Architectural Articles

The Beauty Contest at the Auto Mall

Criticism of architectural design can be superficial if it focuses only on the appearance of a building. It is similar to the swimsuit contest in a beauty pageant. It is not fair, critics say, to judge a Miss America contestant solely on her physical features and wardrobe while ignoring her intelligence and talent. Ideally, a building should be judged on how it solves a multitude of constraints such as the site, budget, function, interiors, and structure, as well as style.

Yet, if there was ever an opportunity to judge a series of buildings simply as fashion statements, it would be the new Auto Mall in Salinas. All of the dealerships were built in the same year with similar functions: car display, sales, service, parts, storage, and administrative offices. None of the dealerships were designed by local architects (to my knowledge). Typically, architectural firms are hired by regional or national managers. However, local contractors were involved in their construction.

According to Mario Balestreri of Bethel Construction, the exterior components for the Cardinali VW store were designed in Germany. "This is the first prototype in the United States," explained Mario. In contrast, the My Jeep/Mitsubishi dealership was designed specifically for this mall.

Each big box is dressed up with different facades, like an evening gown competition. The Salinas Valley Ford shows off two entrances, one sliding glass door to drive cars in and out of the showroom and another pair of glass doors for customers to enter into the main lobby where a restored 50's T-bird is on display. The old Ford logo harkens back to an earlier era of the automobile age, as does the retro-streamline design using curved corners and tall windows with horizontal window dividers. Ford service and leasing are housed in separate buildings.

Bob Willis Dodge/Chrysler is adorned with a bright red arch clearly marking the main entrance to their showroom, with a plaster soffit that curves down into the glass storefront. Not to be outdone, Buick/Pontiac shows off a blue portal over its front door. In contrast, Hyundai is dressed in subtle gray colors with blue accents. The floor plan of its showroom is a semi-circle enclosed in glass. Daewood/Mazda also sports a continuous glass wall that curves around its showroom.

Down the road, Toyota flaunts a two-story high glass showroom with a deep overhanging porch to protect cars inside and out. Once you pass through the doors of the rectangular plan, the offices can be seen on the upper level in this volumous space.

Volkswagen is suited with a forward-sloping glass wall and a curved yellow entrance. Take notice of the steel canopy over the front door and the metal louvers at the top of the window wall. Across the road, Nissan/Kia dons a glass wall that zigs and zags around each metal-clad column. Next door, Lincoln/Mercury/Jeep/Mitsubishi wears its imposing glass façade with pride. Under those green metal roof panels, you can look up to see steel trusses exposed.

As the sole arbitrary judge of the beauty contest at the Auto Mall, here are my finalists in two categories: interior and exterior design. In the class of "Interiors", the first runner up is Nissan/Kia. The sales space enjoys a high interior volume to offset a relatively small floor area. Instead of placing the sales offices all in a row, the rooms are staggered at right angles to one another forming an L-shaped room. An outside corner office for the sales manger is completely surrounded in glass. He had better keep his desk neat.

In the "Interiors" category, Volkswagen wins first place. Although the floor area is smaller than other lobbies, it is carefully detailed by the San Francisco office of Gensler Interiors. Opposite the front door is another curved yellow wall with a large advertising graphic. The open stairs leading up to the second level adds even more interest to the space. Varieties of high-tech light fixtures are suspended from the high ceiling. Notice that the grid pattern on the face of the reception desk matches those in the salesrooms.

In the category of "Exteriors," the first runner up is Volkswagen (again). The utra-modern styling of the sloped storefront and entrance seems suitable to the younger demographic market for Jettas. However, the first place winner for exterior design is Lincoln/Mercury/ Jeep/Mitsubishi. Its three window bays and two glass towers with curved metal rooflines are the most dramatic, particularly as viewed from Highway 101.

And the "Mr. Congeniality" award goes to Waleed Meri, Sr. Sales Consultant at Salinas Valley Ford, who had me reminiscing about the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, in a span of only five minutes.

Just as viewers of the Miss America pageant may not concur with its judges, you may not agree with my selections. But next time to go the Salinas Auto Mall, look beyond the shiny cars and balloons to view the buildings that house all of those friendly sales people.

Published in The Eagle, newsletter of the AIA Monterey Bay.

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