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DESIGNS FOR SPENDING

IT BURSTS OUT of the asphalt steppes at McDowell and Scottsdale roads like a Dada stage set, a crazed, skewed, hallucinatory caricature of pueblo architecture. Part nightmare, part cartoon, it looks like it might have been designed by a committee composed of Salvador Dali, R.C. Gorman and Fred Flintstone, all partaking liberally of controlled substances.

Now the news: It works. Business is up--at least for the moment. People are stopping at the newly renovated Papago Plaza--formerly a drab and anonymous Scottsdale shopping strip--to gape, to take pictures and occasionally to buy. As H.L. Mencken would have said, had he been an architect, nobody's gonna go broke underscoring the dupability of the American public.

This is what shopping centers are about, now more than ever: illusion, the tease of fantasy, the lure of cheap theatre. Let's face it: We're all bored with the shops. They're exactly the same, whether in Philadelphia or Phoenix.

More and more, it's the architects who are pressed to infuse a center with the distinction the merchants need to suck in business. Frequently the architects' efforts bear the distinct aroma of desperation. Occasionally they succeed in making delightful public spaces that work well as community centers--as downtowns once did. And often they spend truckloads of money to fabricate shallow, derivative glitz.

Scottsdale Road, the Valley's longest and (in places) toniest shopping street, has a perfect example of each type, all completed within the last two years: Papago Plaza, el Pedregal at the Boulders and the Scottsdale Galleria. Studied together, they form an intriguing picture of what shopping center architecture is doing to American suburbs.

THE CONCEPT OF a "shopping center," or bazaar, seems to have been born in the Middle East as early as the 1100s. An anonymous traveler in Jerusalem in that century described what was for all practical purposes the primordial mall, "a covered street vaulted over . . . where they sell all the herbs and all the fruits of the city and spices. At the top of the street is a place where they sell fish. . . . On the right hand of this market are the shops of the Syrian gold workers."

Malls didn't become architectural spectacles until the early 19th century, when exuberant Renaissance-revival arcades opened in Paris, Milan and London. These were shopping streets spanned by skylit vaults or domes three or four stories high. Many of these arcades are still in business, and the sensation of awesome enclosed space and the dazzling elegance of classical detailing is exhilarating. Step into one of these arcades, and wham!--the fist of Architecture Power strikes you directly between the eyes.

It wasn't until the 1950s that American architects, infected with the bacillus of the Bauhaus, ruined the shopping center as a place for people to gather and enjoy a good time. It's hard to think of a more depressing architectural form than the suburban strip center, circa 1960--a long string of low, featureless boxes marooned in the center of an asphalt prairie, with a garish sign on a pole poking into the sky announcing the tingling excitement of EGMONT CENTER, or some such place. Park Central is a good example of such a place.

Architecturally, the early enclosed malls such as Chris-Town were no better; they merely offered the extra sop of air conditioning and a token fountain or plastic ficus grove.

You can't go broke underestimating the aesthetic sensibility of America--it was this type of shopping experience that caused us to abandon our downtowns.

Papago Plaza was typical of the old EGMONT strips, so dull and anonymous that nobody, today, can possibly close his eyes and summon a mental image of it. This is one criticism, at least, that can't be leveled at the remodeling job. It may be ridiculous, but it sure is memorable.

"It was kind of an old dirt-bag center," says Adolf deRoy-Mark, the Scottsdale architect who designed the $2 million renovation. "The owners are from California; they're sort of visionaries. I didn't have to fight them in order to be able to do something interesting."

DeRoy-Mark explains that he had a vision of his own in mind: the 19th-century West, where commercial architecture was, as a matter of course, no more than facade deep. Where the builders of Dodge City groped at the Renaissance for their storefronts, deRoy-Mark plundered New Mexico's 17th-century pueblos for inspiration.

This isn't serious revivalism, however; it's Taos Pueblo viewed through a mental fog of nitrous oxide. The towers lean crazily, the misshapen parapets zig and wander randomly across the skyline. There's a fake second story, complete with fake vigas, fake ladders and fake doors and windows. Sentry ports overlook both Scottsdale and McDowell roads from on high so that Tonto may watch for approaching hostile tribes. Gargantuan petroglyphs of birds and reptiles roam the walls. Waterfalls whoosh down a pair of four-story, five-sided, glass-block-and-stucco towers that appear to draw from the architecture of Anasazi pueblos and the planet Krypton. (Eventually, electronic bells will ring out from the towers.)

Seen through the windshield, as you pass by on Scottsdale Road at 40 miles an hour, Papago Plaza is undeniably an arresting sight.

And arrest it does. Amy Converse, manager of the Hi-Health store in the center, says she's seen an increase in business over the summer. "I get a lot of positive feedback, especially from out-of-town people who hadn't planned on stopping here. They just thought it looked so interesting they stopped in."

DeRoy-Mark confirms that this is exactly what he was trying to achieve. "Look, I don't say this is architecture that has to be taken seriously; it's not something somebody should do to his home. It's show biz, and that's what mercantilism is all about."

Well, not quite all. The problem with Papago Plaza is that it works a lot better for the passer-by at 40 miles an hour than for the on-foot browser. The transformation is literally only stucco deep. Behind the facade, it's still kind of an old dirt-bag shopping center.

The nine-foot-wide covered walkway that runs the full length of the center at least provides shade, and deRoy-Mark has tried to make it appear lively and cheerful by painting the rough-hewn log columns green, pink and blue. It remains a deadly space, however; you're essentially walking through a tunnel several hundred feet long.

Most of the storefronts still wear their old aluminum casement windows, and there isn't much variety or vitality in display design. The two pentagonal waterfall towers aren't attractive places for pedestrians to congregate; they're clearly designed to attract attention from 100 feet away.

What deRoy-Mark has done here is to sneak a gigantic billboard into the heart of the Valley municipality that's long been most vigilant on the issue of sign clutter. Papago Plaza isn't architecture at all; it's just a vast, two-dimensional outdoor advertisement for itself. It's goofy enough to amuse the snowbirds for one season, but it will not likely age well or continue to lure the customers in. Billboards, at least, periodically change.

"SHOPPERS ENTERING the Scottsdale Galleria for the first time may think they're in England, Paris or Beverly Hills." So opens the press kit for the new Galleria, which began a phased opening May 23. Unwittingly, the press release's author thus bored straight to the heart of the problem with this enormous mall: It could be anywhere--anyplace, at least, that has enough BMWs and Lexuses plying the streets to deliver the right class of customer. The architects of D.I. Design of Baltimore had very little to say about Scottsdale, Arizona or the Sonoran Desert.

This issue of regionalism has become a thorny and persistent problem in shopping center design. How to do it? Obviously, a Gucci-Pucci mall such as the Galleria can't employ low-rent facadism like Papago Plaza, and whatever regional character it has had better not be obvious or cornball. Faced with this dilemma, most mall architects simply reach for the glitter bag and lather the interiors with as much expensive material as possible.

First, the exterior. If nothing else, the Galleria certainly transforms the character of downtown Scottsdale. It looks serious, solid, permanent, even arrogant. It appears to weigh a billion tons. Its attitude is power and wealth. It, too, functions as a billboard, and its message is that downtown Scottsdale is no longer about rubber tomahawk shops. But all this gravity destroys the pedestrian scale of downtown Scottsdale. Walk along Stetson Drive, beside the mall's massive walls, and you feel as insignificant as a beetle circumnavigating the pyramids. Revealingly, the architects sprinkled benches along the sidewalks, but didn't even try to shade the pedestrian areas.

Driving to the Galleria? Well, if you're coming from ritzy north Scottsdale, fine: A convenient new duct in the middle of Scottsdale Road whisks you underground direct to the parking garage. If you're arriving from the middle-class south, there's no duct, no directions, no encouragement--better you should have stayed at Papago Plaza, chump.

Shoppers entering the Scottsdale Galleria for the first time may be forgiven for thinking, "Well, I've seen all this before." There are the obligatory glass elevators, glass-and-brass railings, a roof of pyramidal skylights, a trick fountain, a formal palm court and enough hanging philodendrons to qualify it as a biosphere of shopping. The floors are Italian marble. The public space is cathedral-size--there are four levels, and it's 80 feet from floor to ceiling--but since it's square, it also feels oddly constricted. The clear intent is to suggest, again, wealth.

Well, okay, there is a scattering of "Southwestern" design elements. The palm trees could be said to echo the Valley's most persistent (and pernicious--is any tree more useless in the desert?) landscape theme. The columns all wear terra-cotta ziggurats cascading down from their tops, reminiscent of Navajo rug design patterns. And the repeating triangles with sculpted arcs ornamenting the terrace parapets are decidedly Wrightian, drawing on Gammage Auditorium.

But these assorted details hardly add up to "regional" design. An irrigation canal slashing through the palm grove would have evoked more of a sense of place.

Still more from the we've-seen-it-before department: Like most modern malls, the Galleria offers many attractive benches scattered about, giving it the atmosphere of an indoor public park, a place to hang out, relax and people-watch. But one of the unpublicized tenets of mall design is to specify benches that look inviting but feel excruciating, so that the tired shopper will not long loiter on his or her butt, spending no money.

The Galleria's benches certainly qualify. This may be a standard practice, but it's a crass and sleazy one. Pursuing the same theme, the Galleria's water fountains and rest rooms are concealed so skillfully that they might as well not exist. And finally, the architects should be ashamed of their elevator buttons. Instead of a simple 1-2-3-4, they're labeled "C," "S," "B" and "T" (for "Concourse," "Street," "Bridge" and "Terrace"). You have to cross-reference to a key to figure it out. This is pure pretension.

The fountain, which stages computer-choreographed water ballets at the top of every hour, is the Galleria's one interesting design feature. Its jets spurt water as high as 60 feet, thrusting and popping and dancing to music from a pair of overstressed speakers. It's enchanting, at least the first couple of times you watch it. At the close of the five-minute show, an orgasm of water spurts into the heavens, then falls back onto the tiled floor, simulating the sound of clapping.

In the absence of anything more meaningful, this appears to be the Scottsdale Galleria's design theme: applause for itself.

SCOTTSDALE ARCHITECT Rafique Islam has designed several shopping centers around the Valley, but nothing as radical as el Pedregal, which opened in late 1989. Explains the Bangladesh-born designer, "The retail environment is becoming so competitive that you always have to pull out one more trick."

One more? El Pedregal is nominally a Moorish daydream--Islam designed it after combing through books on vernacular Saharan Desert architecture--but it approaches freeform sculpture.

It looks like a life-size sand castle designed by Hermann Rorschach. Its minaret could be the claw of some weird sea creature. Its columns resemble dog bones. Keg-size, manly appendages poke into the sky. Malevolent black painted parrots guard the bridge that forms the south entrance. Giant amoeba shapes frame accessories such as vents and fire extinguishers. There's a railing that looks like bad Frank Lloyd Wright, and a sculpture in the pond that looks like bad curio-shop Anasazi. It's all so promiscuous, so arch, so silly, that it shouldn't work at all, but it does. Of this triad of Scottsdale Road shopping centers, el Pedregal is the one that's fun to hang around in.

Its planning, however, started inauspiciously. Russ Lyon, the developer, first approached Islam with sketches suggesting a typical Taco-Deco affair, with parking next to the shops and high visibility from Scottsdale Road. Islam had what turned out to be a better idea: Instead of borrowing the usual dog-eared Spanish-Mexican images, why not go to their roots, to the exotic and highly decorative adobe buildings of Saharan Africa?

The rural desert setting seemed to argue for it, as did the need for something fresh. Best of all, the ancient Moorish concept of an oasislike private courtyard surrounded by a building was a perfect form for a shopping center, and something that makes sense environmentally in any hot, arid climate.

It's the courtyard, more than the exotic and whimsical architecture that surrounds it, that makes el Pedregal a success. Instead of spine-assaulting benches, there are low walls to sit on. An amphitheatre at the north end provides a performance space. There's a pleasant pond with water lilies and koi, ornamental Japanese carp. Colored fabric panels stretched from a totemlike beam suggest Bedouin tents while providing shade--not enough of it, incidentally. But even on a steamy summer morning, el Pedregal's open courtyard is a more inviting place than a typical climate-controlled mall.

El Pedregal isn't great architecture; it's simply a deft adaptation of a historic form. Early 20th century Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi's buildings qualify as great in part because their bizarre forms came from nowhere but the landscape of his mind, something that Islam might want to try the next time he needs to pull out yet another trick.

Still, el Pedregal is a nifty place, its Moorish bazaar mood a rather more convincing bit of show biz than the Pueblo-Bizarre styling of Papago Plaza or the vainglorious glitter of the Scottsdale Galleria. Unlike any other shopping center yet built in the Valley, el Pedregal will make a fabulous ruin.

This is what shopping centers are about, now more than ever: illusion, the tease of fantasy, the lure of cheap theatre.

It wasn't until the 1950s that American architects ruined the shopping center as a place for people to gather and enjoy a good time. Papago Plaza was typical of the old strips, so dull and anonymous that nobody can possibly summon a mental image of it.

The transformation is literally only stucco deep. Behind the facade, it's still kind of an old dirt-bag shopping center.

If nothing else, the Galleria certainly transforms the character of downtown Scottsdale.

It, too, functions as a billboard, and its message is that downtown Scottsdale is no longer about rubber tomahawk shops. One of the unpublicized tenets of mall design is to specify benches that look inviting but feel excruciating.

It's the courtyard, more than the exotic and whimsical architecture that surrounds it, that makes el Pedregal a success.

There's a railing that looks like bad Frank Lloyd Wright, and a sculpture in the pond that looks like bad curio-shop Anasazi.

MY BROTHER THE KILLER WHAT'S IT LIKE TO ... v9-25-91

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