Angella d'Avignon on the questionable liminality of a chunk of vernacular fiberglass architecture in Idaho.
After touring the continental United States for nine years on the bed of a 72-foot flatbed semi-truck, the World’s Largest Potato was plopped down in a dusty potato field in Idaho and converted into a Millennial minimalist-style Airbnb. A little wooden set of steps gives way to the cavernous interior which is painted an eggshell white, replete with Moroccan rugs and floor pillows you can buy from Urban Outfitters, salmon pink Wayfair chairs in cheap velvet, and plants that are impossible to kill are draped over blonde wood modular shelving.
With no windows and a neighboring jersey cow named Dolly, the World’s Largest Potato (herein known as WLP) rents for $250 a night, is booked through August and is big enough to comfortably accommodate two people who don’t mind being trapped in a windowless fiberglass spud. As one review plainly put it: “It’s a potato and you can sleep in it.”
There’s just something about a basic food staple with an equally basic interior, despite the fact that spending the night in an enormous potato is, for most tourists, a novelty experience. As a rented room, WLP has the appeal of an above-ground bunker styled like a budget version of some late-aughts hotel aimed at millennials.
“The World’s Largest” trend can be traced back to 1881 when superlatively large objects started sprouting up across the U.S. as an elaborate marketing ploy to get people to visit. Though the trend started with a giant elephant named Lucy in Margate City, New Jersey, the rise of such programmatic or vernacular architecture was very popular in a little developing town called Hollywood and in surrounding southern California. By the turn of the 20th century, automobile culture fueled a new wave of programmatic architecture, a new wave of roadside culture, affectionately known as “tourist traps” — giant souvenirs or roadside collector’s items writ literally large and designed to grab the attentions of the mobile (read privileged and predominantly white) public — began to pop up.
Picture a flower stand built in the shape of a flower pot, a hot dog fast food joint in the shape of a giant greasy frankfurter, and a piano repair shop with the yawning lid of a baby grand for the ornate doorway. The era is definitively catalogued in California Crazy by Jim Heiman, which features “A Lasting Architecture,” an essay by David Gebhard that explains the era’s roadside architecture as a cultural moment that could have only taken place as American stretched out past their hometowns in their new cars along new roads. He writes that when the semiotics of architecture collude with what is so transparently a marketing scheme with the intent to “comment on the present and its relation to the past'' created a messy set of “indirect symbolisms:” a potato in a potato field is self-evident, maybe even redundant, but sleeping in a spud is a means to what, exactly? Commune with the subterranean while sitting above ground? Celebrate Idaho’s most iconic crop? To sleep in a room that could ostensibly be anywhere, U.S.A.? The heavy focus on regionality is made insincere by the homogenized aesthetics. It ruins the novelty of the situation, and by then what would be the point?
On the information superhighway that is the internet and with algorithms serving as its infrastructure, places exist somewhere in the ether, devoid of cultural inscriptions until people “discover” them and project meaning onto them. The interior is standardized because it's less important than the content that proves the experience. And what is the experience? Sleeping in a potato.
Meanwhile on Reddit, a subforum named “r/liminal” packs post after post filled with images of empty or abandoned places accompanied by comments of stoned-sounding users saying “so liminal, man.” For the record and maybe controversially, the Airbnbaked potato is not a liminal place — the description is as accurate as calling NYC a “ghost town” just because there’s less people visible in the streets (and because hundreds of rich Manhattanites fled to their second homes during the pandemic).
My brother’s favorite subreddit just happens to be r/liminal because he, more than once, has responded to photos I’ve sent to him of empty places as “so liminal.” When asked to describe what he considers “liminal” he texted a chain of vague metaphors: “It's a space or a room or an area that humans just left or are about to occupy. Like a theater after a show and only the ghost light is on the stage. Or a playground after sunset.” Something or someone was just there and now isn’t, activity has ceased.
But most of the images on r/Liminal aren’t actually liminal; rather, they’re just devoid of bodies of any kind, scenes where social activity was noticeably absent. (As Daisy put it, the “suggestion of absence.”) On Reddit, liminality is more of a vibe. When Redditors or whomever says “liminal” they mean “abandoned” or “outdated” or “slated to be demolished.” A painted crosswalk which connects the parking lot to the department store is more a liminal space than a spooky shot of a gas station layered in fog at night. A rainbow is when water and light act as a prism. It’s not a liminal place. r/Liminal treats images of backdrops for imagined or projected experiences rather than the experience itself, which is to say, actual liminality. The idea hinges on the idea that space is “activated” by the presence of people and therefore works most successfully within the confines of a built environment.
Liminality is a transitional space, not a space where transition happens. An abandoned barn is not liminal because it once held cows and barn dances. An empty potato that toured the continental U.S. then flopped itself down as a hot fiberglass Airbnb rental in a field of dirt in Southern Idaho is not liminal because a potato field is empty until workers come to harvest said potatoes. And say hi to Dolly. — By Angella d'Avignon