Reconsidering the American strip mall

This image and the text that follows are taken from Erik Hancock’s proposal to the Terreform ONE design competition for creating productive green space in cities, sponsored by the City of New York Parks and Recreation office and the American Society of Landscape Architects. This part of his proposal is called ‘Reconsidering the American strip mall‘ (large PDF file).

During the rapid postwar suburban expansion, thousands of small shopping centers- nondescript, one-story, automobile- centered buildings- sprang up across the United States. Eventually, the consumer’s appetite grew and the strip mall was superseded by larger shopping malls and regional ‘lifestyle centers’. Many strip malls now languish, solid but poorly maintained products of a now obsolete business model, the domain of high-turnover dollar stores and payday lenders. 

Too ugly and vulgar for ‘respectable’ architects or preservationists, these buildings are in a kind of architectural limbo. When the design profession does address such an unlovely structure, the solution is almost invariably to knock it down and replace it with a new ‘green’ building. Sadly, what we fail to consider is that the embodied energy spent when a perfectly good old building is demolished is often far greater than any savings produced by the most sustainable new building. We tend to assume that the best solution to a problem is to clean the slate and start from scratch with a brand new concept- this is true of architects and urban planners alike. Instead of taking responsibility for the previous acts of the profession and cleaning up our mess, it is more exciting to declare a fresh, bold start free from those past mistakes. 

This project makes the radical proposition that in fact, saving some of the ugliest and most problematic buildings represents our greatest opportunity to improve the built environment and conserve natural resources. These aging buildings sit in the heart of first-ring suburbs; they were designed to be simple and flexible. Architects as public servants need to take on a new ethical imperative – take these ‘bad’ buildings and help them to become beautiful, integrated, productive parts of the community.

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