Fred A. Bernstein

The Sculpture? It's Next to Home Depot

Can art save a strip shopping center from aesthetic irrelevance?

Published in The New York Times, May 15, 2004

May 16, 2004
The Sculpture? It's Next to Home Depot

THE mallification of America - the process by which downtown shopping districts are supplanted by enclosed centers - is bad enough. But the demallification of America may be worse. All over the country, malls that fail to draw sufficient crowds are being turned into strip shopping centers with lower operating costs. Brick or stone facades are giving way to cinder block and artificial stucco, in garish colors selected not by architects, but by tenants' marketing departments.

Richard Baker is both a beneficiary and a critic of this trend. Mr. Baker's National Realty and Development Corporation, founded by his father, Robert, recently turned a one-million-square-foot enclosed mall here in Orange County into a strip center called Orange Plaza. The main building, set amid parking for nearly 5,000 cars, is so vast that a three-acre Wal-Mart Supercenter at one end barely makes an impression. Surrounding that building, like chicks around a hen on steroids, are a Home Depot and restaurants like KFC and Taco Bell. A Ruby Tuesday and a Krispy Kreme are on their way.

"People want us to make them look like villages," Mr. Baker said of his centers. "Believe me, we wish we could. But they are what they are - big, blank buildings that serve the public in a way society presently needs.

"You can put a dress on a pig, you can put lipstick on the pig, but it's still a pig."

Mr. Baker, 38, an art collector as well as a developer, lives on a Greenwich, Conn., estate that includes a swimming pool designed as a light installation by the artist James Turrell, a project that took two and one half years to complete.

The New York architect Walter Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill worked to achieve Mr. Turrell's goal of an ethereal space - where uninterrupted surfaces of black granite and black water reflect ribbons of L.E.D.'s. The pool is housed under a barn that is as quaint as it is high-tech.

Orange Plaza bears no resemblance to Mr. Baker's barn. The sprawling center is visually incoherent. Worse, unlike the enclosed mall, it provides no public space. Designed to minimize the distance between S.U.V. and bar-code scanner, the strip center eliminates most human contact in the process.

But now, Mr. Baker said, he is challenging himself to make these utilitarian buildings more interesting. Already, thousands of L.E.D.'s animate the Middletown complex after dark - a light show inspired by Mr. Turrell. "I know that people like it," Mr. Baker said, "because I answer my own phone, and I've gotten dozens of calls." He is also working with the performance artist Robert Whitman to create a piece that could travel to his properties around the country.

Most recently, Mr. Baker commissioned the artist Russell Maltz to create works out of cinder blocks (which Mr. Baker calls C.M.U.'s, for concrete masonry units) at five centers in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Vermont. The cinder blocks are shipped to the shopping center parking lots, where Mr. Maltz, 51, working with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art, arranges them into room-size arrays.

After he leaves, the materials will be used for new buildings, like the Krispy Kreme at Orange Plaza. The artwork may be ephemeral, Mr. Maltz said, but its spirit will live on in the buildings that are constructed with the blocks.

There's nothing new about combining art and shopping. In the 1970's, the Dallas developer Raymond Nasher began showing Warhols, Lichtensteins and Moores at his NorthPark center - and even offered docent tours of the high-end mall. (The new Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, designed by Renzo Piano, is an outgrowth of those exhibitions.) But visitors to Orange Plaza may not recognize a pile of cinder blocks - the same ones available at the Home Depot for 99 cents each - as sculpture, even with surfaces painted bright yellow by the Cleveland students.

From the back door of an Applebee's restaurant, employees watched Mr. Maltz at work recently without suspecting that he was making art. "I thought it was the new Hooters," said Josh, a 26-year-old waiter. A cook named Greg, also 26, said: "It looks like a pile of cinder blocks. I hope nobody paid for that."

But while the waiters roasted the project, a group of high school art students (invited to the site by Mr. Baker's company) earnestly questioned Mr. Maltz about his artistic intentions. Reminded that Sol LeWitt has also worked with cinder blocks, Mr. Maltz explained that Mr. LeWitt's pieces can be constructed or reconstructed by anyone, following the artist's sketches.

Mr. Maltz, by contrast, responds to site conditions, he said, and turns construction workers into co-creators. (In this case, a tractor operator decided where to place many of the blocks while Mr. Maltz was talking to the high school students.)

Told that not everyone recognizes Mr. Maltz's work as art, Mr. Baker said: "We could have hung a sign on it that says `art.' But we want to challenge people. I don't believe this kind of art can only exist in Chelsea. There are a lot of very sophisticated people in these towns."

Mr. Baker began collecting Mr. Maltz's work - including assemblages of building materials - nearly 20 years ago. In the 1970's Mr. Maltz organized a series of installations in an unused swimming pool at C. W. Post College on Long Island. Since then, he has supported himself with jobs outside the art world, including one as a construction manager, which Mr. Baker called "very apropos." (Mr. Maltz recently worked on building the new cafeteria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

But now he is doing art full time, this semester as an artist in residence at the Cleveland Institute of Art. Saul Ostrow, dean of the institute's fine arts program, wrote a catalog essay that places Mr. Maltz's shopping center installations in the company of earthworks like Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," which emerges and re-emerges according to the water level in the Great Salt Lake. Arguing that the ambiguity of the shopping center pieces is their point, Mr. Ostrow writes: "Maltz implicitly claims all of us who are aware of the uncertain character of his work as his collaborators."

Mr. Baker says the entire Maltz project, titled "Five States/Five Sites," cost him less than $100,000. That's a trifle at a center that cost $90 million to build. And it is a small fraction of what he spent on his pool. He is concerned that Mr. Turrell's work, which will be published in Town & Country magazine, will draw crowds to his Greenwich enclave.

Seventy miles away, at Orange Plaza, attracting crowds is Mr. Baker's goal. "Anything that makes people want to come here is good for business," he said. "If you can distinguish yourself even a little, it can make a difference."

Mr. Baker is confident that passers-by - the Maltz is behind a Burlington Coat Factory outlet and a Bed, Bath & Beyond - will be intrigued by the installation and "start to look at things in a new way." Even the bemused Applebee's waiter, watching Mr. Maltz pile cinder block upon cinder block, was hopeful. "Maybe tomorrow," he said, "it will look like art."