Revolution in the USA

Forget the Internet and global warming – Hugh Pearman has seen the (American retail) future, and discovers it has a distinctly 1950s retro feel

‘You’ve got to come and see this,’ said my guide, who happens to be Dean of Architecture at the University of Wisconsin. ‘They’ve built a kind of village right in the middle of an out-of-town car park.’

I couldn’t quite envisage this. I’d been looking round Milwaukee – which has some impressive early iron-framed buildings, the odd lesser-known Frank Lloyd Wright house and the outrageously camp, but strangely compelling white flapping wings of Santiago Calatrava’s Art Museum extension. All normal enough stuff in a post-industrial, mid-Western city today. But a village in a car park?

So we drove out there, since it seemed this was some kind of shopping centre. It would be wrong not to exploit the weak dollar and my to-buy list included a pair of Ray-Bans and a camera. What I also got was a bonus – a lesson in the circularity of retail design.

We came to a slightly surreal place. Emerging from an existing sealed, air-conditioned shopping mall – and let’s not forget that the US invented this type of building in the 1950s – was, yes, a village. Or perhaps a small town centre might more accurately describe it. A kind of Main Street, widening into a space a bit bigger than a village green, a bit smaller than a town square. I was in a very convincing stage set.

This was a simulacrum of an idea of how shopping used to be, when you drove up Main Street in your Chevy, stopped on the street, wandered into a shop or a bar, came out, drove off. All in the open air. All recreated perfectly, with only the parking meters (designed to sprout out of the heritage-issue lamp posts) to tell you this was not the 1950s.

This was not quite Disney. Rather than being a full-on fantasy creation, the buildings were a vague approximation of the jumble of shapes, colours and patterns you get along a real old street. The shopkeepers weren’t in period costume. We were meant to be in the world of today. There were restaurants (good ones, I was told) and shops of various sizes but all falling into the retail category known as ‘speciality center’. Which means no huge anchor stores, just lots of high-end small units. Familiar enough – but outside, really outside. There was no climate dome over the top of everything. I checked.

If the US has decided that open streets with real weather and on-street parking, co-existing happily with pedestrians, is the retail future, then I am astonished. Yet it was working. It was popular. It was almost convincing. There were apartments – people actually lived there. OK, I’d have preferred it if the lamp posts didn’t also play Muzak, but you can’t have everything.

But then you don’t have to go to Milwaukee to find a revival of old forms of shopping. All you have to do is consider the British petrol station. Originally a shop, it acquired a tank and a pump when motoring happened. Then the shop was demolished to make a forecourt with lots more pumps and a kiosk. Then petrol profit margins got tight, so the kiosk expanded into a small shop to sell other things. Then the supermarkets got interested and built a larger shop. Finally, now they sometimes get rid of the pumps altogether and fill in the space with a proper store, right on the street. There you have it. Full circle, over the course of a century. Though I am puzzled by one thing. Given that there are more and more cars, how can it be that there are fewer and fewer filling stations?

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