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

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010; E01

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.

Henken, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, remembers when his family would window-shop through downtown after a movie, and virtually the entire contents of a store could be seen.

The other powerful force is inertia. With the rush to the suburbs, and with urban mobility happening at the car's pace, not the flaneur's, street window displays became essentially obsolete. They have survived mainly in the shopping mall, a highly controlled environment, where metal grates can be pulled down and the whole edifice emptied of people when day is done.

The urban streetscape is ideally a round-the-clock locus of desire, fantasy and curiosity where you can carry on a secret romance with the doggie in the window at 3 a.m., alone and a little alienated from the drunks, club kids and stray taxis still trolling for fares.

Some stores that cover over their windows try to minimize the damage by putting art in the hollow, shallow spaces. But art must be very, very good if it is to leap out from these desultory boxes and compete with the distractions of the city. David Lynch managed to gather crowds for his window displays at Paris' Galeries Lafayette last autumn, but he was allowed to make free use of full-sized window boxes, not the cramped, pancake-thin spaces sandwiched between the exterior glass and the back of the shampoo aisle.

What a sad and strange reversal. In the 19th century, artists struggled to compete with and capture the vitality of the commercial streetscape, whether in novels by Balzac that dealt with the sorrows and grandeur of the new industrial economy, or a streetscape by Van Gogh showing a cafe in Arles drenched in artificial light, opposite storefronts that still beckon in the thickening twilight. Into the 20th century, storefront windows provided inspiration to museum designers, who sought to frame cultural objects with the same care as designers who worked for major department stores.

Today, the reflexive thinking says: Got a hole in your streetscape? Stuff in some watercolors. The art is usually lousy, and it almost always looks silly stuffed into little glass coffins.

CVS and Harris Teeter are all about moving vast quantities of goods, objects that for the most part are necessities, not luxuries, objects that have no fantasy attached to them. Today, we covet and, increasingly, purchase through the Internet. Stores that sell luxury goods still try to create a tangible connection between the passerby and the physical object. But this is a rear-guard action: "browsing" into cyberspace.

So the mature response might be to acknowledge that hollow, empty, blocked-out windows are simply a sign of the times, to be embraced as a truth about the new economy. But 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.

That voyeurism, so essential to city life, can't be accounted for in a city code, a zoning ordinance or a phrase such as "street activating uses." But it is part of the fundamental substratum of sexiness that makes cities so exciting. 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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