Suburbia & Dead Malls

Who would expect suburbia to be showcased at an art museum? All of a sudden people are looking at suburbia with fresh eyes and examining its idiosyncrasies and theorizing about what it will become.  Such is the case at the Carnegie Museum of Art and Museum of Natural History (though suburbia appears at the art museum, the two museums connect.)  While art museums are not my typical outing as a tourist, I was up for a new adventure (knowing the admission fee covered both museums) and agreed to visit the museums with my colleague.  My favorite exhibit at the museum is located in the Heinz Architectural Center: Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes.

Worlds Away addresses suburbia and its changes through the decades in the form of photographs, interpretive drawings, and a 19 minute “video” that I almost ignored, but then decided to watch. This video was created by the New York urban design and architecture firm, Interboro, a firm founded by four 2002 Harvard graduates (according to the website.)  It is called In the Meantime, Life with Landbanking and was Interboro’s entry into the LA Forum for Architecture’s “Dead Malls” Competition.  Interboro chose the Dutchess Mall of Fishkill, New York.

The project/video was displayed on a platform on the floor. The platform, perhaps made of foam core, had a 3D model of a strip mall built on it. The movie began with a 1st person voice, which turns out to be that of the Dutchess Mall, now designated a “dead mall” because it was officially closed ca. 2003.  However, the voice of the mall explains how it cannot be “dead” because there is always activity going on, even with just a handful of businesses in operation. The local bus route still stops at the mall, there is a flea market every Saturday, truck drivers pull into the parking lot for an impromptu rest stop and a man sells hot dogs from his truck, someone practices golf, and many other random activities occur.

I have an aversion to strip malls, but for some reason I kept watching, perhaps because the building was talking to me and sounding like it needed a hug.  Part 2 used a “ghost narrator” to explain the history of the mall and possible future uses, since it was still in a developing area.  Even though the mall was empty, the owner did not want to sell.  The ghost narrator explained an interesting idea – to plan temporary adaptive reuse if an owner does not want to do anything to the property. There is not a true outcome to this story, since the artists could not predict the future, however they envisioned what was possible and the variety of businesses that could serve the community together.

Different internet searches give the impression that the Dutchess Mall has been demolished, but I cannot find concrete evidence. However, I am amazed at the conversation on the internet about “dead malls” and what to do with them. Of course, a discussion that goes along with that, is what did the mall take the place of originally? Often, it was a historic site.

Despite opinions and the fate of the Dutchess Mall, it is fair to say that there are many modern but abandoned commercial buildings in this country and devising ways to revitalize them rather than demolish them only to build again, is preferable. Perhaps it will be a conversation more in vogue in the near future. If you have the chance, watch the video on the Interboro website* or see it in person on one of the traveling exhitions (see schedule there.)

Two books that were on the reading table near the exhibit that seemed interesting: Borderland by John R. Stilgoe (Yale University Press, 1990) and Picture Windows: How the Suburbs Happened by Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen (Basic Books, 2000). I think these are going on my “must read before grad school” list.

*Quicktime required.