Saturday, November 1, 2008

Minicity IV: Defining Minicity - The Architecture And Urbanism of Convenience

Not far from my home two story mini-malls face off across Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles with taller office blocks and residential buildings beyond; each type a peculiar combination of social logic and economic calculation; each form serving an urban purpose, if not adding up to an artful townscape.

I did not start out with the idea that I would become an aficionado of mini-malls. No, in the beginning of my fascination I think, like most people, I saw them as a problem, a visual blight, second order urban detritus.

In Los Angeles, the first mini-mall I paid close attention to was one not far from my house in the mid-Wilshire district. I was not seeking out for study the mini-malls in my community per se. Rather, I was looking at the setting the mall was placed within. I found myself fascinated with the extreme juxtaposition of large buildings next to small buildings, a scene characteristic of many of Los Angeles' boulevards. This contrast, I postulated, must constitute a unique Los Angeles pattern. Within this frame of small versus large was surely some kernel of truth.

Upon reflection, I realized that the truth I was seeking was prosaic. It was formed by a nexus of land cost, parcel size, retail opportunity and traffic counts. If office markets and housing demand are not too robust, if the nearby residential population is plentiful and if traffic counts are high, economics dictate that most commercial corners are most productive as retail strips. Combined with traditional prejudices in Los Angeles against dwelling on traffic-congested streets, empirical observation suggests that market forces lead to the proliferation of mini-malls. I realized I was at them and in them all the time looking out at the city and denying what I was directly experiencing, the view from a mini-mall. What started out on my part as a formal study, looking at one corner commercial situation and imagining from this singular review the ideal shape of Los Angeles urban design, soon turned into review and research regarding an architectural type that I had unintendingly become familiar with, the mini-mall.

A feature on the mini-malls of the San Gabriel Valley appeared in the Los Angeles Times on March 31, 2005.

All Angeleno's utilize mini-malls but but few appreciate them. There are of course somewhat tongue in cheek reviews that appear infrequently in the Los Angeles Times describing the delights of mini-malls. And more recently a local real estate blog has taken to highlighting on an occasional basis favorite commercial corners, though again in an ironic manner. Notwithstanding these activities, few people actually honor the type or take it seriously as an integral part of daily life. Mini-malls are not Disney Hall and Frank Gehry does not design them. They are rarely seen as contributing to the life of their urban surrounds even as they are used everyday.

In normative urban design and architectural design practice the mini-mall is not a subject of serious study. Only in a few cases can one point to recognized architects being given commissions to design these centers. The prophets of New Urbanism eschew the type. Yet despite the lack of sanction, I found I could not resist them. I found myself and still find myself using them everyday. Soon I realized that my interest was not so much the juxtaposition of small versus large form and the codification of a Los Angeles pattern but understanding commercial types, particularly corner commercial types and their relationship to automobility and everyday life.

My hypothesis, perhaps too obviously, is that contemporary mobility breeds architectural types that are a direct response to daily life in the present metropolis - hence mini-malls. I also sensed as I delved into the subject that an interest in mini-malls would lead to an alternative view and illustration of the history of the city, one that was more inclusive of forms previously ignored as utilitarian and prosaic. My further thought was that an exploration of automobility and its forms would allow a more nuanced view of the building requirements for daily life in the contemporary city. From a design point of view understanding the typologies of automobility would lead to formal innovation within the logic of the mini-mall type. From this multi-faceted hypothesis came both a program of research and a concept, minicity.

Research in the form of driving and walking the streets of Los Angeles reveals an automobile oriented informal city of commercial corners bursting with mom and pop businesses, innovative stores selling specialty goods that can not afford to locate in shopping malls, ethnic and innovative eateries, businesses run by first generation Americans, businesses that depend for success upon the certainty of immediately available parking, and a huge range of enterprises and activities that span the range of daily life, from Tae Kwon Do studios to animal hospitals to storefront churches. Martin Leitner, an intern from the Bauhaus University who assisted me in this research, first dubbed this phenomenon Minicity.

Minicity is marked by easy in and out parking and focused visits, often quite short. Minicity serves the practical needs of surrounding neighborhoods while catering simultaneously to a larger mobile community who pass by on foot, by bus and of course by automobile. Minicity efficiently serves the needs of mobile lifestyles. It has a logical built consequence, an architecture and urbanism of convenience. The mini-mall in all its forms is its most refined outcome.

Minicity is also a feeling of or state of being within the city. In this sense minicity describes the routines and pleasures of using the commercial corners and mini-malls. Thus minicity is the heightened consciousness of daily routines within the automobile oriented metropolis. Minicity is also about movement through the space of the auto-influenced city. This type of movement is a cousin of the space time movement described so powerfully sixty years ago by Sigfried Giedion in Space, Time and Architecture. However rather than Gideon's space time, which was the liberating sense of pure flow through the forms of the modern city, minicity suggests rather a place time where the the mini-center offers a focused pause in the frenetic activity of the networked city.

The Flip a Strip competition sponsored by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) in Scottsdale, Arizona explored means to reinvent the ubiquitous strip malls of the Phoenix area. This entry by Gould Evans returns the strip center to its historic point of origin, the drive-in market selling produce to passing motorists and suggests a continued vital future for this overlooked typology.

Architectural types are neutral. They bespeak neither good nor evil. However good architecture is not neutral, it bespeaks care. Minicity in most cases needs care. My only regret when looking at the majority of this type of convenience landscape is that it is so underdeveloped, indeed formally ugly. Perhaps by revealing it to be a tangible and neccessary part of contemporary daily life the seeds are sown for its improvement. My sense is that with care minicity will find an honored place within the historic typologies of the city. The first step towards improving the design of minicity is to acknowledge its purpose and relevance.