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blogpost – car dealership architecture

Cars and architecture have come together recently in conversation more than usual. The two most poignant occurrences were 1) in the hair salon chair this week, and 2) in today’s article in the N&O, “Auto dealers chafe at required showroom renovations.”

Conversations with my stylist are always motivating and renewing, regenerating ambition and purpose and a vision of new markets. This week she said that she finally understood that fashion, architecture, and automobile design are the same. Fashion and architecture, yes, of course, are the same expression: form following function, basic protection from the elements, style a la mode, showcased ambition, moderated by economy; both designed necessarily within the bounds of the laws of gravity, material, structure, and the physical landscape. But car design? As much as I enjoy and admire cars, and as many posters I had on my walls as a kid, I can’t put car design around the camp fire with architecture. The goals are too different, the engineering is too specific, one is made to race and one is made to stay put within a place and time.

But, they do interact. To get to a point more quickly than usual, it’s time for the return of the downtown car dealership.

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Today’s N&O article was about a Cadillac dealership that was required to transition its building design, with all costs to the dealer, because it was no longer a Cadillac-Hummer dealership. The Hummer motif had a kind of quarter-circle ground-up arch and glass shed that superseded the Cadillac image, but had now become irrelevant, leaving Cadillac again to make its own statement in synthetic stucco.

It’s significant to me that I was unable to find direct contact links for any of the individuals related to today’s news article about car dealerships and architecture. The author of the article is with a newspaper in New Jersey, protected behind the masthead. The dealership in the article only included a web-form page for general inquiries. And local Cadillac dealerships only offered the identical standardized form, presumably so that inquiries could be corporately tracked and pursued for market statistics. Architecture (and newspaper editing) cannot be anonymous, but marketing always is.

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There’s a large retail bay wide open and papered over in the ground floor of our building at the corner of Hargett and Salisbury. The location is central to downtown, that’s why we like it. Salisbury is an urban street; it faces the edge of our optimistic but under-extended downtown core. It’s a good connection to I-40 and to North Hills drive through traffic. I’d love to see Cadillac’s in those big corner windows. Or, how about the ever empty foundation of the RBC PNC tower, with all that glass. It’s easy to imagine a polished floor and ArmorAll shine. Consider the pedestrian traffic, in and out. And how great would it be to see the new models arrive, like a seasonal parade?

Car dealerships used to be in downtowns. This does feel like reaching back in history, like before my time, maybe my grandparent’s era. What was the association? What did urban centers, tall buildings, and the automobile have in common? It honestly may not be more of a connection than the shine of glass and new paint. But it was a basic sense of retail, of putting the product where the people could see it.

When dealerships were downtown, it was before the car became a symbol of sprawl and environmental destruction. Today, the suburban car dealership is the exaggeration of that same symbol. The uncovered, over-lit, excessive asphalt lots, and the meaningless architecture, are the anti-destination, impossibly erasing land and place. Where those parking lots may have been full of shiny metal in the last decade, they now are sparsely populated, leaving new and used product alone to weather the elements. And the showroom interiors are even more pitiful, with just a few floor options, a very few sales desks, and the shadows of signage from deserted brands left sun-bleached into the yet-to-be-repainted walls.


Arguably, the urban car dealership is the antidote to our feelings of deforestation and fiscal misdirection. To get to downtown, we didn’t have to drive very far. The pedestrians and downtown restaurants remind us that we might not have to drive to our next appointment. With our next job, we could simply commute here. While we had to look for a space to park our old car, these new cars will appear to have parked themselves.

Andy Osterlund AIA | LEED AP
Andrew Osterlund, Architect, PLLC
19 W Hargett Street, Suite 700-A | Raleigh, NC 27601
(919) 889 6823 | | TWITTER: aoarch

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Osterlund Architects is a full-service architecture and interior design firm, committed to our clients and their work from concept through construction, and through to their next opportunity. Our firm has expertise in all project phases, including programming, pre-design and planning through construction administration and closeout, as well as interior design, including furniture, fixtures and equipment (FFE) services.

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