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    "The Store Problem"


    Fiske Kimball, for instance, defended the work of McKim, Mead & White as modern in its simplicity and abstraction, an improvement, he said, upon an earlier eclecticism or mere structural expression. Like an echo of the eighteenth-century battle between "the ancients and the moderns," early twentieth-century architects were caught up in interpretations of authority, order, and rule making as much as they were in the specifics of any one building, image, or space. Defining modern design and modern architecture was tendentious.

    In 1929, Ralph T. Walker (of the New York firm Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker) was highly critical of the "fetish" made of utility and the machine, but the same year Architectural Forum praised these qualities in Duiker and de Klerk, among others; in 1930, John Harbeson (partner of Paul Cret) was highly dismissive of Le Corbusier's machinic metaphors, but the same year Henry-Russell Hitchcock demanded "conversion" to machinelike logic over stylistic "syncretism"; also in 1930, George Howe decried the limits of American "stylistic tradition" and, aided by illustrations of Le Corbusier, Oud, and others, called for a return to "sound tradition" in which "a sane and logical formula" might "solve new problems."

    While many praised the Museum of Modern Art's 1932 framing of a newly found architectural coherence based on what Hitchcock described as "the aesthetic crystallization of the engineering solution to the building problem," others, such as Fuller and other writers for Shelter magazine, saw in the International Style a brute exercise in disciplinary, aesthetic, and political cleansing. The 1933 Century of Progress exhibition in Chicago was also seen by some critics as a testing ground for various forms of modernism, European and otherwise, and not always with praise.

    More catholic in his tastes, Lewis Mumford (not unlike Giedion) went so far as to praise as incipiently modern the well-executed utilitarianism of the subway station and the "cheap popular lunchroom"; in similar terms, he lauded the seventeenth-century farmhouse, the nineteenth-century factory, and the work of the engineer and the shipbuilder, all of which connected use and form.

    In these terms, Mumford also held in high esteem the modernist rationalism he saw in German "objectivity" (Sachlich), not because of a formal preference (he said) but because the entire range of production — from cities to buildings to household goods — was socially and organically integrated.

    So why did the eclectic editor and chronicler of architecture Randolph Sexton write that modern architecture could be applied with "peculiar success" to store work? Sexton was no purist, and perhaps he worked with a looser or inchoate interpretation of the modern as representing "the new" rather than taking any organicist, aesthetic, or functionalist position.

    Yet this was also the problem of the store: because the store was by definition a temporary or fleeting type, an offshoot of an ever-modernizing system of goods distribution, it was presumed to have less at stake, architecturally, than other types of buildings.

    Even if the store was viewed, as it was in some quarters, as a harbinger of architecture to come, its ephemeral status lowered it in the eyes of other professional observers. On the other hand, the store's low investment of time, money, and even cultural capital enabled it to serve as a site of experimentation and architectural or even urban polemic.

    From this point of view, a store design could be modern and could therefore rise to the level of capital-A Architecture.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...


    This article is excerpted from Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956 by David Smiley, copyright © 2013, with permission of the publisher, University of Minnesota Press.

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    ArchWeek Image

    The concrete and glass Neighborhood Store designed by J. J. P. Oud, Architect, was featured on the title page of "Planning the Retail Store," published in Architectural Record 69 (June 1931).
    Image: Architectural Record Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    This deeply-indented store front appeared in "The Development of the Arcaded Shop Front," in Architectural Forum 40 (June 1924).
    Image: Architectural Forum Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Highland Park Shopping Center, a car-centered retail complex in Dallas, Texas, was designed by Fooshee and Cheek, and completed in 1931.
    Image: Courtesy University of Minnesota Press Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The article Drafting and Design Problems: Neighborhood Shopping Centers published by Architectural Record in May 1932 advocated for "cooperative and unified planning by architects," which would replace "unrelated" and smaller-scale collections of retail structures with efficient, car-centric shopping centers.
    Image: Architectural Record Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The Park & Shop board game, which was based on a mid-Century civic development in Allentown, Pennsylvania that focused on retail parking space.
    Image: Traffic Game, Inc. / Courtesy University of Minnesota Press Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    In this 1947 design for a large shopping center by Ketchum, Gina, and Sharp, published in Architectural Form, a strong emphasis on the automobile is visible, as acres of parking surround a cluster of retail structures organized around an open-air courtyard.
    Image: Architectural Forum Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956 by David Smiley.
    Image: University of Minnesota Press Extra Large Image


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