Photograph courtesy of Toby Weiss
The Death of Northland Shopping Center: A Failure to Learn From History
The buildings of Northland were, across the board, summarily dismissed as "antiquated", a descriptor that the local news media have accepted and repeated unquestioningly. They were old - that deadly zone of old between 30 and 70 years, when a building has not been around long enough to be recognized as "historic", yet is too old to be seen as useful. The rhetoric calling for their demolition is numbingly familiar - it is no different in tone or comprehension than the language used to condemn Victorian-era buildings in the 1950s, the same time period when Northland was under construction.
Those long-gone buildings would be treasures today, had they survived. Today we stare in blank uncomprehension at Great Society-era films showing Victorian houses and stores being erradicated, while a sober narrator lauds the work of "progress". Will St. Louisians in 40 years remember the destruction of Northland the same way?
No one even appears to have considered the possibility of renovating and reusing the complex. Who can blame them? A superior renovation job would leave Northland looking pretty much just as it did - simple, gleaming, finely detailed, rigorously geometric... but with none of the every-ten-years pizazz that retailers now demand to grab consumers' attention.
Northland Shopping Center was too old to be new, and too new to be old. This more than anything doomed it.
Yet, these buildings had an undeniable elegance about them. Their stylized design, while hardly unique, was impressively distinctive. They were the product of an age that still believed in the sincere promise of Modernism, that saw the autobile as salvation and not as bane. They were constructed of materials that would be dismissed as too expensive today, arranged with a craft and care that has died off in our own time. And they were suffused with delightful yet easily overlooked details, the kind that implied that when a store moved in, they were there to stay.
We are too close to these buildings - we look at them and take them for granted; we see them as "dull", without noticing the details and stylizations that make them distinctive. We assume they're still being built, that they're replaceable. They aren't.