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.)

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Lawrence W. Cheek