It is easy to say, when standing inside the beautiful and elegant Kimbell Art Museum an argument for a beautiful, lasting world, where the sunlight shines through gently, and the peace of history descends upon the contemplative space. It is also easy to view such masterpieces as Falling Water as a kind of Utopian space, where structure and habitation organically integrate with land and landscape, and the interior space and exterior space sort of blur together into a clean, beautiful dream. It is harder to think about more common landscapes as Utopian visions, but they are.
I recently went to a strip mall at the corner of two highways. I sat in a cafe, there, where the miniscule interior, though comfy enough, was deeply secondary to the drive through apparatus that was the true engine of commerce there. Inside, the chairs are no longer oversized, and there’s a long communal table covered in plug connections. There is no illusion, anymore, that this is a communal gathering place, like it used to be. This is a place not for conversation, much, but more for people to stare at a screen somewhere that is no longer their house. The WiFi is excellent, as is the caffeine. This is no longer a cafe as a relaxing third space. The noise and bustle of the drive-thru is too jarring for that. No, this is a space where people come to work out in the world, together and isolated at once. Everyone is smiling and polite, but there is a distance between us all. The person behind the counter never truly crosses over into communion with the people on the other side of it, never truly abandons the shell of the corporation of which he or she is a representative. The people never reach across a table and speak about interesting and dangerous things, like in the coffee houses of so long ago. All illusions of this are lost, and the architecture reflects it. There are places to plug in. The lighting is dim, but not too dim, which is perfect for lit screens. The drive-thru scares away anyone who is interested in talking without headphones on. This is a utopian space, arguing for what Americans do in the mornings and lazy afternoons. We are drinking coffee, a vital stimulant for our society, and we are connected to our machines, whether at work or play. We live inside the cloud of data always connected to the machine in front of us. We talk more into the machine to reach another person when we are out and about than we talk to the persons around us we do not already know.
The Utopian future of the strip mall, where everything is clean and affordable, and the customer service always makes the customer feel like they are important in that space, the center of everything, is a vision of a future that someone dreamed. It is as much a product of the modern notions of how new things should be purchased as it is an expression of commercial interest. The reason it proves itself is through ubiquity and success. They are everywhere, in every level of repair and disrepair, and they tend to stay in business in some fashion or other, where the shops are good and the anchor chain is good and the community has money to spend on convenience and things. The parking lots spread out like desert plains, with no life in them. What plants there are get pushed around the sides, trimmed low to maintain safe visibility for automobile drivers, and are maintained as ornamentals, only, and sprayed with whatever works regardless of ecological impact. The whole set up is built for people in cars to feel like this is convenient, an escape from the drudgery of the house and chores, a place to sneak out at work and have someone take our orders for a change, make us feel like we are the center of everything.
This is the argument of the strip mall in the space of life: the customer is the center of the world, and everything that is must serve the customer. It is sort of wonderful to sit in that cafe, with my head phones on, and type into a screen, and feel important. It is a vision of the future that I can see as broken, even as I enjoy my time at the center of the universe, of my own little universe, while typing on a little machine in a dark room beside an espresso machine.
Every piece of architecture is designed to serve a purpose, and in that service of purpose, a vision for the future of that space is made real, and presented to the world as a possible future for everything.
Please, God, don’t let strip malls be our future. Let it be a field of flowers, and trees, and having enough on hand to never need, and speaking more to the person who is present than the person who is not there.