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At Malls, the Trends of Change

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 29, 1996; Page C01

When they first walked into Montgomery Mall in 1989, architects saw a worn, dark, 22-year-old building, as fixed in time as a hippie wearing bell-bottoms.

Drywall, cheap and bland, was all around. The floor was laid with dark paving tiles. The high ceilings receded into blackness at night. Everywhere was dark oak -- benches, handrails, trim -- the color of oak one might associate with a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse or an old town hall.

Two years later, after the architects from RTKL in Baltimore were done, high-buff marble floors shone underfoot. Glittering brass handrails picked up the shimmer. There was glass everywhere. Lights were thrown up to the ceiling at night, emphasizing, rather than trying to hide, the spacious interior.

Like movie stars trying to keep their youthful looks, Montgomery Mall had gotten a face lift, a change in architecture inside and out. These make-overs usually happen about once a decade.

"Architecture is fashion, like home furnishing is fashion," said Jinny Eury, Wheaton Plaza manager. "As our lifestyles change, our environments change, our architecture changes."

Malls are built of off-the-rack, low-tech parts, like giant Erector sets. The roof trusses are like the ones in large warehouses, which are analogous structures. Paving tiles can be found in home improvement stores. Typically, you're not going to see a lot of custom-made fixtures. Most malls are built with what architects call "clip-on parts," designed for quick, easy changes. They are designed to be reasonably in style for about 10 to 15 years. After that, they can look old fast.

"I've always thought that malls should have a Ziploc facade," said Pat Faux, an urban designer in Baltimore. "You take off the old one and stick on a new one on a regular basis. If you're planning on changing in 10 years anyway, a mall is one of the few buildings that can get away with being trendy."

Because mall looks fluctuate like hemlines, it's hard to say what's a long-term trend and what's the flavor of the month. But the prevailing thought, among architects and mall owners, is that many suburban malls will begin to look more like idealized city streets, smart and hip, with bustling nooks and crannies housing a patchwork of disparate stores.

But there are critical differences between malls and streets. Malls are built ready-made; streets develop over time. In malls, there are prominently displayed directories of shops, numbered and color-coded; on the most intriguing city streets, there are unexpected booksellers and coffee shops to discover.

Of course, real city streets are sometimes dirty or dangerous, and parking is often difficult to find. Those qualities aren't very hip. Or fun. So the architecture of consumption offers a compromise: Make malls look more like old-fashioned downtown streets. Except that they're clean and well-lighted. Even on the outside.

"Part of a mall's face lift has to do with: Can you create the sense of the street?" said California architect Barry Elbasani, who has designed several malls and is an advocate of the street look. "The most successful renovation feels like, if you lifted the roof off the mall, you'd be okay. The floor is substantial, like stone or tile, not carpet. The shop fronts don't look like they'd wither with the first drop of rain. The lighting creates the [same] texture and scale as the sun creates on the street. If it feels like the outdoors but it's weather-protected, that's a home run."

The back-to-the-streets movement is visible locally at Tysons II Galleria in Tysons Corner.

Tysons II opened in 1988, on the trailing cusp of the go-go decade. The two-story portals leading into Macy's and Saks Fifth Avenue looked more imposing than welcoming. Outside walls towered like high brick ramparts. There were few external clues that inside were stores that might welcome the masses.

Now, eight years later, having survived a retail recession following Washington's real estate bust, Tysons II has turned itself inside out -- trying to look a little less insular, a little more inviting to people of different economic levels. The goal: to look more like a row of old-time downtown shops with wares in the windows.

Starting last year, the mall's owners began ripping off the pre-cast concrete facades around the mall entrances and erecting ones that looked like row house storefronts, complete with wood and windows, planters, striped awnings and swan-necked, wrought-iron light fixtures.

"We decided to transform the front into a European town house theme," said Daniel Foy, a leasing executive with General Growth Properties Inc., which owns and operates Tysons II. "It's less sterile. We've borrowed these elements from the downtowns themselves." The interior has also changed -- espresso carts and cafe seating in commons areas. "Like you're walking down a street in Georgetown," Foy said.

Of course, no one lives in these row houses. They are facades. And if they are perceived as less sterile, it is in the way that a boardroom is less sterile than an operating room.

The six years between the renovations at Montgomery Mall and those at Tysons II show how quickly mall fashions change. Montgomery looks like the old Tysons II -- a grand, moneyed mall. Now, Tysons II has abandoned that look, at least on the outside, and is trying to soften it on the inside. Hemlines up, hemlines down.

The first indoor suburban malls were, by today's standards, architectural disasters at worst, bland at best. They were long, one-story boxes with cubicles inside, like pens in a barn. Flat glass storefronts. Fluorescent lighting. The promise was all-weather shopping, free, plentiful parking and enough sustenance to keep shoppers on their feet.

"In the earlier days of shopping center development, the prevailing attitude was to create a street in an internal environment. It was more or less a 'captured street,' " said Gary Bowden, a vice president of RTKL. As well as renovating Montgomery Mall, RTKL designed Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, Reston Town Center and renovated the original Tysons Corner Center. "The idea was to keep the focus on the storefronts, that hopefully they would pick up the slack" from the rest of the mall's interior.

Wheaton Plaza was something like that when it opened as a roofless strip shopping center in 1960. In 1981, the roof was added. It underwent a face lift then and had another minor one five years ago, when glass-brick accents were added around the exterior and hipper typography updated its signs. It was a much less ambitious make-over than the one at Montgomery Mall, but the average Wheaton Plaza shopper isn't as wealthy, said Eury, the Wheaton mall manager. After 36 years, it has a solid market niche and is unlikely to follow the back-to-downtown fad, said Eury.

As malls boomed in the '70s and '80s, they grew to two stories or more. Instead of one corridor down the middle, multilevel malls had an open space with concourses heading in all directions. Skylights were punched through the ceiling to let in natural light. Sometimes, large-scale artworks were installed. Each mall seemed to have a common area somewhere near the center, with banks of green plantings and a fountain to soothe stressed-out shoppers. And, more important, to keep them from leaving.

These malls looked like other well-traveled, high-end public spaces -- contemporary museums or performing arts centers, for example.

"In the 1980s, it became acceptable to have higher ambitions in mall construction," Bowden said. "Each mall tried to outdo the last one."

The face lift process, by its nature, bulldozes the past to make way for the future. Now that malls have been around for 40 years, though, some in academia have started to think they have historical significance and are worthy of preservation. Malls say "suburbia" like skyscrapers say "downtown."

"We tend to think of [malls] as being less important because their architectural and social aspirations seem less important than the great buildings of the 18th and 19th centuries," said David De Long, a University of Pennsylvania professor of architecture. (Penn's architecture school has an emphasis on the suburbs.) "Like everything we preserve, [malls] have elements that speak of our own history. There is something there that embodies some sort of cultural identity. They are too large and too ingrained to simply wash out of existence."

But what to preserve? If malls are constantly morphing to accommodate customers' desires, one can look radically different today than it did even 10 years ago. Moreover, preserving a building means freezing it in time, which means a mall owner would get the tough task of trying to attract customers to a worn-out looking building. It would be like trying to sell a house with an outdated, avocado-colored kitchen.

Another question is: Why preserve? Some planners and architects say we'll never again see the likes of the opulent, marble-and-glass suburban shopping malls such as Tysons II, Pentagon City and Montgomery Mall. Indeed, they may be an endangered species, stalked by direct-mail consumerism, home shopping via the Internet and the designs of New Urbanism -- brand-new suburbs that look like old-time city streets. We expect mall looks to change, but have we thought that malls themselves might disappear?

Finally, we ask: Is it culturally important to preserve an example of Mallus Americus, c. 1982, with its exposed duct-work, glass elevators, three-story waterfall and cathedral-like anchor department stores? Do our children need to see this?

University of Pennsylvania architecture professor Witold Rybczynski thinks it's worth considering. He visited Seattle recently, the site of one of America's first suburban shopping malls. Built in the 1950s, it was an open-air collection of stores facing one another across a long, pedestrian walkway, like a one-story mall with no roof.

Now, the mall is covered and the stores have been renovated.

"The historic place has disappeared," Rybczynski said. "There was no indication you're standing in the first shopping mall, except for a couple of old black-and-white photographs on a wall in a [fast-food restaurant]."

The mall bears no resemblance to what it was 40 years ago. Like the poodle skirts that once were sold there, the original architecture has been swept away, a victim of passing fashion.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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