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Clare Melhuish reviews. . . John Margolies and the madness of the US seaside

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Denis Crompton's introduction to John Margolies' talk on US Atlantic coast resorts promised much interest, but Margolies' visual catalogue of strange sights lacked any discussion or analysis of how this particularly American form of material culture might be interpreted, either from an indigenous or an external perspective.

Margolies has spent his life documenting and celebrating US commercial and popular architecture and design. Crompton, who has designed his 'Seaside Madness' summer exhibition at the Building Centre, described the material as 'the equivalent of Blackpool', where Crompton himself was born and brought up. It was only when he finally left Blackpool - now enthusiastically talking about turning itself into a British Las Vegas - that he realised 'the rest of the world didn't look like that', and that most standard architecture did not involve large amounts of neon and fantasy theming. But throughout his formative years he believed it to be quite normal, an experience which has been central to his development and empathy as a designer with a 'pop' aesthetic - most notably as a member of Archigram.

So it is no surprise, then, that Crompton should support Margolies' achievements, and the worth of ephemera in general, as a rich anthropological source of information and insight into a culture. Margolies' collection of pictures relating to the coastal resorts of Florida certainly portray some bizarre scenes - including a rather memorable image of Winston Churchill posing with birds at Parrot Jungle (as well as the information that he actually visited the place twice in two days). There is also Marine Studios, Marineland, with a dolphin stadium, and Monkey Jungle 'where humans are caged and the monkeys run free'; and the Beautiful Atomic Tunnel of 1953, rechristened Fantasy Tunnel a year later when the Americans realised that there was nothing very beautiful about atomic potential after all.

Margolies loves all these tacky themed 'experiences' of the '50s, and the prevalent images of pneumatic, scantily-clad girls that went with them. 'I like bad taste rather than good taste' he pronounces, clicking his fingers for each slide change like a cabaret compere. But some of these places have been recognised as having a level of cultural significance, such as Parrot Jungle which now appears on the National Register of Historic Places. Margolies proposes that there is a heritage here worth recording, before it is completely destroyed by rampant commercial redevelopment based on a total absence of any sense of history.

One of his villains is Gianni Versace, who 'ruined a hotel' in Miami, now transformed from a cheap cultural melting-pot into a 'groovy and expensive' hang-out for 'advertising, gay and fashion people'. 'Seaside madness', it seems, is being chased out by a more faceless, international culture.

John Margolies' lecture, 'Seaside Madness: the Atlantic Coast of Florida and Georgia', took place at the Building Centre, London, where his exhibition is on display until 1 September

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