Grand designs: Glen Mutel

From opera houses to viewing towers, grand building projects are great for putting places on the map and attracting visitors — but only some really hit the bulls-eye

By Glen Mutel
Published 19 Sept 2012, 14:58 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:15 BST

In the high plains of Nebraska, near the city of Alliance, sits a rather curious visitor attraction. It's called Carhenge, and if you're thinking, 'So, is that like Stonehenge with cars,' then yes, that's exactly what it's like. Vintage American cars, to be precise. All painted a stony shade of grey.

This mid-western oddity was the brainchild of Jim Reinders, who built it in 1987 as a tribute to his late father. But today it's less of a memorial, and more a bona fide tourist attraction, complete with parking, a visitor centre and a gift shop selling Carhenge mugs and shot glasses.

Some years ago, while travelling around Europe, I tried to impress a pair of twenty-something Nebraskan brothers by dropping Carhenge into the conversation. The eldest had heard of it, but had never actually seen it, while the youngest seemed to think I was making the whole thing up.

On this evidence, it doesn't seem to have captured the locals' imagination. I think it's probably also fair to say Carhenge hasn't quite put the state on the map. When most people think of Nebraska, I suspect they think of wide-open spaces, and, at a push, cornfields, but probably not of monochrome Cadillacs piled on top of each other.

But then how do you put a place on the map? If novelty replicas of Neolithic stone circles don't cut it, what does? Whenever I find myself somewhere a little underwhelming, I always ask myself, 'What could they do here to make tourists take note?'

The problem is trying to create an iconic attraction from scratch is tricky. So many of the Earth's treasures are in some way historic — they tell us something about a time or symbolise a specific episode. But historical gems can't just be knocked up. And if you don't happen to have any ancient bridges or towers in the area, what do you do?

Well, you could find someone creative to design you an expensive art gallery, as Bilbao did with the Guggenheim. Or you could build an eye-catching auditorium, like the iconic Opera House that transformed Sydney in the 1970s. But very few places can sustain these things, and the ones that do are usually already 'on the map'.

Another popular option is an observation tower — it seems every day somewhere new wants to see itself from a great height. Even the town of Weymouth in Dorset has got one.

But while attractions like this may add novelty, they rarely come to define a place. It takes something truly original to do that; something with an idea behind it; something that doesn't try to please everyone, but in the process pleases plenty.

It's hard to find good examples of attractions that instantly feed their own legend. But the one that leaps to my mind is the Angel of the North. To me, this has set the bar for modern-day tourism projects. It's original. It's imposing. But it's not safe. It's not a meek response to an ill-defined public need. And if I was a viewing tower, I'd be embarrassed to stand next to it.

What's more, it isn't historic. Yet nor is it achingly modern. In fact it's not obviously tied to any particular period, which means unlike the glass and steel behemoths being built elsewhere, it's likely to age well.

Now I am aware that to some the Angel of the North is essentially a super-sized ornament, and not a great use of Lottery funding. But I think the message it sends is profound — that here is a place whose people understand there's more to life than mere survival. Here are people enlightened enough to build something they didn't need, and couldn't really use, in the hope it might add something to their lives. That's the type of place I want to visit.

As for Carhenge, I reckon Nebraska is probably better for it. What's more, if the creativity Jim Reinders showed when he built it is a typical Nebraskan quality, then maybe it's time I paid the state a visit. And if Carhenge turns out to be a disappointment, well, there's always all that open space. And corn.

Published in October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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