An architect’s take on the new Sturgis Museum and Hall of Fame

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I’m sorry. I am truly, painfully, cringefully sorry.

As an architect, I would like to apologize on behalf of my profession to bikers everywhere for the design of the new Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame. You deserved better.

The Museum recently unveiled initial concept drawings for their new expansion, which is part of a larger Sturgis downtown revitalization effort. Now, if at first the museumization of something as woolly and un-polite as one of the world’s largest motorcycle rallies seems odd, it shouldn’t. The nature of museums has changed so much in the last two decades, as has the nature of the rallies, that they were bound to intersect. Sturgis has a right to capitalize on what they’re famous for, and museums today are seen as important economic drivers. This could be the Bilbao of the Black Hills. If I were rolling down Junction Ave., I would certainly take a lap through the Museum. More power and much success to them.

What is so disappointing here is the design of the building itself. Most of the building is simply, soullessly bland. You could easily remove the “Museum” sign and replace it with “CVS,” and it could happily, anonymously inhabit any American streetcorner. If this were all there were to the building, no comment would be necessary – or possible. It is the building’s primary ornament that makes it impossible to just let this one slide.

In what appears to be the sole considered design element of this edifice, the giant, aborted front half of a – have you guessed it yet? – motorcycle emerges through the main atrium. It is a gesture that is simultaneously grand and dull. Predictable and unbeliveable. Bold and cheap.

Let me be clear here: the design of this building is clearly, maybe intentionally, tacky, but that is not my objection. Tacky can be great. America has a rich legacy of kitch. For eaxmple, the apparent inspiration for this building is that other great South Dakota landmark, Wall Drug. But Wall Drug and the like are fun in a big, un-self-conscious, Zippy-the-Pinhead kind of way. This is just terrible in a terrible way. Instead of Zippy, we get a design that could have been done by the crocodiles from “Pearls Before Swine.” I picture them standing around with self-congratulatory grins, saying, “Eet have beeg MOTO-SI-KOO!”

No, the tackiness is fine. The problem is that this is lazy. It’s the very first thing a five-year-old would think of, and not refined or developed any further from that point. I understand that this is only an initial concept design, but I literally would expect better from a first-year design student.

When Denise Scott-Brown and Robert Venturi published Learning from Las Vegas in the 1970s, they were among the first to take seriously buildings that most critics did not consider “high architecture.” One typology they identified was buildings they called “ducks,” after “The Big Duck” on Long Island, a stand where one could buy ducks and duck eggs. “Ducks” are, aptly, buildings shaped to iconographically identify their purpose, like an ice cream shop shaped like a cone. Every architecture student is as familiar with this as med students are familiar with metacarpals. Rightly or wrongly, “ducks” have become a definitive element of post-modernism in architecture.

A famous example is the Longaberger Home Office in Newark, Ohio, which is, ahem, shaped like Behemoth’s picnic basket, and which is often derided by self-styled intellectuals like myself. I never thought that I would consider the Longaberger basket building an edifice of comparative elegance and sophistication, but here we are. Look at how well the windows are integrated into the weave of the basket (God! What am I saying!?). See, the Sturgis Museum is not a “duck.” It is just the decapitated head of a “duck” taped onto a cardboard box.

What an incredible missed opportunity this is. So many rich sources of inspiration ignored for the sake of the obvious gag. Imagine what a truly talented architect (maybe someone like Overland Partners or Antoine Predock [also a bike fiend] or the mad genius Bart Prince) could have done with the inspiration of the landscape of the Black Hills, the rough materials of the roadhouses, the feel and ethos of the place. It needs to be more unwashed. Where is the grit in this design? Where is the windburn and the stiffness of the road? That special funk that only comes from leather worn directly against skin. Spilled beer and grease. The blue tang of burnt oil. Filth. Love and exuberance. OK, hell, I’ll say it: freedom! Where is the lust in this building?

Tom Robbins said there are only two mantras: yum and yuck. What this building needs is some yum. I know the design may change entirely between now and construction, but if this goes through, I think it needs a sculpture out front by Claes Oldenburg of a giant crushed beer can. If they do that, then I’m OK with this building. That, or a giant, inflatable Meatloaf riding the bike out of Hell.

I am reminded of the words of my advisor in architecture school, the implacable Dr. Sanabria, who, upon viewing one of my designs, once croaked wearily, “But this… This is not architecture.”

Carter Edman is an architect, writer, and rider in Cleveland, Ohio. He teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” and other courses at Case Western Reserve University.

Sturgis Museum renderings via Cyril Huze Blog

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.redican.7 Paul Redican

    Oh dear…..We had a similar thing here in my home town, a design contest for a new national art museum, there where numerous good submissions including one by Frank Gehry in collaboration with a very good local architect, their design was inspired and beautiful, Sadly the final decision was made by a committee of pencil pushers and accountants. they chose a design that looked like a 70′s shopping centre and cost more than the Gehry design. Such a lost opportunity……sigh.

    • http://www.facebook.com/rithomps Rich Thompson

      Yep, the dreaded committee of shortsightedness. Quality is the key. If it’s done well, people will come, spend money, even return or send others. I’m really tired of the “just make do” make it look like everything else or a bad copy, disposable architecture that will fade away with the drivit.

  • Dennis Bratland

    We’re talking about guys who trailer their bikes to a bike rally, with no sense of self-deprecating irony whatsoever. None. Sturgis is supposed to be this tacky. Tacky tacky, not “tacky” with the knowing, ironic, cool, postmodern, in-joke quotes around it. The bad kind of tacky.

    It’s perfect. The bikers at Sturgis will love it. It will have a 800 acre parking lot, designed like one at a boat launch, with 5,000 spaces you can drive your truck and trailer through. There will be 25 or so motorcycles-only spaces near the front door. Valets will help you unload your Harley from your trailer and push it up to the “Hogs ONLY” area up front so you can have your picture taken there standing next to your bike. Then they’ll push it back to your trailer to make room for the next brother biker.

    • Bob Glover

      Yep Dennis, that’s exactly what all Harley riders do.

      • Dennis Bratland

        Strawman alert.

    • http://twitter.com/Ricardo_Gozinya Ricardo Gozinya

      There’s still the hardcore types who ride there, but they’re getting too old. The best though, are the types who trailer a bagger to Sturgis.

    • atgatthd

      Sadly, most probably… true… *single tear*

  • http://www.facebook.com/motorsickle Joshua Winn

    Oh my God, it’s just like the Harley-Davidson Cafe in Vegas, this is dreadful.

  • Guest

    Needs more Zippy the Pinhead.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.knudsen.1 Joseph Knudsen

    Why would any real motorcyclist care about anything even remotely connected to Sturgis? If you didn’t already know, these are the fools that make motorcycling look bad.

  • the antagonist

    Reminds me of President Camacho’s bike in Idiocracy.

  • JT

    It is in a word “Degenerative” which ironically encapsulates American motorcycling. A temple to the common, a theater for the mundane, whose contents will defy the low origin of their package, exposing for all to see, the shabby state of affairs in 2012. — JT

  • FastPanda

    I’d like to do Sturgis, properly, once. Ride out and back, hang out, take in some of the concerts, drink some good bourbon, listen in on stories, check out the good/bad/ugly of the other bikes that show. But just once, just for the sake of it.

    And if this…thing greets me there, I think I’ll have the same reaction that I did when we finally went to Las Vegas this year: a kind of rubbernecker’s gawk mixed with a sort of dread and repulsion.

    That is horrific. It looks like a really bad dealership.

    • sean macdonald

      +1 for experiencing another side of motorcycling.

    • http://twitter.com/Ricardo_Gozinya Ricardo Gozinya

      I was just thinking that could make for a really amusing Ride Apart. Wes at Sturgis.

      • NewOldSchool

        This must happen.

      • Mark Desrosiers

        He’d get beat up. Ok, no, he wouldn’t, but there’d certainly be some ignorant words exchanged. Must happen!

  • http://www.facebook.com/rithomps Rich Thompson

    They are missing a big opportunity if the move this preliminary and short sighted concept forward. Fire the developer and hire a talented architect. Design leadership should work with old school and new bike designers as well as corporate sponsors to create a depth of history and engage the future of motorcycling. With such good design elements from the past and those we see now this could be incredible walk through history. With the captive crowds at Sturgis, show them a depth they have not seen before in one place and you will have a world class facility that will be very profitable. Anything less doesn’t justify the sport of motorcycles, speed, competition, and ingenuity. This is the perfect place to celebrate the motorcycle. Lets hope they think and don’t screw this up.

  • tobykeller

    What it really looks like to me is an overgrown Harley dealership. The soulless brick walls with halfhearted orange and red trim; the standard glass-paned showroom partition. Perfectly appropriate, perfectly boring.

  • DucMan

    If you want to see great industrial design, check out the Harley museum in Milwaukee. I stopped by to tour the place on my way to the Oshkosh airshow this summer. A beautiful space.

  • http://www.facebook.com/OMG.Awesome Clint Keener

    Guy Fieri needs to open up shop next door. Amerigazam!

  • http://twitter.com/Ricardo_Gozinya Ricardo Gozinya

    That design is bad, and the designers should feel bad for designing it.

    I was thinking something more garage/diner/dive-baresque. Or if you have to go with a “Duck” motif, make it a V-twin. Or a pair of old, saggy boobs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kerry-Swartz/100001949190518 Kerry Swartz

    Let’s put two wheels on that duck!

  • http://www.facebook.com/michael.prichinello.7 Michael Prichinello

    Please allow me to insert some scientific

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.p.muller John P. Muller

    It reminds me of the design behind the Crazy Horse Memorial (also in South Dakota), but this Sturgis Museum has no redeeming qualities at all. At least they’re carving Crazy Horse out of a mountain. Maybe that’s what they had in mind here, but they could have done a lot better.

  • Chris Davis

    “Oh my god, that is the tackiest thing I have ever seen. I couldn’t bear to enter such an unimaginative monstrosity.” – No Sturgis Attendee Ever

  • http://www.facebook.com/lester.ng1 Lester Ng

    now i know why i like the helmet i see here so much.
    i am an architect too, and that thing is hedious

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.rickertsen John Rickertsen

    I saw this in the Rapid City Journal yesterday, my first thought was how hideous it was and just confirmed why I want to run far away from the Black Hills the first week of August every year. And it was all part of an article about trying to revitalize downtown Sturgis, which is a ghost town 50 weeks a year. Not sure how this thing helps.

  • StraferJ

    As a curator of transportation at a museum, I believe that far too many new or renovated museums end up being mere monuments to their architect’s overblown egos, rather than a proper showcase for the materials within. The ultimate purpose of a museum is to provide a safe, secure environment for the collections displayed and stored within–not to look cool on the outside. The best museums are open climate-controlled spaces with lots of room to display and store great stuff. No matter what the Sturgis Museum looks like on the outside, people will go if it has well-designed exhibits and strong exhibits of the material culture of the American biker world.

  • John

    Everything about Harley is tacky, so I say it fits perfectly.

    Form following tacky, it’s what Sturgis does best.

  • John

    IOW – America! Fuck yeah!

  • Scott Jameson

    OK, it’s Disneyland. Maybe that’s appropriate.
    But, its motorcycle element troubles me.
    Is it coming out of a basement, attempting a wheelie, lost its rear wheel/swing-arm …?
    Looks like a motorcycle in distress, or at a scrap-yard.

  • Lawrences

    A gopher-eye-view?