I have the privilege of working in an art museum at a university with a school of architecture. The building I work in was designed by I. M. Pei. He is probably best known for his glass pyramid at the Louvre. But he has done numerous other buildings of note including the Bank of China in Hong Kong and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. And of course, as I said, the building I work in, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University. The Cornell campus is noteworthy for being quite old and having a range of truly wonderful architecture, but also some really questionable architecture that is not that pleasing to the eye.
When I was about eleven or twelve, I wanted to be an architect. I spent hours drawing and designing houses. I grew up in a two bedroom house on a dirt street with five other family members. Maybe it was the modest abode I grew up in that stimulated my desire for something more grand. Maybe it was the old Victorian mansions along Candler Road in Decatur, Georgia where the heirs of the Candler Coca-Cola fortune lived that gave me an appreciation for architectural history and design on a larger scale. I saw the city skyline of Atlanta growing higher and higher and always loved the drive to downtown through the posh neighborhoods of Ponce de Leon Avenue or the back roads of Buckhead.
It was this desire to be an architect, I believe, that started my growth as a visual artist. My mother was very artistic and sketched and designed, although her life did not allow for the full expression of her artistry except for, perhaps, through her flowers, her roses mostly. I took classes in drafting after high school, but the need to support a young family curtailed my ambitions for college. So my needs to express myself visually turned to photography. And as a result, much of what I shot then and what I shoot now revolves around architecture. I love the line and form, light and shadow, texture and presence of impressive buildings. But I also love the experience of architecture in disrepair, the abandoned house, the collapsing barn, the aging industrial complex. So, the urban landscape. I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of good architecture against bad, old against new, the craftsmanship of the past against the ticky-tacky mundane boxes of today.
I grew up shopping at Belvedere Plaza, a strip type mall outside Decatur. These were the shopping areas of the future. The large department stores of the South were still king then. Sears, Belk’s, Penny’s, Rich’s. These were the mainstay stores. And there were the dime stores. Woolworth’s, W.T. Grant’s, and Richard’s. I remember going, for the first time, to Lenox Square in Atlanta. It was the first big shopping mall in Atlanta, and probably in the whole Southeast, where all the stores were grouped together in the middle of vast parking areas. Lots so big that areas were numbered and color coded, pink 22, green 18, so you could locate your car.
The mall wasn’t enclosed then, but later would be. By today’s standards, it was small. Shopping malls today are huge compared to those days. They have grown in size, but in my mind, have not grown in style or design. Most are sprawling sterile architecture, huge in scale, and devoid of design. Warehouse type boxes dressed up on the inside, but poor visually on the outside.
And it is this very exaggerated staleness that attracts me to them as subjects for photography. I feel like they symbolize a lot about our culture, about what we find important. We drive to these massive parking lots, leave our vehicle, and move indoors to the controlled environment with facades decorated like a movie set.
They stand monolithic with little adornment short of giant colored signs while we stream in and out like a colony of worker ants. I love malls for their blandness. I love their minimalist imagery.
We have accepted dime store architecture as a standard. What will the architectural history books call this time? Where are the architectural visionaries of our current consumer world?
I have a category on my website I call Mall Walls. It is there that I am collecting my images of malls. I prefer to record them without people. The people are inside after all. I include large malls as well as individual stores. But they all fall into the same category as far as their architectural statement. This is an area with a lot of room for additions. So, let’s go to the mall!
All images are copyright © George Cannon / All rights reserved.