Saturday, October 25, 2008

Minicity III - Smart Cars = Smart City

The El Adobe Drive-in Market built in the early 1920's in Hollywood California prefigures today's mini-malls (see Richard Longstreth, The Drive-in, The Supermarket and the Transformation of Commercial Space in Los Angeles, 1914 - 1941)

There is an assumption in city design that both professionals and citizens have learned from the lessons of the past century. If the Twentieth Century brought us innumerable forms of sprawl that have left us out of shape and overweight, we know better than to reproduce the same patterns in the present. Today we are for mixed-use development with housing over retail and eyes-on-the-street overlooking active urban sidewalks. We relate land-use to transportation improvements. Higher density housing and job space need to be located next to light rail and bus rapid transit. Villages with residents within walking distant of neighborhood shops are much preferred over cul-de-sac suburbs. Growth within this framework must be compact and sustainable. When growth is both, it is smart.

At the same time economic and social forces reinforce these urban design tenants. In the last years we have heard about location-responsive mortgages that encourage us to build close to transit. Zoning innovations encourage small lot subdivisions and accessory units within formerly single family house neighborhoods Walkability audits lead to improved sidewalks and streets that are green and great. Combined with rising energy costs, together these factors suggest that the city will evolve, finally, towards a New Urbanism.

Facts suggest that these forces are no longer academic. In many cities you can ride a light rail from the airport to the center city to the individual neighborhood and see block after block of mixed-use development rising. Downtowns are being renewed by an agglomerating creative class. People are building smaller houses in the outlying districts. Drivers are selling their SUVs and buying smaller cars. A few are buying Smart cars and then go onto to live the smart urban life. This, if you subscribe religiously to all of the above, may be an urban design challenge you did not anticipate.
The Smart Car, because it is cheap, efficient and easy to park challenges the viability of a purely traditional urbanism and promotes the building of more mini-malls.Image from

Smart cars are smart because they dart in and out of congested traffic with ease. They park in the most unlikely of places. They are light and promise great mileage. They project an aura of cool; light, compact, thrifty and convenient. They allow us to ignore and better negotiate the envelope of automobile-oriented sprawl and congestion. Soon, very soon, many more of us will drive micro-cars, save money, and look for places to go; places like light, compact, thrifty and convenient mini-malls.

History suggests that automotive innovation spawns building types and urban forms that belie traditional urbanism. There is no reason to think that micro-cars will not do the same. Los Angeles was one of the first cities in the United States to have a very high percentage of car ownership and it became the place where the 20th Century American landscape of super gas stations, drive-in-markets and supermarkets was more or less invented. While other cities also had their part in this evolution of urbanism, Houston (strip centers), Detroit (interior shopping malls) and Kansas City (auto-villages) come to mind, the forms of automobility spread fastest in Los Angeles (again, see Richard Longstreth). Now, a new generation of automotive innovation will spur a further round of typological evolution. One can easily imagine a hybrid city that is at once compact, traditional, smart and accepting of micro-cars in mini-malls.

If a car is inexpensive to buy, cheap to drive, easy to park and fun to boot, why deny yourself the private pleasures of a mini-car at the mini-center? Micro-cars present one of the greatest challenges to traditional urbanism in the 21rst century precisely because they enable people in urban situations to maintain already dominant patterns of daily existence within spread out urban landscapes. Mini-malls have a natural place within these micro-driven urban environments precisely because they, like the super stations, drive-in markets and supermarkets before them, offer the individual daily convenience through a specific typology with a minimum of fuss, a maximum of freedom and reasonable comfort.

I believe in the compact city. But I also believe that designers will find new ways to make automobile-oriented uses compact. I believe in smart growth. But I also believe that smart cars have a place within the urban intensity that is a consequence of this growth. I believe in sustainability. One response to evolutionary sustainability is buying a very small car that does not use gas nor measure efficiency in terms of miles per gallon. Minicity is the acceptance, sometimes reluctantly, of this already present urban projection and the understanding that architectural visions, indeed new visions for mini-malls, are needed, and will be created.

Minicity II - Ambition and Hope

A question arises when looking at the common mini-mall. Are they pure building type, in essence a wholly engineered response to a given set of economic imperatives that directly relate the automobile to the consumption of everyday convenience, or do they have the capacity to embody more complex values and aspirations? Certainly most mini-malls are parsimonious in the deployment of detail, symbol and idea, sticking to the tried and true, rarely deviating from the formula of a corner "L" embracing a field of parking.

In Los Angeles at the intersection of Western and 6th, this two-story mini-mall is an engineered exercise in design efficiency. No architectural excess or delight mars its economy of purpose and convenience.

Another way of asking this same question might be, do mini-malls lie outside architectural discourse? Clearly if I really thought this I would not be writing this essay. Yet, one has to be an iconoclast at best and a masochist at worst to pursue the mini-mall as an object of architectural passion (or to desire to design a mini-mall - which I do). Most of them are quite plain if not visually blighting. All the conversations and experiments that mark contemporary architecture may be wasted on a building form that is more often than not prosaic. After all, the real purpose of a mini-mall is to provide a drive-in vessel of convenience, an envelope set in urbanized space to go in and out of quickly and with purpose - a machine to facilitate everyday consumption.

Seeking beauty in the form of a mini-mall raises all sorts of accusations from the architectural crowd. Somewhere between bemusement and anger, I am variously accused of being uninterested, undiscriminating and populist in the sense of being part of the ignorant mob-like crowd. At other times I admit to a sense of perversion. I do have trouble justifying this interest in the basest form of commercial architecture. Do I perhaps too quickly take undue pleasure in the destruction of traditional as well as yet to be realized cityscapes through the unintended promotion of unfettered commercial automobile oriented sprawl?
Yet to those who don't believe it possible I tell you there are mini-malls that rise above the merely utilitarian. These mini-malls suggest that the form is still evolving, is still relevant, is still an architectural tool that can be deployed and when deployed reward and enrich everyday life. Three of these mini-centers are encountered in my daily life and they each make an architectural statement of care.

Beverly Palm Plaza in Beverly Hills, California was designed by Goldman Firth Architects and completed about eight years ago.

The first, Beverly Palm Plaza, is named after it's namesake intersection in Beverly Hills. Designed by Goldman Firth Architects and completed about eight years ago, this mini-mall is a rehabilitation of a 1951 Earl Sheib paint and body shop. When rehabilitated the size was doubled. What makes this center so special is the simplicity of the design means yet complexity of the end result. Minimal glass aluminum storefront, flat stucco walls layered to reveal the sky and a steel trellis sitting between the layered stucco walls and extending beyond the building form to create a vehicular gateway to the center from Palm Drive. Combined they infuse an integrated architectural spirit into the basic shape of a mini-mall by always bringing the eye back to glimpse the Southern California sky and the surrounding palms.
At Beverly Palm Plaza the sky is always mediated by the architectural forms, creating a connection between the built and natural environments.

At the ground plane of Beverly Palm Plaza flax plants create a vertical green buffer between the automobiles in the street facing parking lot and the surrounding sidewalks. The surface of the parking lot is made up of simple concrete pavers, providing a rich surface to walk across to and from your car. In the corner, a small round seating area creates a welcome respite and invites one to linger a bit after dropping off the laundry. Every detail is thought through, an educated hand and eye shaped every proportion and choice of material. Beverly Palm Plaza demonstrates that it is possible to create a mini-oasis along a busy Los Angeles boulevard, a moment of architectural uplift in the course of a busy day.

The second example of an architecturally focused mini-mall is just a block to the east of Beverly Palm Plaza along Olympic Boulevard in this same city. The fact that two such examples exist so close to each other in one city is also no doubt a testament to the rigor of the Beverly Hills design review process, but that is a topic for another time.

Doheny Plaza, designed by Kanner Associates in 1995; still crisp and fresh feeling in 2008.

Doheny Plaza, the mini-mall at the northeast corner of Olympic Boulevard and Doheny Drive, was designed by Kanner Architects and completed in 1995. Still fresh looking almost fifteen years after its completion, this center is unusual in that the parking is tucked behind the two-story structure, sheltered by a twenty foot overhang supported by tension rods. According to the architect this is a structural reference to a tension rod supported canopy that graced a previous gas station that stood at the site. Regardless of the resulting sidewalk hugging character of the building and the sense that it might be more of a taxpayer block then a mini-mall, the small footprint occupied by this building in contrast to the generous area left for surface parking clearly keeps this building within the commercial corner genre. Yet here the type evolves, providing sidewalk friendly storefronts and a second floor that clearly suggests use as office space as opposed to the second tier and lower rent retail found in too many centers. The diagram of this center is wrapped in a crisp modernism that at once evokes Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and
Arquitectonica. However, the expressiveness of the structural detailing at both the storefronts and at the overhang make the architecture specific to the seismic forces of Los Angeles and surrounds. Doheny Plaza tweaks the typical mini-mall diagram by putting the cars in the back but never strays so far from basics as to become inconvenient for its vehicle bound patrons.

The last example is again a rehabilitated building, in this case a repurposed mini-mall. Designed by architects Rios Clemente Hale for their own offices with attendant ground floor retail space for their product business Not Neutral, this redesigned center sits just south of the intersection of Melrose Avenue and Larchmont Boulevard.

Rios Clemente Hale redesigned and repurposed an existing mini-mall in the Larchmont area of Los Angeles, transforming it into a center for their own offices and attendant retail space.

What was once an undistinguished center has had its walls ripped off and replaced with a visually sophisticated metal and glass wall. Transparent glass planes reveal interior activities yet at the same time allow for a sense of privacy when interupted by attached and integral aluminum decorative screens. Like Beverly Palm Plaza, concrete pavers at the ground plane create a simple yet textured plaza that is at once rich and welcoming. The exterior space is allowed to bleed into the interiors of the architect's offices, suffusing the entry with a sense of layering, light and the delightful confusion of reflections.

The interior of the Rios Clemente Hale office merges inside and outside space, a trait rarely characteristic of a mini-mall.

These are all of course designed phenomenon that transcend the utility that is presumed to be inherent to the mini-mall type.

In each of these three cases, and I keep collecting more examples, the presence of Architecture infuses a spirit of generosity into a form of built pattern that is assumed to be impervious to delight. In the hands of a capable architect of course anything is possible but imagine if you will a city in which the prosaic, indeed the typically banal mini-mall, is always infused with beauty. Convenience is celebrated as opposed to tolerated. Diagrams, mini-mall diagrams in particular, while not completely forgiven as a type that can foster mindless vehicle oriented consumption and sprawl, are also seen to be in these examples opportunities for the expression of architectural ambition and everyday delight.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Minicity I - Lou

Lorraine and Denise before a meal at Lou, a slow food wine bar tucked into the corner of a mini-mall south of Hollywood, California

Yesterday, a San Franciscan and I had a conversation. He had eight hours before his plane ride home. He challenged me, "where do you go in Los Angeles if you have time to kill?" For any Angeleno this is an existential challenge. We use the city peripatetically, rarely going just one place, instead hopping about through great swaths of space. To MOCA, SMOA, LACMA, Runyon Canyon, Griffith Park, Downtown, the beach, etc. each a delight, but not connected or sustaining interest for an entire day.

Politically Los Angeles resembles Jane Jacob's Greenwich Village, but in practice this city remains closer to Reyner Banham's four sprawling and overlapping ecologies; surfurbia, foothills, the plains of id (where most of us live) and autopia (how most of us get around). "Hey", I told my freind, "if you want to see Los Angeles, visit a mini-mall."

Reyner Banham pays scant attention to mini-malls in his book but they are the logical typological consequence of a city that lives at once on the beach, in the hills, throughout the flats of the geographic basins and valleys and in cars (and I dare say even buses and trains). Angelenos are on the move across vast distances, at least in comparison to traditional urban situations and mini-malls are the halfway houses, the outposts, the forts and campgrounds of convenience.

Every Angeleno mentally maps the Los Angeles locales where they buy a bottle of water, drop off and pick up cleaning, wash pets, grab take-out, exercise, visit chiropractors and weight control specialists, indeed take care of all daily needs. Unheralded yet essential to everyday life, this minicity of "L" shaped haunts is our secret city where we spend the hours and the days of our lives.

Perhaps least obvious to the outsider is how mini-malls, despite lacking the traditional elan of great urban places, increasingly transcend definitions of high and low culture, realizing a type of placeless place to be that is the definition of this place, Los Angeles. One can find the world in a Los Angeles mini-mall. From ethnic foods of every type to goods from every continent, storefront churches and book stores, jewelry and clothing, photo-finishing and fried chicken, art galleries and light industrial manufacturing, there are mini-malls that feature any activity one can imagine or anticipate. You just have to first define your need and then seek it out.

Melrose Plaza, at the corner of Vine Street and Camerford Avenue in Los Angeles, features the slow food wine bar Lou, as well as a laundromat, burger stand, Guatemalan chicken restaurant and Thai massage parlor.

Upon reflection I would suggest that my San Francisco friend spend the hours before his flight at the mini-mall pictured above, Melrose Plaza. This is the "Lou" mini-mall at the southeast corner of Vine Street and Camerford Avenue south of Hollywood. I could wax poetic about the convenient parking, the stunning views of the hills to the north, the curious residential neighborhoods and studio haunts within a quarter mile walking distance, but the real secret here is Lou. Lou is a slow-food restaurant and wine bar. Lou is the guy who owns the place and stands behind the bar and pours the wine and picks the music. The interior is dark and the music is smoky even if one can't smoke. A curtain hides the view out and the view in. You could and I did drive by the place a dozen times before stopping in. On any given day or evening you might run into friends, neighbors, celebrities or just sit alone and talk to Lou. To the San Franciscan who doesn't want to drive in LA, take a taxi to Melrose Plaza, eat a meal, get a massage, look at the hills, enjoy a glass of fine wine and get to know Lou and get to know Los Angeles.