SMoCA’S Flip a Strip Design Competition Has No Foundation

I made an unfortunate assumption when I recently wrote about Flip a Strip, a design competition sponsored by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art in which entrants were asked to give facelifts to one of three rundown strip malls in metropolitan Phoenix. I remember thinking then that the winner of the competition would get to see his or her redesign actually realized. That whoever won the contest would be handed a big pile of cash by SMoCA or the City of Scottsdale or someone, and told, "Go. Make your strip mall dream a reality." I fantasized that this competition would become an annual event, and that it would inspire a new trend in transforming the many ugly strip malls that have become a big part of our architectural legacy.

I guess I wasn't paying very close attention. "The competition was theoretical," insists Susan Krane, the curator of the project. "It was intended solely to solicit inspiring ideas, not to be built."

SMoCA launched its competition late last year, and its winners were announced earlier this month. The contest attracted 175 submissions from 11 countries, 15 of them by SMoCA invitation, the others from an open call. Each of the competitors was allowed to choose one of three strip malls — proposed by the cities of Scottsdale, Tempe, and Phoenix — to redesign. The entries were judged on their economic viability by a jury of local developers and urban planners, who then passed along the entries to a jury of designers from around the country. Mock-ups and presentations from the top 10 prizewinners and the better proposals from 25 other firms are on display at SMoCa through the end of the year.

Perhaps, like me, you won't be surprised to learn that none of the three Flip a Strip winners are local firms. Historically, our better reclamation and new design projects have been done by out-of-state builders, but it's too easy to assume that no design team from Arizona gives enough of a crap about our landscape to pitch in and help reclaim it. What's probably true is that local entries weren't all that interesting, because Arizona designers would likely have drawn buildings that fit into the local landscape, that drew from our native, dusty desert palette.

In other words, they would have been boring.

But not the Flip a Strip winners! Aptum Architecture of Urbana, Illinois, and Zurich, Switzerland, took third place with "Flipping the Strip," a green-and-orange accordion-pleated pair of boxes with a perky little park between. Second place went to AEDS of New Orleans, whose "Un-Strip" reminds me of the backside of the Burton Barr Library. And top prizewinner MOS of New Haven, Connecticut, took its high honor with "Urban Battery," a design that frankly frightens me a little.

The funny thing about these winners is that each of them is not so much a prettied-up improvement on some crappy old shopping plaza as a hyper-creative meditation on what a strip mall could be if it did more than just sell stuff. The winner, for example, is described by its designers like this: "Urban Battery is a physical structure similar to a power station, vertical greenhouse, and a billboard, all rolled into one. [It] acts as an energy producer, filtering air, housing oxygen-regenerating plants, providing bike paths, public gardens within the structure, and [storage of] bio-products."

Okay. But what I want from a strip mall is a convenient place to park while I shop and maybe have lunch. Possibly I'm the only one who feels this way; maybe most people want their strip mall to produce energy, filter air, and provide space for oxygen-regenerating plants. I'm willing to allow as how others may want for their neighborhood shopping center to not only sell groceries and greeting cards, but also to store bio-products. Not me, though. I don't even know what bio-products are. The only things I want stored at my strip malls are, well, stores.

I wasn't among the judges who picked the winner here, but if I had been, I'd have voted for disqualifying Urban Battery — and not just because it's such an over-achiever, or because it looks like a drive-in movie screen that's being eaten by a Wandering Jew. As a judge, I'd have had some concern that this very interesting design doesn't follow the zoning rules of the city where it's located.

"We believe that Scottsdale zoning is open enough to accommodate the programmatic innovation," Urban Battery's designers write in their presentation, "even though this proposal is beyond the original intention of the competition."

These are people who've clearly never designed anything that got built here in the Valley, where proposed construction tends to be scrutinized to death by everyone from the mayor to the folks in neighboring 'hoods. Want more proof that MOS' obviously very talented designers have no clue about metropolitan Phoenix? They've included an outbuilding "for community events" to their strip mall structure.

"This additional program could be for either teens or seniors dedicated to expanding activities from the neighborhood," they write, "and accessible through a new bike and walking path, converting the alley into part of an urban infrastructure."

Uh-huh. Because that's what we do in Phoenix. We — especially our teens and our old people! — "expand activities from our neighborhood" to a nearby strip mall that looks like the set from an episode of Battlestar Galactica. We leave our homes and stroll along bike and walking paths that used to be ugly old alleys, probably waving merrily to one another as we head over to an "expanded activity" at the neighborhood shopping plaza. Note to the folks at MOS: I have lived in the same house for seven years, directly across the street from a very nice couple named Dana and Kelly, whom I met for the first time last week when they came to my yard sale. That's because this is Phoenix, where (for better or worse) no one knows their neighbors; where most of the time, it's too hot out to wander along a bike path; where we're frankly too cynical and bitter to walk any kind of path that leads to a strip mall; where we need our alleys to put our garbage in and to take shortcuts through during rush hour, because the freeway system here is so fucked up.

Now that I think about it, maybe it's better that these Flip a Strip malls won't get built. The sketches of them are fun to look at, but these are shopping centers best left to the imagination.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela