When Dr. Cristina Carbone was a little girl, she was fascinated by unusual architecture. And no wonder.
“My family would go out to Palm Springs every year for Easter and we would always stop at the Cabazon Dinosaurs right next to the Hadley Orchards Shake Shop,” she said.
The steel-and-concrete dinosaurs—a 150-foot-long Brontosaurus and a 65-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex—were built to attract customers to a nearby restaurant and are probably best known to non-Californians for their appearance in the 1985 movie Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
“Southern California, where I grew up, was full of this kind of architecture, and it was just part of the landscape,” said Dr. Carbone, adjunct art history professor. It has continued to serve as creative fuel for her—she even named her dog Lucy after a programmatic six-story building just outside Atlantic City, N.J., called Lucy the Margate Elephant.
On her journey to becoming an architectural historian, Dr. Carbone learned that these structures were examples of programmatic, or mimetic, architecture. Programmatic architecture is often designed and built by shop owners rather than professional architects, and the buildings are made to look like the product they are selling. The Big Duck building in Flanders, N.Y., for example, was a shop that sold live ducks, and the Longaberger Basket Company had its headquarters in Newark, Ohio, in a seven-story replica of one of its baskets.
While some programmatic architecture served a strategic purpose for a company, other buildings that employed it were nothing more than tourist attractions. Developments like the Wigwam Village in Cave City, Ky., which is a complex of concrete teepees, were created to give travelers a unique place to stop off and stay the night.
“The real craze was in the 1920s and ’30s, which was right when vehicles became affordable,” Dr. Carbone said. “It absolutely corresponds, and there’s a good reason why all of this roadside architecture came about. Suddenly middle class people were out taking drives, and these funny buildings could stop them and invite them to spend money, or even sleep in a wigwam!”
Memories of visiting the giant dinosaurs followed Dr. Carbone to UC Santa Barbara, where she studied Art History and worked in the university’s architectural archive. During her undergraduate years, she was able to define the programmatic architecture she had always loved.
“I had a really rare, classic, quirky professor named David Gephard, a string bean of a guy with a Prince Valiant haircut who rode his bike about 15 miles per day,” she said. “I absolutely loved his teaching. He would take us on field trips and we would actually talk about buildings while we were standing in them instead of just sitting in a dark classroom. Here I was, an undergraduate student, and my professor was talking about [programmatic] architecture like it was important. It was wonderful to have someone legitimize this interesting, quirky idea that I had always had a passion for.”
After graduating, she took a position at the J. Paul Getty Museum working with architectural photos of ancient Roman sites. Shortly after earning her master’s degree in Roman Architecture, Dr. Carbone became the curator of Architectural Collections for the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., where she worked with collections of more than a million objects, including drawings from the oldest and largest architectural competitions in U.S. history.
Dr. Carbone’s love of programmatic architecture continued into her Ph.D. dissertation, which focused on the 1959 American National Exhibition and the Kitchen Debates between Khrushchev and Nixon in Moscow.
“I looked at the architecture as a silent form of propaganda,” she said. “All of the things that Khrushchev was lying about were right there in this exhibition. He argued that the American house was not affordable to real Americans, as they were standing in a model of an American home. It was a small, modest house, less than 1,000 square feet, meant to show the soviets that real Americans lived in and owned modest houses.”
After completing her dissertation, she moved to Louisville as a visiting scholar at the University of Louisville, where she met her husband.
In her free time, Dr. Carbone visits and researches architecture all over the world. She has written a number of scholarly essays in collaboration with Archipedia, including a history of Kentucky’s architecture through 100 buildings and landscapes. She is currently working on an essay about programmatic architecture set to publish in early 2019.
In June 2018, she was quoted by Atlas Obscura in a story about an updated version of California Crazy by Jim Heimann, a book originally published in the 1980s about programmatic architecture in Southern California.
This gave her the idea to write her own book, “to dive deep and write the history of programmatic architecture” across the country. A major university publisher is
currently considering her book, A History of Roadside Vernacular Architecture.
Dr. Carbone is excited to continue exploring her passion and teaching people that these wacky, random buildings hold meaning and purpose and are worth saving.
Programmatic architecture, or roadside vernacular architecture, “is architecture for the masses,” she said. “It’s often times very funny, which is something I think we need more of. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I think it’s really exciting to have architecture that is amusing.”
By Emily Gahafer ’17