Architecture Conundrums: Solvang

Paleo Retiree writes:

Back in the day, one of the main things that any self-respecting arts education drilled into wannabe artsfans was an aversion to kitsch. And not just an aversion to it, but a vehement, cell-level hatred. It’s fake. It’s nauseating. It’s even, by some accounts, downright evil; according to some high-falutin’ European thinkers, kitsch helped set the stage for Naziism. (The general outline here is that fake emotions and fake art led to fascism, conceived of as fake politics. Don’t ask me how fascism came to be seen as fake politics. That’s a thought-step I’ve never been able to follow.) You weren’t a knowledgeable sophisticate, in other words, until you hated the right things.

Let me offer up, as a standout example of textbook kitsch, the Central California town of Solvang. A little burg of 5000ish people located in the Santa Ynez Valley — the wine-country region that served as the setting for much of “Sideways” — it was founded in 1911 by Danish immigrants and was initially built in a style then typical of the area. Here’s the usual regional style:


In the mid-1940s and the years soon after, some of the town’s residents got it in their heads to redecorate the town in traditional Danish style and market the place as a fun destination. Up went half-timbered houses, four different windmills, many Danish flags and fake beams, a bust of Hans Christian Andersen, and even a replica of the Little Mermaid statue. Solvang has been a modest but real tourist attraction ever since.

Here are some snaps I’ve taken during many visits that The Question Lady and I have made to Solvang.


Worse than Disneyland!


A traditional Danish skyline against a California-landscape backdrop? What kind of sense does that make?


Who are they trying to fool? The light is all wrong!


“Bit O’ Denmark”? Will the fakery never stop?


God no! Make it go away!

It’s all undeniably more than a little silly. And yet, and yet … There’s also a lot of this:


People out and about, enjoying themselves.

Yup, once you’ve passed through the being-horrified-at-it-all stage, there’s no avoiding the fact that Solvang is quite a pleasant place. It has something that’s very rare in California  — a real downtown, one that’s genuinely walkable. People go out on the sidewalks and stroll around for the pure pleasure of it. There’s a bookstore … Some small plazas and parks … A well-attended weekly farmer’s market …


While tiny, Solvang’s downtown is a genuine destination — a downtown worth visiting. And while it’s undeniably a tourist trap, locals find their way here too. It doesn’t even seem like a half-bad place to live. You could walk to your grocery store; you could bicycle to see friends. Whenever I’ve yakked with Solvang natives, they’ve expressed pride in their town, and they’ve reacted with dismay and hurt when I’ve hinted that some sophisticates might find the place kitschy.

So, today’s architecture-and-urbanism conundrum: Do we, as arts-fans-with-some-taste, turn our noses up at Solvang? Or do we admit that, kitschy or not, it’s a remarkably pleasant place? If the latter, then: Is kitschiness really the greatest arts-evil imaginable?

Speaking of which … Arts sophisticate Lloyd Fonvielle makes something of a case for Thomas Kinkade, the ultimate kitschy painter, here and here. Hey, in Solvang there was a Thomas Kinkade Gallery right beneath our hotel. Seemed harmless enough.


My opinion, FWIW: Whether or not a town works — and, as small-scale urbanism, Solvang indisputably delivers a substantial amount of traditional village-style pleasure — is much more important than whether or not it’s kitschy. The fact that Solvang is a genuine town offering a lot of genuine town-type satisfactions ‘way outweighs the fakiness of its architecture. And close-minded snobbery — whether of a traditional or a cutting-edge sort — definitely qualifies as a greater arts-evil in my mind than kitschiness does.

Incidentally, I don’t recommend going super-far out of your way to sample Solvang. While I’m very fond of it and The Question Lady and I visit regularly, it’s a small curiosity and a minor pleasure. Come to think of it, I’d be grateful if you bypassed the Santa Ynez Valley entirely. Although the area is beautiful and retains a lot of out-of-the-way charm, it’s in danger of being overdiscovered, and I’d hate to see that happen.

The Question Lady has been visiting Solvang for much longer than I have. She tells me that the town was much more Disney ‘way back when, and that it has become more of a lived-in, real town since. Does her observation suggest that, with the passage of a couple of decades, today’s much-derided-as-kitschy-by-the-sophisticates New Urbanist neighborhoods are also likely to become genuinely pleasant places?

Bonus links

  • Roger Scruton teases apart some of the many meanings of kitsch. I admire the heck out of Scruton but I’ve never felt he’s really grokked American culture.
  • Here’s the hotel where The Question Lady and I stay when we visit Solvang. There isn’t anything kitsch about it at all — it’s a quiet, classy and beautifully-run European-style hotel.
  • Some of the foodies on Chowhound don’t think that the ultra-chic Root 246 is worth the expense and trouble, but The Question Lady and I have enjoyed some seriously creative and delicious meals and cocktails there.
  • To the passing eye, the Succulent Cafe looks like a college-town coffeehouse. In fact, it’s a  locavore-ish gastronomy destination, with a big emphasis on locally-sourced charcuterie. (That would be sausages, cured meats, and patés to you and me.) It’s a friendly place that serves up lots of earthy goodness.
  • If you do happen to pass through town, Solvang’s Elverhoj Museum is worth a visit. It’s a modest place whose collection showcases bits and pieces of Solvang’s quirky history. What I really love the Elverhoj for, though, is as a structure and creation in its own right. Planned and hand-built in the 1950s by Viggo Brandt-Erichsen and his wife, Martha Mott — both of them artists — it’s a glorious example of eccentric-workman/artist domestic architecture, a genre I adore. Here’s a detail:


  • Our favorite winery in the Santa Ynez Valley is Beckman Vineyards. It’s one for the Slow Foodie in you. Their biodynamic wines (“biodynamic” means, as far as I can tell, “organic but even more so”) are crisp and complex — more like European wines than California ones. The winery itself is a fun visit, with unpretentiously pretty structures, rolling vineyards, and helpful and friendly people pouring the wines.
  • If you’re looking for genuine historical architecture in Solvang, you have a treat in Old Mission Santa Inés, founded in 1804.
  • I love alpacas.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Animals, Architecture, The Good Life, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to Architecture Conundrums: Solvang

  1. My parents took us there a few times when I was younger and I remember liking it. I wanna say we stayed at the Pea Soup Andersen’s when we were in town. Heck, a book I go there from a local Santa Barbara publisher (“Tales of Great Dragons”) is one of the few volumes from my childhood that I held on to.

    It’s been well over 20 (25?) years since I’ve been though, so it’s time to see it with adult eyes. Next time you and The Question Lady are available, we should meet up there.


  2. Callowman says:

    The one time I had the chance to go to Solvang – I spent a few days in Santa Barbara for a wedding, and a bunch of the other wedding-goers headed up there one day – I’m afraid I turned up my nose at it, so I can’t comment from experience.

    Kitsch can certainly catch on, since it’s basically just a dream or aspiration that the person calling it kitsch doesn’t approve of, usually on aesthetic grounds … which are often difficult to separate from status signalling. In the case of fascist kitsch-calling, one suspects the grounds are mostly ideological and retrospective.


    • My nose was definitely turned up for my first few visits. Then I realized I was enjoying the place. Hilarious comments about kitsch.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I’ve never quite grasped what people were talking about when they talked about kitsch. Your idea, that it’s a dream that someone else disapproves of, is helpful. I have a high tolerance for that kind of thing. Nutty, highly personalized, over-sentimentalized dreams! Love ’em, whether they’re coming from Selznick or Riefenstahl or Berkeley or Anger. It’s weird how some people who praise Anger’s kitsch-o-rama works deride Riefenstahl. Why not just say you don’t like her because she was a Nazi?


  3. Jeff S. says:

    “Is kitschiness really the greatest arts-evil imaginable?”

    Certainly not. Kinkade does nothing for me, but plenty of old ladies who’ve had hard lives find pleasure in his work. If one of the goals of late-20th-century artists was to “provoke a response,” then Kinkade has most of his contemporaries beat, not only in terms of adoration but also sheer hatred.

    While driving through Missouri on business last summer, I stopped to see the Precious Moments Chapel. Later, some friends wanted me reconfirm my cultural superiority by joining them in mocking the place, but I couldn’t. The chapel and its grounds surely meet any definition of kitsch, but what I also found there was the weird, relentless work of a man who battled personal demons, lost an adult son, and put everything he had into expressing an absurdly simple vision of childhood innocence. I drove away with more to think about than I’d expected.

    Most of us culture-vulture types seek out the sublime, but when people who live with bland architecture and thoughtless town planning visit Solvang, enjoy monumental replicas in Vegas, or browse a Kinkade gallery, they’re just looking for something with a bit more charm, ornamentation, or beauty than they see every day. I can hardly blame ’em.

    (Just stumbled upon this blog last week. Glad you’re back!)


    • Hey Jeff, great to see you again. Just sent you a Friend request over on Facebook. The bunch of us here hang out over there too and have a rollicking good time of it.

      That’s really well-put, tks. It’s funny that part of the academic-intellectual rap on kitsch has been that it’s the other side of cruelty — that, since some cruel people have also liked kitschy things, kitschiness is somehow responsible for the cruelty. (Ignoring, of course, the fact that 99.9% of the people who like kitschy things are perfectly nice and sweet people.) The prissy set doesn’t seem to realize that when they diss kitsch tastes and pleasures, they’re dissing the tastes and pleasures of many, many normal, pleasant people. As far as I’m concerned, sneering at the pleasures of regular people is the really cruel act.


  4. Epiminondas says:

    Modern urban man needs his escape from reality. Treacly, perhaps, but a balm for the spirit. And as you noticed, not unpleasant.


    • I entertain what I think of as The Vacation Theory of Architecture. I say to people, “Where do you like to go on vacation? Paris? Small towns in Spain? Charleston, S.C.? Then ask yourself: Why don’t I have more of this kind of thing back home? So far as development goes, why aren’t we/you developing along these lines? And why do you let yourself be cowed by the contempo-architecture world into thinking that their fads are more important, let alone more valid, than the kinds of things and places that you already love?” Why not respect your own pleasures, in other words, and take your cues from them? A fun extension of this argument to point out is that, with a very few exceptions (the Guggenheim, Bilbao), almost nobody wants to spend a lot of vacation time searching out and basking in modernist places.


  5. Maule Driver says:

    You just need a Robert Venturi type to come in and give Solvang’s Kitsch some intellectual context. Then even the art and design snobs could tolerate it all while enjoying the actual pleasures that the town seems to deliver.


  6. It occurs to me that I should have made one more point in the posting: Simply by imitating traditional Danish styles, the creators of Solvang-as-we-know-it also got certain urbanistic things right. It’s walkable, it’s inviting, it has nooks and crannies, the sidewalks work and the buildings face the street in the right way. These are things that many American towns either ignore or get entirely wrong. So Solvang illustrates an interesting fact: where architecture-and-urbanism goes, simple imitation (even of a nostalgic, and even rube-ish kind) can pay off in important ways.

    Where architecture goes, as the great Leon Krier likes to say: “As is the case with all good things in life — love, good manners, language, cooking — personal creativity is required only rarely.”


  7. Manolo loves the Pea Soup Andersons!

    As for the Solvang, it is the pleasantly human scale of the place that charms, more than the relentless marketing of abelskivers and ersatz Danishness.


  8. agnostic says:

    The opposition between phony / imitative vs. authentic / original doesn’t seem to be the main source of what’s off-putting about kitsch. Scrutton hits the nail on the head when he keeps referring to kitsch’s self-awareness, self-advertisement, winking knowingness, See-what-I-did-there? approach. Not in a smug, ironic way, but still calling too much attention to itself. It takes you out of the experience by shining a spotlight on your brain, when I just want to tune out, go with the flow, and get lost for awhile.

    Worse, it calls attention to your pitiful, desperate state. Like, “Hey, I know your personal life feels directionless and your broader environment feels soul-sucking. But cheer up there, big fella, here’s something that’s sure to brighten even your pathetic mood.” Some people are more sensitive to this faux-innocent hawking approach, but in my eyes it looks like a hooker with a heart of gold taking pity on some sad sack. And the fact that he not only goes along with the charade, but eagerly, just makes it more unsettling.

    There’s no real attraction, passion, or connection — it’s totally transactional. The creator didn’t make something that he didn’t know if we’d like or not, and when we see it, we’re surprised, delighted, and elevated. It’s like design as a ranked list of Google search results. The viewer/consumer is so OCD and afraid of taking risks that it has to be micro-tailored to their existing wants, not offering a broad range of exciting new things for them to browse through, trial-and-error, and keep what they can groove along to and ignore the rest.

    Kitsch and authoritarian / paternalistic culture do seem to overlap, time-period-wise. The mid-century, the Victorian era, the past 20 years. It’s hard to know chicken vs. egg, but you can see how they reinforce each other. The elite are trying to force a soulless culture on the majority, who resist by retreating into kitsch. This escapism only proves to the elite that they need to treat the majority like children who don’t know what’s good for them.

    Their opposite is spontaneity and egalitarian interactions. The Romantic-Gothic period, the Jazz Age, the New Wave Age. It’s important to keep this clear when arguing against kitsch — I want the opposite zeitgeist, not its alternative within the same time period.


    • Maule Driver says:

      Job done.

      Actually, one aspect of the place seems to be good urban design, the other being effective PR.

      Or as the imitable Manolo points out, “As for the Solvang, it is the pleasantly human scale of the place that charms, more than the relentless marketing of abelskivers and ersatz Danishness.”

      Yeah, that.

      Being an engineer kind of guy I would just point out that Solvang is several hundred feet further above sea level than than the highest point in Denmark, a not insignificant factoid.


    • “The elite are trying to force a soulless culture on the majority, who resist by retreating into kitsch. This escapism only proves to the elite that they need to treat the majority like children who don’t know what’s good for them.”

      Yeah, I think that’s right.


  9. agnostic says:

    Highbrow vs. low-middlebrow is a red herring in debates about kitsch. Would we call Empire/Regency furniture and decoration highbrow? It’s just curtains, chairs, and tile after all. Or what about Art Deco buildings and graphic design? 1920s golf courses? Fascinating exotic landscapes from movies of the ’70s and ’80s? Music videos by Duran Duran?

    They’re two separate dimensions: spontaneous vs. OCD, and middlebrow vs. highbrow, making four quadrants in cultural space. OCD and middlebrow = kitsch. OCD and highbrow = totalitarian. Spontaneous and middlebrow = delightful. Spontaneous and highbrow = sublime.

    So we can reject the idea that by avoiding kitsch, we have to take in only those creations with the highest pretensions. The rejection of kitsch means primarily the rejection of that self-aware, micro-tailored hooker with a heart of gold, and mingling with a crowd of carefree babes with their own personalities, and you either take it or leave it.

    Middlebrow things take up so much of our daily lives — and always have. So we need spontaneity and excitement in those things, perhaps even more than in the rarely visited cultural works.


    • Maule Driver says:

      I dream of micro tailored gold hearted carefree individualistic babes hanging at the club, waiting for the after party. Yep.


    • My own personal response to the elite/educated aversion to kitsch is to say, “Hey, even if you CAN make the case that in Europe it has contributed to horrors — and I’m not sure I’m buyin’ it — in the U.S. it hasn’t been such a big deal. Besides, in despising kitsch you’re putting down the pleasures of a large swathe of humanity. As far as they’re concerned, it isn’t kitsch, it’s genuine. So what say we relax about it instead, and maybe even make the imaginative effort to see what it may have to offer?”


  10. I wonder what Spanish folk thing when they see all that California Spanish missionary stuff. We drool, but is it somewhat of a Disneyland-esque and kitsch-y interpretation in their minds? I still think the village looks nice. Are the folks as cheery as Danes?


    • I’d love to know. I suspect that the actual California missions are OK with everyone — they were built by actual Spaniards a (relatively) long time ago. They’re real nice, by the way. Have you visited many of them? I’ve got some snapz tucked away. I should dig ’em up and share ’em here …


  11. Glynn Marshes says:

    Added to my list of places I’d like to go 🙂


    • Oh, no need. It’s a silly little town, not worth going out of your way for. But if you happen to be in the Santa Ynez valley it’s on the checklist of things to amuse yourself with. Also: the first few times I visited Solvang I was as horrified as any other tasteful, semi-sophisticated dude/dudette. It was only after a few visits that I started to register that the place actually works in trad small-town terms — that underneath the surface kitsch is a genuine, rather pleasing village. So your first visit there (if you’re at all like me) might just be an experience of dismay. I spend a lot of time in the general area and visit the Santa Ynez valley regularly, so I’ve had the luxury of noting how the place has affected me (and how that has changed) over time and over the course of many visits.


  12. ironrailsironweights says:

    Solvang looks more like an example of unusual architecture than outright kitsch. It doesn’t seem like it’s full of crappy souvenir stores.



  13. Sir Barken Hyena says:

    “I wonder what Spanish folk think when they see all that California Spanish missionary stuff.”

    Probably something similar to what a Punjabi friend of mine thought when I told him about Korla Pandit.


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  19. steve sailer says:

    Can modern windmills be made to look cute like Solvang windmills rather than terrifyingly chop-chop-choppy like most contemporary windmills?


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