Art News Roundup: Saving the Strip Mall Edition

It inevitably proves to be the case that things made by human hands, no matter how utilitarian those things are, eventually become the subject of human study. If you want to learn more about Pennsylvania Dutch barns or Japanese tatami mats, chances are you’ll find that someone, somewhere, wrote an academic paper or book on the subject that triggered further investigation and scholarship. It appears that the time has now come to turn our attention to something that most of us think very little about, if at all: the strip mall.

In a review published yesterday in The Architect’s Newspaper, architect Shane Reiner-Roth looks at the new book, “Sunset Market Plaza: Meditations on Strip Malls in Los Angeles”, a limited-edition collection of reflections, proposals, and what we might call “strip mall sightseeing” information. It’s true that for the most part, these stand-alone buildings, or groups of these buildings clustered around a parking lot, are not protected structures. Yet Mr. Reiner-Roth and the editors of the book are clearly raising the question as to whether at least some of them should be considered for preservation, just as we would any other type of older, vernacular architecture.

Strangely enough, I think there may be something to this, but I think a larger question is whether we ought to consider the possibility that a more subtle strip mall may have some restrained architectural merit to it. Particularly telling in the article is a quote from L.A. developer Sam Bachner, a major builder of strip malls in southern California, who likes his projects to be something more than purely utilitarian boxes. He asks the architects working on his projects “to incorporate elements which are reflective of the specific community in which they are located… Some places might care more about color schemes, or I might have one place with a bell tower, or maybe I will use a blue tile roof in Koreatown—it’s all about community context.”

It’s interesting to note that this conceptualization of what a strip mall ought to look like is largely unchanged since the post-war period, since in many smaller towns and cities or out-of-the-way neighborhoods you can still find strip malls built 50 or 60 years ago which perfectly reflect this way of thinking. For example, the Colonial Shopping Center in York, Pennsylvania serves a colonial era city in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country. The shopping center however, is a small complex well outside of downtown, consisting of a pair of small-scale strip malls built in 1955 that sit on two sides of a mid-sized parking lot. It’s not a remarkable group of structures in any way, nor are these structures particularly ersatz colonial in style.


On the other hand, if we look more closely at the details of the shopping center we can see subtle references to York’s colonial past. The shop fronts feature wood paneled doors, as well as mullioned display windows and transoms. Square columns with plain, cubical capitals and bases support a vaguely Mount Vernon-esque porch running the length of one side of each building. The effect is to create something that seems familiar, without looking like a theme park attraction.


Back in the 1950’s, the developers of this project could have simply built a plain group of boxes lined up next to each other and called it a day. Instead, they added just enough unifying architectural detail that the complex references the city’s history, without hitting us over the head with things like faux fan lights or fiberglass dentil molding. You may disagree of course, but I think one of the reasons that this pair of strip malls has survived relatively intact is its very subtlety. Having recently been purchased by a local college however, which to my knowledge has still not announced what it intends to do with either the buildings or the land on which the buildings sit, it’s a case in point as to the question of whether these utilitarian buildings are deserving of preservation and further study.

And now, on to some interesting news stories from the past several days.

Exit to Ethiopia
In a story worthy of a film script, an 18th century Ethiopian ceremonial crown that sat in a suitcase in Holland for decades after being illegally smuggled out of the country for safekeeping is about to return home. You can read the rather twisty-turny tale of how and why it ended up in Rotterdam over on Art Daily, but as you can see in the photograph below from Agence France Presse, it’s quite an elaborate, heavy piece of metalwork. Made of gilded copper, the cross on top of the crown features the Holy Trinity in the center, the square section toward the bottom has twelve panels depicting the twelve Apostles, while the lowest panel (I’m guessing that’s a breastplate?) features the Madonna and Child seated on a throne and accompanied by two angels.


Back in Bordeaux
Speaking of significant lost and found objects, a parish in France is celebrating at the moment. The Basilica of Saint-Michel in Bordeaux is an important French Gothic church with an absolutely massive, 375-foot tall free-standing bell tower, the tallest in the south of France. Among the church’s treasures is a 15th century altarpiece composed of alabaster panels carved in Nottingham, England, which at the time was the center for alabaster sculpture in Europe. Back in the 1990’s, four of the panels were stolen and replaced with plaster copies, so that the crime went undetected for an unknown period of time. The originals disappeared into the black market in stolen art and might have remained lost. Fortunately, they were unwittingly purchased by British art dealer Russell Strachan who, upon learning their true origin, recently returned the sculptures to their home; as you can see, there’s a space just waiting for their re-installation.


Payments in Paris
In other positive French basilica news, the two French billionaires who offered considerable sums for the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris are now getting out their checkbooks. Bernard Arnault and François Pinault pledged roughly $218 million and $109 million, respectively, in reaction to the devastating fire that took place at the Cathedral back in April. M. Arnault signed his installment agreement last week, and M. Pinault did the same this past Tuesday. To date, roughly half of the promised donations have actually come in or been formalized.




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