At first it seemed like it must be an architectural hallucination. A lighthouse, deep in Feltham, about 75 miles from the nearest piece of coastline. But here, in the leftover piece of ground next to the A316 flyover that’s been half heartedly converted into a low grade retail park, behind Wicks builders merchants, as real as you like, was a lighthouse. A big lighthouse in a tarmac sea.
What was strange once, became doubly strange on seeing its doppelganger. Driving through the suburbs of of south London, somewhere near Ewell, beyond a roundabout, there was another identical lighthouse. But it didn’t stop there. Next time I saw one, I was in the back of a car on the highway in the infrastructure-heavy outskirts of Rotterdam. There again, an identical lighthouse. This recurring motif each time loomed out the most inauspicious of suburban hinterlands. It was as though there were a data glitch in a video game, anomalies in a database, or as if holes had opened in the space time continuum through which lighthouses were emerging into banal urban scenes.
Equally, there was a lingering fear that this architectural apparition might be a form a psychosis – a building induced by malfunctioning synapses or chemical imbalance – a psychological-architectural motif projected into built form. Perhaps – like objects in dreams – this recurrent lighthouse might represent something … a kind of warning in the form a building designed to save you from driving yourself onto unseen rocks.
As is usual, the reality is both more banal and simultaneously stranger. The lighthouse is the 4 story, 3 dimensional trademark of the Shurgard self storage company. Originally an American company, it now operates 150 self-storage facilities in 7 countries in Europe. Outside almost all of these facilities across Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom, the language of roadside America has been transplanted into a European circumstance. It’s quite some feat to negotiate planning codes in so many different places for exactly the same building.
The lighthouse is a bizarre form of sign. It seems to have forgotten the first rule of signage: to tell you something useful. Formed by an assemblage of fiberglass sections bolted together, it’s a hollow, evacuated, non-sequiter of a symbol for a generic, contemporary programme whose main characteristic is cubic volume. As architecture, self storage units are blank, interiorised structures: At Shurgard, the lighthouse – a romantic, picturesque, and poetic building typology – is grafted onto generic sheds organised by unalloyed space planning.
Our apparent need for Self storage must be a symptom of the changing ways in which we live. Perhaps – in a bizarre crossover of crass commerciality and Modernist literature – the Shurgard symbol recalls Virginia Woolfs ‘To the Lighthouse’ which explores issues of transience. What was once (at least seemingly) permanent has become transient. The certainties of home or workplace are increasingly fluid. The provisional nature of the way we occupy the city means we’ve had to invent somewhere to act as a static repository.
Equally, self storage is the fallout of owning too much stuff to store in our post-Parker Morris habitat. A Limbo for objects neither useful nor condemned to the dump. The relationship of domestic intimacies to generic storage space is made clear in a ready reckoner which converts domestic circumstance into storage size: a 3 bedroom house pack up into 14m; a Studio flat, 1 to 3m.
The simple logic of self storage space accomodates the banal and freakish narratives of contemporary culture. Unfiltered, undifferentiated collections of objects become an anthropological archive: Childrens toys long grown out of, inappropriate furniture, abandoned hobbies sit in arrays alongside stores of fertilizer kept by terrorist cells. Padlocked memories, rollershuttered potentials, like an invisible museum. Unpacked, a self storage warehouse could articulate thousands of melancholy narratives.