Why I...have spent my life studying petrol

September 22, 2000

Petrol station design is the ultimate form of modern international architecture - unique to the 20th century and produced on a mass scale. Petrol itself is not a desirable product, which goes a long way to explaining this uniform "packaging". Oil companies choose instead to differentiate their stations through branding, using a glamorous mix of colour, neon, graphics and logos. It is billboard architecture, designed to be seen at speed.

With about 20,000 petrol stations forecast to close across Western Europe in the next four years as companies concentrate on prime sites, this contemporary architecture may become commercial archaeology.

I became interested in petrol stations while studying for an MA in the history of design at the Royal College of Art. I was working part time at Norman Foster's architecture practice and was drawn to the stylish designs the company had created for a Spanish oil company. Rather than working out the best solution for a particular site, the petrol station designer produces a kit of parts that can be configured to suit any location. While this is not dissimilar to the idea of prefab housing, the scale is much bigger.

I began to research the history of the packaging of petrol through architecture because I liked the idea that this was everyday design that had an impact on people's lives and functioned as the public face of the international oil conglomerates. Before the introduction of roadside pumps in the 1920s, petrol was sold in gallon cans. The key shift in design came with self-service after the Suez crisis when roofs were introduced to shelter customers getting out of their cars.

While working at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, I came across some wonderful, eccentric early designs: stations with pumps under aeroplane wings and a chain of garages like English country cottages. I also saw Edward Hopper's painting Gas, which encapsulates the American love affair with the car and the open road. In Britain, we have a love-hate relationship with the car but, as the events of the past week have shown, a few days without petrol can turn everybody's lives upside down.

* Interview by Jane Hughes

Helen Jones Research associate at the Royal College of Art and head of Restructure, a research consultancy for corporate design and branding. She is studying the impact of transport on the city

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