Drive south and west in the valley and your aesthetic sense will be numbed by the squat, flat-roofed buildings lining the roads: row upon row of rectangular strip malls unrelieved by either acute angle or sweeping curve. It is as if the building code has specified that all commercial properties be limited to a single story, their roofline built parallel to the plane of the roadway.
Flatness is an unattractive concept. Only those engaged in running, cycling, surveying or billiards take pleasure from it. Its lack of appeal is reflected in the English lexicon. “Flat” can serve as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb, but there aren’t many variants with a positive connotation. What could be worse than finding yourself flat broke in a flattened building on a mud flat with only flat Coke to drink? Flat is also unflattering these days. Only a flat stomach is in fashion. An Elizabethan bodice is not'witness the number of women willing to pay the price of breast augmentation.
A flat roof is not only unattractive; it is impractical, given Utah’s climate. Instead of shedding water, a roof without a slope invites the water in to stain the ceiling or pool on the floor. A horizontal roof also is vulnerable to being flattened by a Katrina-style event of wet snow.
The architectural tedium of the south valley is ironic given the 19th-century precedent of Temple Square. You would expect that the spires of the temple and the dome of the Tabernacle would have inspired generations of builders. That has clearly not been the case.
The rectangularity of the strip mall ignores the dominant feature of the valley: its flanking mountain ranges. Is it not the sawtooth skyline that makes the valley pleasing to the eye? Flat-roofed buildings squat comfortably on the vast tabletop of the Great Plains, but against a backdrop of mountains, a flat roof is a plaid sport coat worn with striped pants.
Fortunately for Salt Lake City, not many people want to live in a house with a flat roof. The neighborhoods relieve the tedium of the main streets with their gables, mansards, hips and valleys. In the older sections of the city, the stylistic variety is downright charming. Even where immodest houses have been shoehorned into modest lots, it is the angular roofline that distracts the eye from tacky, manufactured exteriors.
Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect, had a simple principle of design: Form follows function. There are no better examples of that in the valley than the churches, whose lines are disposed toward heaven. The underlying function of a flat-roofed strip mall is expediency. Inexpensive and quick to build, it is temporary, expendable, the modern equivalent of the World War II Quonset hut. It will surely be razed before the next generation acquires American Express cards. In fact, some places in Salt Lake City already exhibit the first symptom of a moribund mall: the martial arts studio.
Because Salt Lake City is a model city in many respects, the commercial buildings should complement the wide, clean streets. What we need are acts of rebellion to overthrow the architectural status quo with a second floor, a gabled roof or a sensuous curve. We deserve buildings of such a quality that future generations will rally to protect them from the redeveloper’s bulldozer.
John Rasmuson is a freelance writer who confesses that he and his wife once built a house in Massachusetts with a flat roof.