Sunday, July 5, 2009

Suburban fiction and reality

A brand new corner drug store in the middle of suburbia, at a busy intersection? Could this be a conscientious attempt at restoring the urban fabric of small town America? A possible response to the infamous acre huge Walmart stores? Mind you, I was driving by totally numbed by the strip malls and vacuous parking lots when I stumbled across this three story brick, somewhat classically detailed monstrosity. Before I knew it, my architectural interest had swung the car into a full scale u-turn, cutting off on coming traffic, and in the process, reassuring my friendly passengers that I had not gone crazy from too much July 4th sunshine, but instead was pursuing a potential building like rabid paparazzi on a Paris Hilton open mouth crotch shot.

First the designers didn't do that badly with the proportions. Things seem somewhat balanced, and props for the true corner entrance emphasized by the heightened tower. The building even sported a cornice on top, varying lintel details (wonderful window "eyebrows" for you newbies) and a series of nice red canopies to shade the first floor window displays. Now with these types of buildings, unless you're in a historic district, more than likely you'll find decent proportions but horrible details:
And this was no exception. It's not something to pick on too pointedly though, considering the setting. What's important was that this building actually made an attempt to have a mixed set of uses- retail below, with potential office/residential on top. That kind of thinking is flirting with the whole traditional New Urban thought process, and perhaps this one shining example of reverse sprawl construction would usher in a whole new paradigm that would wet the pants of Mr. New Urbanism himself, Andres Duany.

And yet, there was something off- similar to SBD gasses that emanate from my BFF when we have expensive garlicky meals together. What was going on with the upper floors? Where were all the happy officer workers looking down on the surrounding suburban blight knowing full well they were far apart that sort of contagion? Those windows looked suspiciously dark. Granted it was a holiday weekend, so I drove closer to have a look. To my utter bewilderment, the entire second and third floors were blacked out! No shades, no lights, no desks, no nothing. I went inside the CVS, to politely inquire what the hell they did with my dreams of mixed used retail buildings filling street corners of the world. Those dreams, dear friends, were shattered by the pimply, half bored, half pissed off cashier who offhandedly responded, "Upstairs? There is no upstairs. It's fake."

Fake, I can take. Hair color, toupees, implants, etc, those things are fake, and I don't mind. Those fakes actually substitute something for nothing. This building, on the other hand, had the problem substituting nothing for nothing! Would I hate this building more if it was one story, no detail, set in the middle of the lot with empty asphalt surrounding it? Probably. Would have I been as disappointed as my pimply prom night? Definitely not. This building was like my junior year prom date who after asking it out, promising it dinner, putting up with its useless conversation on the merits of sparkling nail polish vs. glossy, says that it's saving itself for marriage while chowing down on the most expensive meal you've ever eaten.

This was a classic case of architectural blue balls.

It's a mannequin of a building that on first view seems totally contradictory to the whole American sprawl way of thinking. And yet on closer inspection and daily use, it's nothing more than a glorified single story drug store we are all familiar with, albeit with bells and whistles to make it seem more urban friendly and upscale (thinking of Las Vegas theme hotels and Disneyland's Epcot downtown here, folks). So much for the paradigm of restoring small town America through mixed used buildings. Faced with the other dismal options, I guess I'd rather brave the blue balls by shopping here than cutting off irate soccer moms at the local Walmart parking lot.

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