An Urban Büro Landschaft

 

a new Hi Jolly monument

 

At Quartzsite’s biggest attraction, the “Main Event” marketplace and showground, a new monument to Hi Jolly and his camel has been built out of automobile rims and mufflers, announcing the fulfillment of the century and a half old vision of self-sufficient desert nomads roaming the West. Riding in their mechanical Camels, these snowbirds ritually re-enact not only the process of settling the frontier, but also their own experience of settling the suburbs, choosing a vacant spot to inhabit next to others just like themselves, thereby recapturing the treasured anonymity and sameness of that era. Since everyone is in a camper, everyone is equal. Pasts are unimportant and incomes matter little. As in the postwar suburb, architecture is of no importance at Quartzsite. There are different models of motorhome and even some fundamental differences in motorhome typology—the full-fledged land yacht, the persistent trailer, the converted van, the converted bus”—and some units may cost $500,000 while others cost $5,000. Nevertheless, a motorhome is a motorhome, a premanufactured unit that is not that dissimilar from other units of its kind. Individual expression is kept to a Protestant minimum. Add a flag, some plastic chairs, even a mat of green Astroturf, but your motorhome is still just about the same as everyone else’s and you are, more often than not, five or ten feet away from your neighbor.

The move away from object to communication that occurred alongside the shift from city to suburb is echoed by the social structure designed into campers and motorhomes. Unlike residential architecture, motorhomes are mass produced consumer goods. More alike than McMansions, motorhomes are products with limited consumer options. But unlike automotive design, motorhome design largely eschews fashion or dramatic change. Each year’s models vary from those of years past only by recombining the same vocabulary of optional parts and configurations in different ways. Significant change in form or purpose is rare. In addition, the interior of a motorhome is generally fixed, fitted with built-in furnishings and equipment. Sold as a factory interior, the motorhome resists interior decoration and material accumulation, in part due to weight limitations that many motorhomes have. The motorhome becomes a vehicle for living in a society of networks where changing your location is more important than nesting. Living in a motorhome means embracing life in immaterial culture. The most respected and admired type of motorhome owner is the “full-timer,” who has cast off their fixed house permanently in order to dwell nomadically. In doing so, the fulltimer has to sell virtually all their worldly possessions and free themselves from material goods. In the end, the motorhome acts as a kind of animal itself, a modern-day camel, its occupants forming its soul.

Although the motorhome might appear to be an ultimate manifestation of American individualism, just like the trailer campers of the early twentieth century, motorhome owners generally see themselves as part of a community. After all, Quartzsite is the largest gathering of motorhome owners in the nation, assembled purely by the desire to collect together. But this is still a particularly contemporary idea of community. The seventy-odd campsites in Quartzsite are generally privately owned and charge a moderate daily fee for usage. In the private campsite, the motorhome owner does not participate in any governance, choosing to let the “gated community”? do the governing. A sizeable percentage of travelers opt out of these areas, “boondocking” on BLM land where it is possible to stay for free for up to two weeks. Campers frequently form small communities on BLM land on the basis of motorhome brand, extended family ties, or group membership. Knappers—individuals skilled in striking pieces of flint with other pieces of flint to make primitive tools and ornaments—HAM radio buffs, full-timers who have sold their homes and live only on the road, nudists, and the Rainbow children, attracted to the freedom of Quartzsite as they wander the country re-creating the hippie lifestyle of the early 1970s, all seek the company of others like themselves at Quartzsite. In this, they reproduce the clustered demographics of posturban America where groups of remarkably specific inhabitants are congealing into discrete communities.

If cities can be treated as communications systems, then they also resemble office environments. Informed by Norbert Wiener’s theory of cybernetics, during the 1960s, business managers sought means to improve the flow of information in the office and to provide for greater flexibility. Offices, according to this theory, are communications systems. Managers turned to theories of Büro Landschaft or office landscape to replace traditional, rigid-wall offices with more fluid and changeable workplaces. Quartzsite is an urban Büro Landschaft. It stands in stark contrast to traditional, gridded cities like Manhattan. Like Büro Landschaft, Quartzsite is fluid. Quartzsite allows for divisions between groups to spontaneously occur, reconfigure at will, and disappear when appropriate. If you don’t like your neighbor or you find that you’d rather be across town, you can just pack up your motorhome and go. Even though Quartzsite is a city and not an office, it is truer to the ideals of Büro Landschaft than any office could be. Offices are ultimately based on hierarchy and exploitation. No matter how hard Büro Landschaft tried, it could not hide this. In its purest form, Büro Landschaft would have even have been a form of Communism. At Quartzsite the fact that few of its winter inhabitants work makes it a much purer model than any office ever could have been.