for a simple pump in 1895, people have been refining the design of petrol bowsers and their immediate surroundings. When cars blocked traffic waiting outside the first curbside pumps in front of grocery stores, a few bright sparks (around 1907) came up with the idea of setting up drive-through garages instead.

These places took an enormous variety of forms in the teens, but they mostly looked like train stations for the new horseless carriages. Some of the stations were more like Revival Greek temples or Egyptian palaces. Others sported majestic domes, elaborate pillars, or even Japanese tea house pagodas. That was the whole point. Petrol stations were disguised in fantastic garb to gain market appeal. The garage had to be exotic, welcoming and attractive; perhaps even “beautiful”. From the 1920s till the 1960s petrol stations combined service-with-a smile and a bewildering array of sometimes bizarre thematic designs to draw customers away from the highway.

Since the mid sixties, we’ve witnessed the gradual perfection of today’s distinctive purpose-built designs. Starting with American industrial designer Elliot Noyes’s high-modern schemes for Mobil in 1963, the petrol station has finally become a shrine to the god of its own creation.

Made from brushed steel, monochrome petroleum- plastics, bold environmental graphics and dazzling metal- halide lighting, the contemporary petrol station now stands for nothing other than itself. It’s a pure sign of our petrol- based economy: a spectacular stage lit bright for an all- consuming multi-nationalism.

That’s why petrol stations are now pretty much the same the world over. Though there are distinct differences in the look of say Shell, BP, Caltex, Ampol or Mobil, there is no chance we could ever mistake a contemporary garage for anything else (as we might have done in the past). The recent changes in the BP and Shell franchises for example, are not departures at all. They’re subtle refinements to their already well-known identities.

Most design standards are devised for the global marketplace (Caltex work with San Francisco-based Addison Design Consultants, and Shell with the Sampson Tyrrell group). Ampol is the only company in Australia whose graphic identity originates here — in this case with Sydney-based Underline Design (though Shell do use the services of Cato Design). But the language remains steadfastly modern and “universal” regardless. If the International Style advocated by many this century has fallen into disrepute in architectural circles, here we find its ultimate commercial realisation. One can’t help but be at least a little in awe of such uncompromising global functionalism.

In fifty years time we’ll probably look back in wonder (perhaps anger) at these Modern temples of mechanisation. By then the depletion of natural resources, traffic congestion and environmental decay may well have bashed the final nails into the automobile’s coffin. Just maybe.

In the meantime, the future of the petrol station lies in the sale of new and different kinds of fuel. The grocery store with a pump out front has come full circle. The local servo is becoming a retail outlet, replacing fan belts and spark plugs with Fantails and fizzy drink. In the age of the Seven Eleven, Food Plus and Shell Select, fast food takes on an entirely new meaning.