Thinking through “architecturally ambitious” shopping malls

One writer suggests the shopping malls of the future will need to offer a unique architectural experience:

My version of the mall game would offer more aggressive architectural interventions. Pop the top, and change the air-conditioned, enclosed food court into an open courtyard with a creek running through it. Cover the tan stucco with silvery panels to give it that au courant “industrial” look. Turn one section of the parking lot into a food truck rodeo, local vendors only. Replace the Dillards with a Spa Castle, or a Nitehawk Cinema. The mall of the future is architecturally ambitious, includes plants and water features, judiciously sprinkled with local retailers and food options, and surrounded not by a donut of surface parking lot but with housing, hotels, even educational facilities.

Don’t get me wrong: Malls are still dying. Credit Suisse estimated that 220 to 275 shopping centers, 20 to 25 percent of the current stock, would close within the next five years. We built too many, too cheaply. And it would cost too much to make many of them a worthy destination in 2018.

But even in the age of Amazon, people still leave the house, still shop, still eat. Malls have generated their own version of industrial ruin porn, including video. But when I talked to Erik Pierson, the man behind YouTube channel Retail Archaeology, he freely shared that, while his video of Mesa’s defunct Fiesta Mall may have gone viral, SanTan Village in Gilbert is doing just fine.

In an experience based society, going to the mall needs to be an exciting or satisfying experience compared to shopping at a big box store or purchasing items online.

Three thoughts about this suggestion:

  1. Only certain malls (and in certain areas) will have the resources to try to be architecturally ambitious and not all of them will get it right. My guess is that shopping malls in less well off communities will die off while those in wealthier areas will continue and will be the ones that take more architectural risks.
  2. Shopping malls have been criticized over the decades for their crass commercialism and their fakeness (acting like public spaces when they are really not, simulating other environments). Would more ambitious architecture make them more or less acceptable to critics? Take water features: they may be interesting to patrons but are they authentic design elements or just another symbol of the artificiality of the setting?
  3. What about creating malls that have flexible or changing architecture? Designing malls so that they have regularly changing features – as cited above, the “silvery panels” that provide an industrial look could be swapped out every 6 months with different kinds of panels – could help provide an element of novelty and excitement.

As is suggested in the article, perhaps the real secret is to better embed these ambitious malls in already interesting architectural settings. Instead of having to build a destination in the middle of a suburban parking lot, take advantage of already lively spaces and put an interesting and unique mall there.

List of cities with the most McMansions does not actually look at McMansions asks an intriguing question involving McMansions – “So which are America’s housing markets with the biggest cribs, and why?” – but then does not follow through because of a limited definition of which homes count as McMansions:

We sifted through listings to figure out which of the 150 largest metros had the highest percentage of homes on the market that are 3,000 square feet and above. (The average square footage of a new single family home is 2,627, according to the National Association of Home Builders’ analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.) Sure, this includes some tasteful, large homes and legit mansions. But it was impossible to separate those from the McMansions—it’s rare to see the word “tacky” in a home listing.

There are plenty of big homes in the United States – the median square footage of a new home is over 2,400 square feet – but not all big homes are McMansions. The article provides a different definition for McMansions than the one they actually use with the data:

The imposing, ostentatious structures looming over surprisingly wee plots of land. The crazily mismatched architectural styles. The hipped roofs, gabled roofs, and pyramidal roofs—all on the same house! The bank columns. The front yard Romanesque fountains. The puzzling profusion of window sizes and types. The gigantic, two-story front doors.

I can understand how the real estate listings do not easily allow for the easy categorization of homes as McMansions. Few, if any, homeowners and realtors want to advertise their homes using such a pejorative term. Yet, if you are going to use a headline involving McMansions and then talk about the poor architecture of McMansions, then your measure should take these features into account.

How might this be done? A few ideas:

  1. Take random samples within each metropolitan area and look for specific features.
  2. Do a survey of realtors, architects, and others who might be able to identify McMansions to get their sense of how many McMansions are in particular areas.
  3. Train a computer program to scan thousands of images of homes for sale and determine whether the homes are McMansions or not. (The coding scheme would be very similar to the one used in #1.)

These approaches are not necessarily easy but would be essential for actually getting at which AMerican cities have teh most McMansions.

For a more complete definition of a McMansion – including but also beyond their size and architecture, see my summary here.

The difficulty of changing corporate names on significant urban buildings

The Hancock may soon officially be no more in Chicago but that does not mean the name will disappear from use, including by architecture critics like Blair Kamin:

But names still matter. “Willis Tower” has never felt right. It’s foreign — literally. At the height of the Great Recession, with Sears Tower’s owners desperate to lure tenants, a British reinsurance company swept in and cut an office lease deal that gave it naming rights. Lots of people, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, would rather that the modernist high-rise continue to be called Sears…

The eclectic Wrigley Building, thank goodness, is still the Wrigley Building, even though its namesake company no longer occupies it. The building’s whiteness was meant to symbolize the freshness of chewing gum. The architecture and the name were part of a single, organic package, just as they were in New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building, where eagle gargoyles adorned the building like Chrysler hood ornaments…

But as I’ve written in recent weeks, pondering the Chicago Tribune’s impending move from Tribune Tower to the old Prudential Building (now One Prudential Plaza), buildings are commodities subject to the dictates of the marketplace; expecting them to stay frozen in time is unrealistic. The same goes for their names.

That’s why Boston’s John Hancock Tower, a 62-story glass-sheathed high-rise that is as elegant as Chicago’s Hancock is brawny, became known in 2015 by its street address — 200 Clarendon. When the lease of the John Hancock company expired, the tower’s owner no longer was allowed to use the Hancock name. The new name hasn’t exactly caught on with the locals.

Three things strike me here:

  1. Iconic structures are more likely to retain their original names even when later changes dictate the official name is something else. What makes those buildings iconic can differ: it may have been occupied by an important local company or it may have unique architectural features. The buildings cited above in Chicago have both things going for them.
  2. It is a little strange for locals to cling so strongly to corporate identities in the names of buildings. Would it be better to instead name major structures after something other than the company behind it? An address may be rather bland but perhaps the name could be connected to the particular architecture and design or tied to a famous figure, moment in history, or feature of the location.
  3. Perhaps the deeper issue is connecting buildings to history. If naming rights are simply up for grabs, prominent locations can change their identity regularly. Not only might this be disorienting to locals, it can remove the structure from its creation and its place within a city. The issue may not be naming rights but rather making sure that buildings are defined by locals rather than by out-of-towners or global interest.

I suspect residents of Chicago will be calling the structure the Hancock for years to come.

Black Mirror portrays a future in sleek, modernist structures

In watching episodes of Black Mirror, I noticed a pattern in the buildings and streetscapes depicted on the show: they are often modernist. There could be multiple factors behind this:

  1. This is how Western society often portrays the future: in contemporary structures comprised of glass and steel and with sharp lines and minimalist decor. This trend goes back decades with modernist architects and culture producers from the early 1900s to today exercising a significant influence on what we think the future should look like.
  2. This particular vision of a future in modernist buildings also allows the show to hint at the problems with future technologies. While everything may look impressive, these modernist spaces can be perceived as cold and unwelcoming. When discussing the show’s title, creator Charlie Brooker said, “The “black mirror” of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.”
  3. Many of the episodes are set in England. Perhaps the architecture there is indeed different than what is found in many American locales. Perhaps local residents and organizations are more open to modernist architecture. I’ve argued several times before in this blog – here is one example – that average Americans tend not to like modernist architecture for their own dwellings.
  4. The plot lines for the episodes tend to involve futuristic technology created by tech companies. Tech companies in modernist buildings seems to make sense. The campuses of Silicon Valley, such as the new Apple headquarters, as well as their retail locations, such as the new Apple store on the riverfront in Chicago, reflect these design choices.

Could you have a show about futuristic technology that takes place in older homes and buildings? Would this seem too anachronistic? For better or worse, much of the near future (think at least the next few decades) will take place in structures built decades before the Internet, smartphones, and driverless vehicles. Indeed, some people may want to live and work in these older structures because of their character and history even as they also enthusiastically embrace the modernist dictates of new technologies to be thin, sleek, and modernist.

New record set by the number of skyscrapers built in 2017

Skyscrapers have truly spread around the globe in recent years:

The current global boom in tall buildings shows no signs of slowing. In its annual Tall Building Year in Review, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) found that more buildings 200 meters tall or greater were finished last year than any other year on record.

A total of 144 such structures were completed in 69 cities spread across 23 countries, part of a wave of tall towers, the fourth-straight record-setting year in terms of completions. Last year’s new tall towers set records across the globe as well: new tallest buildings took shape in 28 cities and 8 countries…

The U.S. completed 10 such structures, including four in New York, two in Chicago, and the record-setting Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles. This new class of skyscrapers forms the bulk of North America’s 17 new towers, representing 10.4 percent of the worldwide total.

But as has been the case for years, Asia, specifically China, was the center of the action. Chinese construction projects added 76 new skyscrapers, representing 53 percent of the global total. The city of Shenzhen, which added 12 new buildings, accounted for 8.3 percent of the worldwide total, more than any country outside of China.

While these buildings may be constructed in some places because of high densities and a need for interior space, I suspect the status factor is big here. Being able to project an impressive skyline is a nice feature for today’s big city to have. To be a major city in the eyes of the world, skyscrapers help. Buildings alone cannot catapult a city to the top of the global city rankings but they can certainly make an impression on residents and visitors as well as provide space for new bustling activity.

The architecture of stars versus what emerges in cities

Ron Grossman contrasts Chicago’s architectural gems and the more organic ways that neighborhood buildings developed:

The architecture of affluence breeds anonymity.

Nearby sidewalks don’t play on my heartstrings like those in a blue-collar neighborhood. Walking a block in Pilsen is like looking at Chicago history through a kaleidoscope.

Narrow three-story structures are topped with elaborate false fronts and a bit of Baroque ornamentation reminiscent of the Czech homeland of its original owners. A side wall may be painted in the vibrant palette of Orozco or another of the celebrated muralists of the current occupants’ Mexican homeland.

In Bronzeville, construction crews can be seen pulling jury-rigged partitions out of brownstone mansions. Built in the 19th century for the city’s wealthy, they were divided into sleeping rooms for poor blacks during the Great Migration of the 20th century. Now the neighborhood is gentrifying.

In many American cities, the past – written into stone and other materials in the form of buildings – will disappear unless specific preservation efforts are made. And, if the new structure can be a showpiece, something designed by a noted architect or firm and offering an unusual take, so much the better.

Two quick responses in my own mind:

  1. What will future city residents, say a few decades or centuries down the road, think about the construction booms taking place in many wealthier neighborhoods? If those future residents continue to prize progress, perhaps the loss of more original structures won’t matter.
  2. Like many culture industries, trends come and go in architecture. Is a rejection of cold, impersonal modern architecture more about that trend or more about letting individual properties and neighborhoods develop on their own without intervention from starchitects or government leaders? These are two different issues: whether you like the latest trends and whether you think architectural decisions should be made on a small scale and under the control of local residents.

Urban high-rises can be “vertical suburbs”

Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin suggests again that some new urban high-rises are dull by comparing them to suburbs:

The most forward-looking of the bunch comes from the studio of Mexico City architect Tatiana Bilbao, who designed a model low-cost house for the first biennial. Her tower, done in cooperation with 14 other designers, would house apartments, a market, a workplace and other uses in a plug-in matrix enlivened by cantilevered parts. The design offers a persuasive alternative to the lifeless (and mindless) high-rises that are turning cities from Shanghai to Chicago into vertical suburbs.

Taking aim at the never-ending quest to erect the world’s tallest building, Bilbao asks a far more important question: “How do we create truly vertical communities?”

This comparison does two interesting things. First, it continues the suburban critique of blandness and conformity. While it was often applied to tract homes built on a mass scale, here it is applied to high-rises that are indistinguishable from others. Suburbs and their residents don’t take risks, nor do these new buildings.

Second, the architectural form of suburbs – single-family homes, strip malls and shopping malls, automobile-centric – may be a less important trait compared to its culture. The suggestion here is that a high-rise in the heart of the city can still be a suburb. Spatially, this makes little sense but if the suburbs are more about a particular community life and set of values – an emphasis on privacy, getting ahead, property values, family life – then it may not matter where this lifestyle is found.

It may be worth thinking more about this idea of a “vertical suburb.” Architects and others have spent decades thinking about how to create vertical communities but it often does not work as intended.