Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Can We Get Rid Of Dead Walls

Thinking more about the upcoming discussions on design guidelines, I saw this in the Washington Post It seems that this writer has a problem with the style of CVS stores in the D.C. area. Not just CVS but most of the new retail buildings whether in the downtown or the suburbs.

The current trend in retail design is to maximize the shelf display space and control the lighting so they sacrifice windows. That is good for the inside. No windows on the outside makes for long, blank walls. Dead walls. Retail spaces in the urban cores of yesteryear had windows, large plate glass windows that used to display the goods sold inside. The major stores employed a staff of window dressers and kept them busy.

Like the old saying “The eyes are the window to the soul.”, windows are how we glimpse the spirit of a business. Large corporations in stark, modern buildings with great expanses of these “dead” walls come of as cold and impersonal. Couple that with an ocean of parking and you dread even approaching the front door. Buildings such as the PNC, Chase Bank and the CommerceLex do not entice me to enter and I suppose that most of us don’t go there unless we HAVE to.

Big box stores like the malls and big chains begin to elicit the same effect. Why else would places like Lowe’s or Home Depot have to display their seasonal sales all along the “No Parking/Fire Lane ?" Or have their spring garden sales or tent sales in the parking lot?

In our downtown area even the older historic buildings are getting this type of treatment. Take a good look at the Barney Miller’s storefront, big glass panels that used to be windows, now covered with billboard sized ads. How about the storefronts closer to the Government Center?

Downtown restaurants appear to be the general exception to the elimination of windowed storefronts. They seem to be happy for those outside to peer in and see human activity. These restaurants also are generally not the franchise chains and therefore exhibit a warmer taste of hospitality than their suburban siblings.
...while windows were always an extension of advertising, they were also transparent, and transparency brings with it many happy accidents. The best of these is the vision of human activity -- even if in a CVS -- through the storefront.
There has been a growing push for transparency in our day-to-day dealings with government and other aspects of our social lives, but the commercial design of “dead “walls goes against that push. Maybe they want a window into government without giving one into their world. Like looking through a one-way glass, it has to be in their favor. The interaction needs to flow both ways.

Older suburban retail areas (the Woodland triangle, Chevy Chase, Romany Road) still have storefronts with large glass windows though some still hide the uses behind them ( Sew Fine, Rite Aid, Hubbuch in Ky) and these are, for the most part, active pedestrian areas Downtown Lexington is spending a great amount of tax dollars to make itself a walkable pedestrian area, therefore we should consider the removal of these “dead” walls
A covered window is more than a concession to the hard realities of the retail economy or to the fear of crime. It is the loss of a form of consciousness -- the mutual regard of urban people for one another. It is the loss of an urban space that can't be found on any map, a place where you are on stage but not an actor, in the audience but part of the show, mixed up among I and you and we and us, a liminal space that has thrilled and terrified people since cities grew large enough to dissolve us in collective identity.

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