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« Apatoff on Illustration | Main | Quote for the Day »

March 02, 2007

False Fronts

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

O, th' agony inflicted by architecture!

We Blowhards aren't shy about voicing the pain inflicted on the general public by starchitects and hacks alike in the form of eyesores that persist for half a human life-span or longer.

What we haven't been doing is empathizing with the visual pains those self-same architects endure when going about the streets and freeways of 2007 America.

The poor dears have to look at buildings that are mostly antithetical to the ideals they absorbed during their training. They see garishness and blatant commercialism and [sob] form not following function.

We get to see those same things, of course. But, aside from diehards whose minds spin to the sounds of anti-suburban folk-songs of the Fifties, most of us take it in stride -- if not with enthusiasm.

What in the world am I talking about? Why, those false-fronts tacked onto strip-mall and big-box store shopping area structures.

'Twasn't always so. When I was growing up and into middle age (mid 40s to the 70s or thereabouts), false fronts on stores were almost unheard-of. The only places I saw them were in cowboy movies, ghost-towns, and places drifting in that direction. In other words, to me false fronts were indicative of really old-fashioned stuff.

Virginia City, Montana scene

The post-World War 2 retail structures I experienced were mostly simple, architecturally. No ornament aside from the obligatory signs. Basically cheap-to-build structures in a watered-down International Style idiom: clean-looking, but boring.

This changed gradually over the last 20 or so years (can a reader pinpoint when it started?). Where once there was a clean cornice-line one began to see false gables and architectural embellishments from previous centuries cribbed and re-proportioned and constructed about a foot in depth. Some of this was on newly built strip-malls, the rest was retrofitted. It has come to the point where clean-lined malls are no longer being built.

Old-style strip mall
Stores unoccupied when the photo was taken.

New-style strip mall
Again, the stores are not occupied.

Then there are free-standing stores. Just for the heck of it, here are some photos showing how Safeway supermarkets have evolved over the last half-century.

Safeway in Seattle's Lake City district, opened 1956.
Or thereabouts. I worked there for 2-3 days during the store-opening surge. It had natural red brick then along with the Safeway signs of the day. Safeway moved out decades ago. Note the clean-line style.

Bellevue Safeway, circa 1970
I'm not sure when this store was built, but it was quite a while ago. I took this picture yesterday to record it before it gets demolished. That will happen fairly soon, once a new store a block or so away is completed. Its architecture is still in the "functional" mode, though clean-lining is modified by the (functional) arching of the roof.

University Village-area Safeway re-habbed circa 2005
Although not a new structure, this Safeway was renovated and contemporary false-front type detailing added to the facade.

Did I use the old Louis Sullivan chestnut about form following function at the top of this article? That concept is generally interpreted as having to do with the materials used in construction. It was the message I got in my late-50s Architecture classes. In that sense, the false fronts we see today are decidedly non-functional and presumably "ugly."

On the other hand, they entertain the eye better than the clean-line buildings did. And they often have the task of proclaiming the identity of the merchant. These, too, can be thought of as functions.

What do I think? The 50s and 60s clean-lined retail strips were pretty boring and usually ugly: good riddance to that. The new stuff is more fun and doesn't bother me greatly for the most part -- though some instances are too fussy and ugly for me to take. Of course it doesn't measure up to the best shopping streets in Europe. But I can live with it.

Oh ... and false fronts no longer strike me as being old-fashioned.



posted by Donald at March 2, 2007


That's a pretty great collection of photos. The history of the last 5 decades of America, distilled down to its essentials.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 2, 2007 11:57 AM

Aren't all the gargoyles and columns of previous eras basically false fronts?

I for one, welcome this new development. Breaks up the endless straight lines of big box stores and malls.

Posted by: the patriarch on March 2, 2007 12:06 PM

The old, Wild-West style false fronts were designed to make humble structures look grander and more important than they really were. Your Virginia City photo illustrates that very clearly. Modern false fronts are less deceptive and more decorative.

Posted by: Peter on March 2, 2007 1:43 PM

Donald--Isn't this related to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's 1927 book, "Learning from Las Vegas" in which they divided structures into ducks or decorated sheds? According to the website Strange Harvest:

The Duck -- a term inspired by a duck-shaped duck restaurant in Riverhead, Long Island -- describes buildings that are sculptural objects. This includes all those fast-food kiosks in the shape of doughnuts and motels with concrete teepees as rooms, but also almost all modernist architecture, designed as an abstract object in relation to the local context. The Decorated Shed is a low-cost box with a huge sign on top. While Ducks might have garnered the newspaper column-inches and the big budgets, Decorated Sheds have proliferated across the landscape in the form of IKEAs and Office Worlds.

It's just that the decorations have gotten a bit more elaborate on fairly humble sheds like the ones you show.

patriarch--I would say that this dichotomy didn't really exist with classical architecture, which generally worked hard to treat the decorated shed as a sculptural object. This dichotomy only arises when you outlaw (or devalue) decoration.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2007 3:20 PM

Freidrich, most of 18th and 19th c-built Austrian Empire (and if I remember correctly, French one, too) buildings have false facades, crowns of sorts, to convey presence of another story, to make it look like some grand palace.
Heck, I myself have lived in one just like that (built in 1885) for 8 years. It's just in an urban block in Europe there are parapet returns adjucent to the false facade (and, btw, they are fully functional: they are called, if I'm not mistaken, brandmauer, and intended for fire separation btwn the buildings), which makes the illusion of upper story complete.
But here, without the returns, what results is a movie-set effect that gives you feeling that the house is built of brushwood and paper.
false facades: one of a very few things that I truly detest in American architecture.

Posted by: Tat on March 2, 2007 5:18 PM

Apologies to all, the Venturi & Brown book was published in 1972, not 1927! My bad.


Sorry, didn't mean to imply that false fronts were unknown in classical architecture; all those classical Roman and Florentine churches combine marble facades with brick 'back ends.' I just meant that the notion of a facade being "false" because it was decorated is a concept that only arises once the givens of modernist aesthetic theory are accepted.

I agree regarding the unattractiveness of false fronts where they can't be bothered to extend the facade around the sides of the building; of course, while that's a criticism that could be applied to a number of Italian and Roman structures as well, it does seem awfully silly.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 2, 2007 6:10 PM

In one of Mary Pride's homeschooling books there was a tossed-off comment about how form itself has a function, and an important one. I think she's very right, though she didn't elaborate, and I wonder if anyone in architecture or aesthetics is associated with this view.

Remember the ancient corporate letterheads with the headquarters building used more or less as the logo top-and-center?

Yes, form has a function-- to entertain and inspire those in its vicinity.

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on March 3, 2007 1:48 PM

What about that all-important route from the shops to the parking lot? Nice photos here:

Posted by: dearieme on March 3, 2007 3:11 PM

What's the difference how much the Seattle area Safeways jazz up their storefronts? There's no getting out from under those skies.

Posted by: ricpic on March 3, 2007 7:28 PM

I like the 1970 Safeway best of all the photos in this post. The arch is simple but very graceful and the big, bold "SAFEWAY" lettering agains the glass is excellent. The older ones seem too boring, the newer false fronts seem cheesy and repetitive (there's tons of that stuff around).

Posted by: MQ on March 4, 2007 12:54 AM

I agree with MQ. The newest Safeway just looks cheesy and goofy and boring. Admittedly, the color is preferrable to the old blank boxes, but.... There is a decrepit old supermarket in my neighborhood in Vacaville, CA with a huge soaring angled roof and sheets of glass. It's so neat, and no faux trim elements are needed. (It must be a nightmare to heat and keep clean, though :))

Posted by: Brian on March 6, 2007 11:09 PM

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