Storefront windows in the District are not what they used to be

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

After his miraculous epiphany in the Charles Dickens's tale, Ebenezer Scrooge sends a boy to the corner to buy a turkey for the Cratchits' Christmas dinner.

"Do you know whether they've sold the prize turkey that was hanging up there? -- not the little prize turkey; the big one?" he asks the boy.

It seems strange that Scrooge, who takes his "melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern," would know so much about the contents of a poultry shop. But maybe Scrooge, despite the bitter carapace of greed that had formed around him, still walked the city of London, still looked through shop windows.

It's easy to romanticize shop windows, which, after all, are just an extension of advertising. But they were once fundamental to cities, so much so that the idle pastime of strolling the glass arcades, for philosophers such as Walter Benjamin, all but defined modern consciousness.

Storefront windows in Washington aren't living up to this nostalgic idea. In the more urban parts of town, they still function in the old way, letting people covet goods and peer into the spectacle of shopping. But there is a new breed of window in town -- the empty, big-box, nothing-to-see-here window -- that is covered over from the moment a new retail store moves in.

These blank eyes pasted on new buildings typify how good design intentions often crash on the shoals of commerce and pragmatism. Like many cities, the District encourages ground-floor retail, mixed-use development and the creation of walkable streets. Tanya Washington, chief of staff at the D.C. Office of Planning, says the city encourages "street-activating uses" -- a health club where sweaty bodies can be seen from the street, stores with windows that provide transparency between the public and business. In some areas, there are specific requirements for the amount of glass to be used at street level.

All over the city, where development is going forward, buildings are constructed with the old promise of Dickens's poultry shop in the architect's mind -- empty space meant to be filled with the visible bustle of people and shopping. And yet, these windows have been summarily defeated, reduced to meaningless panels of glass with nothing behind them. Look at a CVS or a chain grocery store, and you'll find these dead orifices, stopped up and neutered by panels of wall board or cloth that hide the view into the store. Even as architects struggle to give a feeling of depth and substantiality to our ephemeral commercial architecture, store owners board up these windows from the inside, and thus reveal how thin and generic the space really is.

The large chain stores are the worst offenders because they often come with rigid design rules that require maximizing interior wall space. Their footprint is so big that the walls of dead windows seem to stretch on forever, sucking the life out of whole blocks of streetscape. To their credit, these chains are often the first stores to move into developing neighborhoods, and one is happy to see commerce of any sort arrive where it has long been wanting.

Mike DeAngelis, spokesman for CVS/pharmacy, says that when his firm builds new stores from the ground up (i.e., in the suburbs), it puts lots of glass in, but above the "shopping zone," to bring light in without taking away space for product shelving. When CVS moves into already existing space, as often happens in cities, it must adapt that space for its needs.

"Most retailers don't want to deal with exterior glass," says Thomas Henken, vice president of api (+), an architectural firm that specializes in designing retail space and numbers Wal-Mart among its clients. Windows limit retail space and make it difficult to control light levels.

Not that he's okay with that. It's the architect's job, says Henken, to encourage retailers to think more creatively about the windows they're neglecting.

That means countering a couple of powerful forces, including fear. "Smash and grab" crimes make retailers nervous, and their insurance rates often reflect security vulnerabilities such as lots of glass.

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