Perhaps you have noticed that commercial architecture lining roads in Maryland and Virginia looks more or less the same and not much different from strip malls and boxy stores lining roads in Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, Ohio or Oregon. Likewise, you may have observed that many large shopping malls around the country seem architecturally interchangeable, as do countless residential subdivisions and garden apartments here and elsewhere.
Why do housing developments and retail shopping facilities look so much alike, given how much Americans value individuality, freedom of expression and independence?
An article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (available on the American Psychological Association’s Web site) reports on findings of a study intended to answer this question and account for the apparent paradox. According to the authors, Americans are “familiarity-seeking” because they relocate frequently.
The social scientists report that people who periodically move are drawn to places where they find familiar things, in particular national chain stores. Furthermore, they report, national chain stores are likely to be more successful in residentially mobile communities and less successful in stable ones.
Perhaps this is one reason — along with land availability and lower costs — that most national chain stores locate in suburban areas where residential turnover, especially among apartment dwellers, is presumably more frequent. This also might be why fewer national chain stores are found in places like Potomac, Old Town Alexandria or Cleveland Park, all of which are stable, relatively affluent communities where locally owned retail establishments predominate.
Familiarity-seeking is no surprise to retailers, nor to commercial and residential real estate developers, investors and lenders. Like those who build, consumers instinctively feel most comfortable embracing the known, the predictable, the tried and true.
This is also why “branding” is so essential for marketing virtually anything, including architecture. Branding entails designing, disseminating and aggressively hyping product imagery, both visually and through narrative. It creates product familiarity and, in turn, brand loyalty.
Every day, we see and recognize countless corporate and institutional logos along with memorable, brand-identifying retail signs, facades and buildings — gas stations, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Ikea, Best Buy. We more willingly patronize these establishments, because we are familiar with their physical environment as well as their products, even if better or less-expensive products are available elsewhere. At these establishments, we know what to expect, which is subconsciously a source of comfort.
Americans appreciate innovation and cherish freedom to pursue their own thing and sometimes depart from the norm. Yet many are reluctant to risk standing apart, being unconventional or abandoning old habits of thinking and behavior. This is especially true when they select a residential neighborhood, make a housing choice or go shopping.
Reinforced by effective branding and mass media advertising, this persistent social and cultural characteristic ensures that many shopping centers, retail stores and housing projects will continue to look more or less the same, regardless of location. Consequently, often the real clues as to where you are on the planet will be the local climate, vegetation and language, and not the local commercial and residential architecture.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.