Thursday, January 20, 2011

Land of Eaves

Anyone with an eye for beautiful things is bound to complain about strip mall architecture once in a while. But its latest trend here in the midwest is more maddening than the ugly, low 1970s strip of shops we grew up hating, and just as out of place as those adobe and stucco numbers that were popping up everywhere from Tucson to Buffalo for a decade or so. I searched in vain for what to call this new style of commercial architecture, and I don't think the builders who produce it are educated in architecture to the point where they would even know what to call it. A professor called it New Urban, but it's more like a square dung heap. So I'll describe it: angular, squared off, tall buildings with extremely wide overhanging eaves, and extremely low pitched roofs. Here is one from this area:

I'll tell you why I hate it. I hate the overhangs because they are too high to provide cover, and stick out so far that icicles will almost certainly fall on and kill the person who can't calculate their trajectory. This is a problem in the Midwest. You don't walk right next to a building because ice falls. Put the eaves out six feet, ten feet, twenty feet... how will we know where to walk? In addition to the the lack of practical applications for these wide roofs, I have a more important objection: they look idiotic. It has somehow become a status symbol of commercial architecture, that whoever has the widest most massive eaves must have the fanciest establishment.
A fancier option, with walls of glass and stone pillars. Dick's Sporting Goods chose this one, because we all know how fancy sporting goods can be.

What's strange about these buildings is they house everything from your typical strip mall denizens -- liquor stores and sporting goods shops -- to all manner of city and public buildings, to high-end medical offices (like, you know, places where people who have insurance go). The city of Aurora and the village of North Aurora both built new police stations in the past year, and they look like this:

It looks almost like this... they didn't quite come through with the grass and trees

Granted the city and medical buildings that go this architectural route are usually thicker and sturdier looking than the strip malls. They pay for the nice facades, a taller entryway, and the widest roof that won't fall off. (Now I'm curious what will happen to these things after a few years of blizzard snows landing on them. Don't the architects know why Alpine roofs are pointy -- not flat?)

I think what bothers me most about these monstrosities is that they are trying to look incredibly important. That's great for the police station and the courthouse and the library*, but won't they look stupid ten years from now? The liquor store does not need to command anyone's architectural respect. And the doctor's office in the middle of the cornfield does not need to impress anyone. The people on the other side of the cornfield are just glad it's there.

Buildings are for living in, living with, and for using their spaces. These crazy roofs and imposing facades do not make them inviting, especially on a backdrop of flat ground and white sky. (I've seen some of this style of building look decent in Phoenix or Palm Springs, with well-watered greenery all around and a southern sort of flair to the facades.) The massive roofs, if anything, make a person feel small and unwelcome. Personally, these buildings frighten me when they're free-standing without any other tall structures nearby. There's one all alone on desolate Route 34 between Yorkville and Plano, soaring into the sky and slashing it with its violently protruding black eaves. Terrifying.

Commercial design of strip malls will always change with the trends, but I don't see why other public spaces should be built on a whim. I guess that's my point here. City planners, put some thought into your buildings and who is going to be using them -- or even enjoying them if you don't build a sea of eyesores! Don't look to the liquor store or the new hair salon down the street for your inspiration. Let's go back to a simpler time when strip malls were the only thing that looked like strip malls. We've kind of gotten used to those anyway.

*The Batavia Library was built in 2002 in a modest neoclassical sort of style. It doesn't have a wide roof, and never fails to look inviting. And if you sit on the bench next to the Mark Twain statue under the portico, you will actually be protected from rain and falling ice. You can't go wrong with columns on public buildings. So symbolic! So structurally useful!


  1. I like the library. It LOOKS like a library. All those other buildings look to me more like community colleges trying to look fancy.
    Around here the strip mall trend is to use fifteen different colours, styles and textures of brick and stone and to stack them all together in the oddest ways...things that look like windows, but are really just light coloured bricks inside a frame of dark coloured bricks. it can't possibly be cost effective to build these things.

  2. There's a reason the Ancient Greeks used columns and not stucco.

    Also, who wouldn't want to sit next to Mark Twain whilst reading? Although, I'd rather engage him in conversation, if I actually had that opportunity.


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