In the urban planner’s never-ending quest to avoid bland sameness and looking like Anywhere, USA, one of our arch enemies is “the prototype design.” These are often touted by chain organizations like restaurants and retail stores as the only option available, at least until they are told no. The “one size fits all” mentality is meant to keep costs down and allow for a visible continuity and image across the chain. That is all well and good for the chain business owner, but it often leaves communities looking like dull, lifeless clones of one another, regardless of the context.
My response to prototypes is they can take a long hike off a short pier. Why should a business in Santa Fe look exactly the same as one in Brookline, or in Banff, Hilton Head, New Orleans, and Saugatuck? The architecture should have some features that are appropriate to the business entity, BUT ALSO TO ITS SURROUNDINGS. Adobe architecture would look as out-of-place and stupid in New England as Georgian architecture may look in the arid desert (including in Las Vegas).
Now, that is not to say that every commercial building in the desert must be adobe. But, they should at least be designed in a manner that respect the context of where it is situated versus something that is visually and geographically illogical. Given enough prodding chains can go back to the drawing board and actually come up with some very nice designs. While I am no Walmart fan, the Western motif for two of their Medford, Oregon area stores (south and Eagle Point) is actually quite appealing – and used on all four sides of the building no less! Granted they appear a bit like a Walmart version of Cabela’s, but it is an improvement over their typical design.
I have also seen some very familiar fast food restaurants adopt very pleasing architecture in certain locations. There’s the rub, if you have the political will (and power), you can ask for and/or dictate design changes that better meet local tastes. So, why should it be any different for underprivileged and rural areas? Wouldn’t it show a commitment to the community, influence other property owners to improve their sites, and serve as an act of goodwill to add some local pizzaz to the exterior of every location, regardless of the socio-economic status or demographics?
Perhaps I am being too Pollyanna about this, but I see this as a great way for businesses to build a greater sense of community involvement and pride than having bland prototype’s just plopped down one-by-one from an assembly line of aesthetic doom.