Commercial Strip Tease
Essay by David Karle
The strip mall experience has been augmented based on consumer behavior, shifting demographics, high-priced gas, and Internet shopping, making strip malls architectural relics. The strip mall typology is poised to be reimagined within this changing consumer behavior. The mindless replication of internal spaces within the strip mall generates a condition more concerned with the bottom line than the space or environment the setting creates. Although this building type and its internal spaces may be defaults, they are sophisticated in execution and deployment. They operate at a high level of efficiency and in some cases are unable to evolve. This essay explores opportunities to alter roofing components to generate new spatial arrangements without disrupting the efficiency of the strip mall in its construction or in consumer habits.
The infinite horizon of the North American landscape that inspired Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style house in the early 1900s also produced the architecture typology of maximum visible exposure—the strip mall. According to Robert Venturi, strip malls aren’t bad—they’re just honest.  The strip mall is a product of its environment. The thin façade of these pre-engineered buildings are fast, quick, thin, and cheap to produce. They mimic the smooth straight lines of the road and the infinite horizon in the distance. The architectural shed as described by Venturi falls away and becomes the backdrop to the shifting cultural condition of the automobile. The simple strip mall shed addresses the street head-on and the only requirements are an overindulgent sign, a large expansive roof, and a parking lot. What if these three elements were altered in anticipation of repopulating suburbia? Scholars such as Charles Waldheim, Chair of Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, claim that low-scale and low-density development  will infill the outlying areas of North American cities, and Ellen Dunham-Jones, of Georgia Institute of Technology, states that, as we continue to grow and shift, the big design and development project for the next fifty years will be retrofitting suburbia. 
In anticipation of this low-scale building density in suburban areas we must begin to look at these suburban artifacts in new ways. The role of the parking lot is consequently still a necessary part of the suburban auto-centric network. Second in square feet to the parking lot is the flat roof. This architectural element has suffered significantly in the last few decades, becoming a victim to the introduction of air-conditioning, mandated codes, and environmental insulation requirements. However, the strip mall roof is large and free to grow endlessly due to air-conditioning technologies. The overall scale of the strip mall varies, but the roof often is greater than all the microclimates of interior space. In Rem Koolhaas’s 2002 essay Junkspace, he states, “we have built more than all previous generations put together.”  Koolhaas claims that the air-conditioning unit has launched the endless building that includes the strip mall, big box stores, large shopping malls, and casinos, all of which contain consumer-based activities. If the roof were freed of air-conditioning units, what new role or activity could it take on?
The role of the roof within architecture has been widely investigated and discussed. From the ancient tent structures to contemporary examples, the roof has been treated as a malleable surface able to adapt to multiple parameters and influences. This architectural element is often the largest single surface in buildings, especially the large flat roofs seen throughout North America. Flat roof construction has infiltrated and populated suburban communities through commercial architectural typologies. The modularity of a pre-engineered building optimizes material and construction technology but often with a harsh separation between inside and outside space.
The roof was a way of thinking about climate, weather, and materiality as well as expressing a cultural identity. In the eighteenth century, the pitched roof had an environmental function. The roof was built-up with thick, heavy material and pitched to shed rain and snow. The attic space once was used as storage, then as servant quarters. After the roof was insulated and the attic space was comfortable, the space became desirable. This added an economic element to the roof. In the nineteenth century, the long-span, light roof emerged as the driving form and construction typology referencing the era of factories, train stations, bazaars, arcades, and market halls. These building typologies coupled with the long-span roof made a combination of lightness, thinness, and porosity possible. The flat roof, as expressed by Le Corbusier’s 1914 Domino House, had a formal function that allowed for flexible distribution of structure, walls, facade, and roof. The Domino House was the Model-T of homes, envisioned for mass production and uniformity. But, should a house or a roof be mass-produced like an automobile? The standardization of houses and roof elements arguably can be traced back to the standardization methods throughout American history, from the Jeffersonian grid and lumber sizes to 4’-0” x 8’-0” sheet material and Sears, Roebuck and Company mail-order homes. These options simplified and constructed the roof as an impenetrable datum and completely disregarded the roof’s relationship to the interior. Provided this brief history of roofs, it is ironic today the most common function of flat roofs has been passive storage of mechanical units.
With an increase in knowledge, and a nod towards environmental awareness, suburban malls and strip malls are reducing their dependence on air-conditioning. If malls reduce their dependence on air-conditioning, freeing up two-thirds of roof space currently occupied by machinery, they can explore new forms and functions.  If liberated from air-conditioning machines, what other forms and functions could the roof provide? As architects and designers we need to re-examine this formerly forgotten territory in order to maximize function and habitation. The horizontal datum of the mall roof provides multiple functions. The roof is a continuous barrier against moisture and enables tenant space to expand and contract with minimal or no repercussions to the outside envelope, but it is also a barrier against light and sectional space. The depth of the strip mall roof has been cost-effectively optimized to meet code and material constraints. The thinness in the strip mall roof is one of hyper efficiency, developer driven economic reasoning, and a maximization of materials, but the roof still could be conceptually and physically thinner. By delaminating the layers of the roof and proposing new, thinner materials the space within the strip mall can be reimagined. Through the past few decades a default attitude has been applied towards roofs. The quality of space within a strip mall is generically standard except for one relationship, the storefront window. This inside-outside threshold is blurred in hopes of maximizing retail sales. The window enables the consumer to view the merchandise in the store. Can the roof be considered the same way? Altering the roof would not increase merchandise visibility but it would provide the consumer with a different retail experience. By engaging the dormant roof-scape of the strip mall a new space and new experience within suburbia would emerge, similar to the bazaars and arcades of past years.
1. Robert Venturi, Learning From Las Vegas (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
2. “ 2010 Charles Waldheim,” 2010, video clip of presentation given at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte College of Arts and Architecture, accessed November 29, 2012, http://vimeo.com/12992244. Charles Waldheim is the current Chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design.
3. TEDxAtlanta – Ellen Dunham-Jones – 01/26/10,” 2010, video clip, accessed November 29, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPkalOtT6i4. Ellen Dunham-Jones is currently a Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Georgia Tech, College of Architecture.
4. Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” in Obsolescence, special issue, October 100 (Spring 2002): 175−190.
5. Farshid Moussavi, “The Function of Roofs: The Urban Mall,” Harvard University, Graduate School of Design, 2009.
Originally Published in: Strip Appeal: Reinventing the Shopping Mall – The Strip-Appeal Exhibition Catalogue. Edited by Merle Patchett and Rob Shields. Space and Culture Publications and CRSC University of Alberta, 2012.
David Karle is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, College of Architecture, where he teaches design studios and lectures on contemporary forms of American urbanism.