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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Conventions

At the Organization of Chinese Americans’ (OCA) annual convention in the Grand Hyatt, which stands awkwardly like a fragile, tall ugly sister next to the robust grace of Grand Central Station. Cobalt blue vinyl table skirts hide only what everyone already knows – that underneath this plastic table is pathetic emptiness. Under the dull bright lights of this hotel’s ballroom, with its architecture of vagueness, enthusiasm is conjured, rehearsed then recycled.

A bronze colored curtain partially, inconsequentially, covers a section of wood veneer wall. A neglected table sits in front with pitchers of ice water and bowls of mints. A woman (Her description escapes me. I only remember that she carried 3 different bags.) drifts towards our table drawn by a weak magnetism. A conversation emerges, one that is expected and satisfactory, and ends with her cramming one of her bags with informational brochures.

New York Life, the insurance company, has the booth next to ours, separated by a low bar on which hangs a vinyl skirt like the one decorating our table, hiding its emptiness – the divider skirt, however, is cadmium red. Staffing their table is a mild-mannered, middle-aged Chinese man who smiles sympathetically towards me sometimes and who, with professional eagerness chatted with the interested about his company’s business either in Cantonese, Mandarin or English.

Inside their booth was a standing banner dominated by a black and white photo illustration of a business-suited man who’s shadow looks like a mideival door key. He looks up at a key hole which is out of reach, but through which a holy light shines at him. Above the illustration is the phrase “You hold the key to your success” and then underneath, the motivational punchline: “Opportunity knocks…but you have to open the door.” Finally, at the bottom, the banner proudly notes that New York Life’s credit ratings are triple A across the board.

This week, America’s credit ratings were downgraded by Standard & Poor’s in an unprecedented stumble for this country’s mighty economy and self-confidence. Towards the end of my time at the convention, as most were downstairs at an awards luncheon, a young Chinese woman walked briskly up to the table and announced herself as Echo. She lives “near the Belt Parkway” in Brooklyn and is here studying finance at NYU, and eventually looking to land a job. I could tell from the way she talked, directly and with an unleashed smile, that she felt the winds at her back and that she knew she couldn’t be stopped. She’s being carried along by the turbulent waves caused by her country which is shaped like a rooster.


New World Mall, Flushing, NY

To get to this new dim sum restaurant on Roosevelt Avenue in Flushing, you go into the New World Mall, walking through the two sets of glass sliding doors onto its red carpeted entrance, past the Futurist-looking fake gold abstract sculpture. You go underneath 2 ceiling mounted flat screen TVs playing Chinese pop music videos and up the escalator to the third floor, passing shops called Miss V Fashion Boutique, U.Nive, WINK, 101 Fashion, and 96GHZ. Once up the escalator you’ll notice sunlight pouring in from the skylight ceiling which is modeled after the coffered architecture of ancient Greece. The classical references begin there and take a Baroque turn elsewhere in this great hall, crashing head on with an obsessive pursuit of newness. Monumental faux-crystal chandeliers hover over the central spaces while the melting soft neon blues, greens, magentas and pinks of LED tubes highlight square pillars that run in two rows down the middle. But its shimmering newness is already beginning to show ragged age on its hastily assembled, cheap surfaces just 3 months after opening. Glass, marble, granite, satin, gold, crystal – they’re all either present or referenced. A grand piano sits on the stage next to a party of 12 unceremoniously devouring their dim sum. A sultry hostess in a crimson ball gown glides by to seat a table for 4.

New World is the latest of the many malls that have sprung up in this Queens Chinatown in the last 5 years, offering the kind of shopping and eating experience that my parents and others say reminds them of contemporary China. Each new mall sucks the business from the older ones, turning them into desperately abject vessels for cell phone stalls, teenage fashion boutiques, bootleg DVD shops and so forth. New World occupies a space that sat empty and unused for years before it burst open in a blur of construction.

It has packed them in, fielding a diverse array of consumer options like a massive supermarket, an unending food court in the lower level with a dizzying selection of cuisines, snacks and desserts from all over China, specialty shops like the one that only sells iPad cases, clothing stores for all styles, and a shop that sells motorized scooter/bikes popular with food delivery guys. Packs of Chinese teenagers and families take to this space in a state of near euphoria; they know how to be in this kind of architecture, comfortable to cruise its gleaming halls, wandering casually in and out of shops, and adding to the cacophony of buzzing chatter that reminds me of the soundtrack of dim sum. The new Chinatowns are malls.