This interview is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma
What drew you to the symposium?
Someone reached out from the Center, and I was instantly excited because I don’t actually get a chance to interact with people who work with materials that much. I, who answer some of these questions that are more rooted in questions of preservation and questions of providing historic context so, yeah. It’s stuff that … things that, obviously, I get to touch on, but I don’t get to dive into as deeply as I would like, so I was excited to come and meet everybody.
What are you currently working on that involves roadside architecture?
The database at the heart of Atlas Obscura is always constantly growing, so that part of it, where people submit locations to the Atlas and we edit them and add them, regularly gets additions of roadside architecture. We don’t have a specific roadside architecture project currently going on, although we’re starting to put together some different guides to cities and areas. These, by their nature, end up including a lot of, sort of, classic roadside sites. So, it’s a, kind of, just other things, such as, you know, outsider art, it is a sort of a regular piece of the kind of work we do, editorially.
What do you hope to take away from this symposium?
For me, it’s about meeting the people here and talking to them about their projects and then finding ways we might work together. There’s already been talk of maybe doing an event in LA, where we take a group through the Southwest Museum, which has this old entrance built in the ’30s that was done in this kind of Mayan Revivalist style. The museum’s been closed for a long time, but it’s trying to reopen, it sounds like, and is interested in having visitors. So that’s something that might come out of this, and basically, like I said, the thing that drew me in and the thing that I’m hoping to take away is, sort of, connections to people doing interesting work in a world that is adjacent to, but not directly my world and, sort of, starting to bridge those gaps.
Like the people from the Kohler Foundation, apparently one of the things they inherited, along with all these amazing built environments, is a website that is no longer online, but catalogs outsider art projects all over the world. So, that potentially, we may find a way to try and bring that information back into the public sphere. So, that’s the really exciting things that I think … there’s a lot of different ways we might be able to work together with people here.
What draws you to roadside architecture?
It’s a hard question to answer, actually. It is … well I just went to the Blue Whale, for example, I’m going to use that as my example, because it helps to sort of think of a real place. So, when you go into the Blue Whale, first off, you can immediately tell that this is a one of a kind thing. They’re singular creations. They tend to be things that are made once, by a person in a place, and they really have that feel of location and temporality. Obviously, they do get moved sometimes, but the kind of uniqueness of a lot of these places, it makes them special, and also, they kind of come with their context baked in a little bit, like, you need the stories to help understand it. But even if you walk up, and you didn’t know anything about the Blue Whale, it gives you a really strong impression of being handmade. You can see the sheet metal that’s sort of hidden, kind of worked in along with the concrete. You can see the rebar and the welds. You could climb up into that second floor space and it’s like this hand-built floor and look out of the little hole.
All of these locations kind of have a deep soul to them, and they tell you something about themselves, about the place, about the time they’re from. To me, that kind of context and knowing those stories, like, it just makes the world a much richer place. And it provides some texture to a world that can increasingly feel a little bit place-less, or a little bit, you know, sort of like, it can be … you know, I … It’s important to me to kind of have that sense of place and meaning. So that’s what draws up to me.
How did you get started with Atlas Obscura?
It totally started just as a, kind of, a passion project and a sense that it was confusing that something like this didn’t exist. So, Josh and I, my co-founder and I, just started talking about this. We worked on a few different projects that took were around the theme of wonder and sort of wonders of the past, but were not, specifically, around place. I was going to go live in Eastern Europe. I lived in Budapest for a year. And we started talking about travel. We started talking about the kinds of places we both like to see, and how the only resources, basically, were out-of-print books. There’s a book called Weird Europe that had some of this stuff. The other problem was, even the resources that did exist, often, took a little bit of a flippant tone. You know, it was kind of like, “Isn’t it weird? Isn’t it macabre? Isn’t it whatever?” and missed, sort of, the real core history, the thing that actually made the place interesting.
So, we decided, let’s put a website together. We were both, like, in our early 20s, and pulled together a tiny amount of money from friends and family and built the website, and sort of said, “Fingers crossed, other people will feel the same way.” It was nice, and it’s been nice. I mean, one of the best things about it has been, sort of, finding a community of people who saw what we were trying to do, were excited about it, and wanted to help us build it.
Where do you see Atlas Obscura going in ten years?
Now that is a much harder question. Yeah. I think, actually, we’re in this place now where we’re asking ourselves this a lot, sort of, what the long-term strategic vision is. There’s a few things I’d like to say. I mean if I had my druthers in the world, everything falls into place the way I would like it to. One, I love that we’re running these international trips. I think I want that to be a continually growing piece of the business, because I think the approach we take, the kind of sites we visit, the way contextualize them is what group travel should be about. So, I want that to keep growing and largely become the main revenue driver for the company. I want to keep producing books. I want to keep building the database. I’d like to, you know, as technology continues to grow and change, I’d like to keep pace with that. You know, I’d like to … We don’t have an app yet. There’ll be an app soon.
We’ve got to give people better utility, better tools to actually, use the site to plan their trips, because I do think the conversion moment for someone is when they use Atlas Obscura, they take a trip, and they go to a site like the Blue Whale of Catoosa, or any other number of places, and they say, “That was the best thing I did on that trip. That was an amazing experience. And, wow, now I want to see more stuff like this.” So, providing better tools, practical tools, you know, I’m really curious to see where … We’ve dabbled. We have this VR app on the Gear platform. We’ll be porting that to IOS. I’m interested to watch where VR, but more specifically, Augmented Reality goes, because I think there is interesting opportunities for doing place-based information … like combining the built environment and the information environment around place. I think that’s and exciting thing that will continue to happen, and we sort of played around with that a little bit.
I could go on. I want us to keep growing. Ultimately, I’d love to start a non-profit arm of Atlas Obscura that is about preserving some of these really tenuous locations. I mean just to come back to the Blue Whale, one more time. There’s one woman, Linda, who works at the Blue Whale and keeps that place going. If she leaves, it’s quite possible the whole thing will sort of like grind to a halt, and then who knows what will happen. It is … there’s not enough support for these, sort of, non-traditional locations. I really would like to see us doing some of that kind of work in the future.
What should be the topic of our next symposium?
Outsider architecture is certainly one that leaps to mind. I think that it’s particularly precarious. The place called Bishop’s Castle, where the builder is unwell, and I think when these kinds of people pass away, when the creators to these places pass away, it’s often very difficult to maintain them. So I think that’s a great subject. But I mean there’s a lot you could do. There’s so many different … I mean, I think, you guys … yeah. That’s the easiest answer. I don’t know, I think an American tour of brutalist and concrete environments would be really interesting. You know, I think there’s an increasing awareness that those places, turns out we want to save them. You know, that we actually care about our giant, monolithic, concrete structures, and it would be nice to not tear them all down. So, a little bit of an overview of how you go about saving some of that kind of ’60s and ’70s architecture, and what exists in the U.S. So, I don’t know. That would be another one that I would be interested in.
You could do a whole one just about World Fairs and, sort of, temporary exhibits and what they leave behind. Olympic Stadium, I mean the leftovers of the Olympics all over the world are, sort of, a whole weird preservation problem and project. Anyway, whatever you guys do is going to be good. I’m sure.
Dylan Thuras is the co-founder of Atlas Obscura, a multimedia company and “Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders” visited by over 5 million monthly users, co-author of NY Times #1 best seller Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, and author of the forthcoming kids book “The Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid.”
Dylan has spoken at conferences including SXSW, DMAI, and TEDxVerona about discovery, wonder, and changing nature of travel. Dylan lives in Rosendale, NY with his wife Michelle, his three year old son Finn, and new addition to the household, daughter Jean.