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Transforming the American City
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Photo © Lynne Rostochil

Classen Curve

Elliott + Associates Architects

Oklahoma City

Ahead of the Curve: Reinventing the strip mall for the 21st century

By Beth Broome

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Despite its racy-sounding name, there is probably no less sexy building type than the strip mall. This car-friendly retail model proliferated in the United States through the middle and end of the last century, in response to the flight from urban centers. But just as suburban living has found itself under the microscope in recent years, there has been a reexamination of the culture of shopping. With an eye toward high design, Elliott + Associates Architects has recently created Classen Curve, a smart new retail center in a mixed commercial-residential district to the north of Oklahoma City's downtown.

The project, which to date has consisted of three phases, was developed by Chesapeake Land Development Company, whose parent company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, is one of Oklahoma City's largest employers. An important amenity for the workers at the corporation's sprawling 111-acre campus just across the road, it exemplifies the sort of high-end development that has become one of the calling cards of Chesapeake chief executive Aubrey McClendon, who has worked with Oklahoma City–based Rand Elliott on numerous projects (including the campus) and has left his imprint across the city.

Elliott has a way with turning nothing-sounding commissions into something. Cases in point: taking a program for a combination gas station, restaurant, and convenience store on Route 66 and creating Pops, a flamboyant roadside attraction (Record, March 2009, page 72), and rendering a field office in Hennessey, Oklahoma, for Kirkpatrick Oil (Record, May 2012, page 132) as a sleek, defining element for the town's Main Street. With a charge to design a shopping center, the architect again saw an opportunity to raise the bar. “Big boxes have invaded the world,” he says. “They are not architecture; they're just buildings. This was a chance to fix everything that is wrong with this type of retail center today.”

For inspiration, Elliott called upon his personal history when, as a child, he and his family would head into downtown Oklahoma City on Sundays for lunch and an afternoon of window-shopping. His handsome, minimalist scheme here aims to recapture the tradition of leisurely destination shopping and bring a renewed dignity to the environment in which it is done.

Classen Curve—named for the bend in North Classen Boulevard, the busy road whose contour it follows—looks inward, rather than out to the main thoroughfare, blocking the aural and visual static on the other side, and offering a protected environment that slows down time. Landscaping and covered courtyards tucked between buildings provide breathing space and invite shoppers to linger. Even the less glamorous elements are handled deftly, such as a water-retention pond, which the design team transformed into a lushly landscaped water feature. Dumpsters are enclosed in clean-lined steel structures with black anodized-aluminum extrusions that rise to become landmark towers for supporting signage. To break up the scale of the development, which contains a total of 94,000 square feet of interior space, Elliott designed a complex comprising 13 separate low-slung buildings. The steel-frame structures support horizontal boxes clad in manganese iron-spot brick, with 18-foot-high glass storefronts that admit ample daylight and put wares on full display. Freestanding canopies run the length of the buildings and lend a defining dynamism to the project. Supported by massive steel members and topped with steel purlins and corrugated decking, the canopies protect both the cars and pedestrians on walkways from the elements—in particular the blazing-hot sun of the summer months.

The center, which is anchored by the luxury clothing boutique Balliets, consists of locally owned retailers and restaurants, rather than national chains, building on its mission to create a “modern Main Street for 21st-century shopping.” With a combination of upscale retail, restaurants, and “lifestyle” outlets, the management hopes to foster a lively atmosphere—one that encourages shopping as the pleasurable family experience that Elliott recalls from his past. Though the buildings were completed in September 2010 (with more parking added in the final phase in mid-2011), to date many retail spaces remain vacant. Combine this with the fact that Oklahomans are understandably loath to get out of their vehicles on blistering summer days, and it is not surprising that there was not exactly a shopping frenzy in the air on a Thursday afternoon in late July—though restaurants buzzed with activity within their air-conditioned confines, and special events organized by tenants draw crowds.

“You do have to accept the notion of the car,” says the architect. And despite everything, shopping centers are not going away anytime soon. With Classen Curve, Elliott has again found a way to come to terms with the messy realities of the American landscape and, with smart architectural solutions, turn a potential suburban blight into an urbane new destination.

Completion Date: April 2010

Gross square footage: 97,000 S.F.

Cost: withheld

Architect and Site Design:
Elliott + Associates Architects
35 Harrison Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK  73104
405.232.9554– telephone
405.232.9997– fax

October 2012
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