A Tan for All Seasons

Note: This essay was first published in P.S.1 Newspaper (Winter 2007) in conjunction with the exhibition Silicone Valley, curated by Nick Stillman.

Laser Quest is one of the world’s largest laser tag companies with over 140 centers worldwide. Its Mountain View, California center in Silicon Valley is housed in a large strip mall next to a mini-market and several restaurants. Given the high concentration of large and small hi-tech offices in the area, it’s appropriate that Laser Quest offers a Corporate Teambuilding program that, according to its promotional material, is “designed to introduce and reinforce the four pillars of effective teamwork: Fun, Communication, Cooperation, Trust”. Like most office buildings in Silicon Valley, Laser Quest’s benign, tree-lined façade conceals a structured, cut-throat environment.

It’s the day after Christmas and I’m driving around, looking at architecture in the land of software innovation, the Internet and network solutions: Silicon Valley. The region sits on flat terrain and is bordered by the San Francisco Bay to its east and the Santa Cruz Mountains to its west. Traffic grinds and snarls in rush hour on the valley’s two main highways: 101, which traces the edge of the bay and 280, which snakes the foothills of the mountains. The valley boasts a consistently mild year-round climate.

I stop at Menlo Park’s Chevron gas station to fill up and pick up a Vitamin Water and donut in its Extra Mile mini-market. Across the street, in a fairly new strip mall complex, a bewildering array of stores do business together: All American Mortgage and Properties, Dashi Japanese Restaurant, Tu Casa Taqueria, Lil Jakes restaurant, H & R Block, Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors, Togos, Nina’s Nails and Hair, and Starbucks. The blocky, irregular cream-colored building units are bland and innocuous, but at least they unify the mismatched stores with a freshly built finish. Imagine taking a mall and turning it inside out. Most importantly the little buildings serve as canvases for the machine fabricated signage.

Developed after World War II during the boom in suburban living and automotive dependence, strip malls are a quintessential feature of American suburbs. A typical one consists of a parking lot and a sidewalk connecting businesses that provide basic day-to-day goods and services. Strip malls offer the community around them a convenient way to get the things they need. Built quickly and cheaply they are invisible at best, neighborhood eyesores at worst. With their complete lack of communal space, they promote suburban isolation.

Just east of the Chevron station on Willow Avenue is an old-looking, poorly maintained  strip mall featuring Mi Rancho Supermarket, Tony’s Pizza, Willow Cleaners, a fish n’ chips restaurant and a sparsely stocked convenience store. The low, long building exudes a quaint charm with its pitched roof, wood trimming and simple signage. It is fronted by a tight parking lot with diagonal spaces.

Strip malls continue to survive despite the enormous popularity of national mega-stores like Target, Wal-Mart, Costco and others with vast parking lots that stock a dizzying variety and amount of products. Shopping in these mega-stores brings Americans together under one roof and unites frantic shoppers in one cause. It is the morality of the consumer: Not everyone believes in the same religion, votes for the same political party, and roots for the same football team, but no one can turn down a 24-pack of toilet paper for $10.98. Nobody can deny value like that.

El Camino Real, the major thoroughfare running north/south through Silicon Valley, is made up almost entirely of strip malls. A particularly unspectacular one offers these shops: A Tan for All Seasons, European Cobblery, The Dry Cleaners, Launderland Wash & Dry, and Applewood 2-Go Pizza. The building is rectangular and painted peach, but the color has grown dingy from what looks like decades of neglect. One notable feature is a long, flat roof halfway up the two-story building that supports spotlights for the store signage adhered above it. Like most strip mall facades, the shops have large glass windows and doors into which patrons can see the business’s inner-workings.

In Silicon Valley, roads blend into parking lots, which merge with building façades in a seamless silicone and mirrored glass landscape. Its strip malls, office parks and corporate campuses leave no mark. They are the architectural equivalent of a white dress shirt and khaki pants. They are a ream of printer paper.

While strip malls offer tiresome, meaningless convenience, mega-stores like Target are a favorite weekend destination and offer hope for national unity. Waiting in line at Trader Joe’s unites Americans. Shopping in bulk at Costco unites Americans. Wanting the same 42” Toshiba plasma HDTV unites Americans. A $2.50 hot dog meal with a refillable soda unites Americans. The Express Lane checkout stations at Target are America’s new dynamic plazas.

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