The Design Observer Group

Posted 09.27.09

Paho Mann & Nancy Levinson

Re-Inhabited Circle Ks

Club Tattoo Club Tattoo, Tempe, AZ

It’s a classic low-commitment landscape — the wide arterials of Phoenix, Arizona, engineered to move cars quickly, many with six, seven, sometimes even eight lanes of traffic, including what transportation planners call “two-way left-turn lanes” and the rest of us call the suicide lanes. The rights-of-way can blur out one hundred feet or more, and they’re wider still when you add in the parking lots for the strip malls that line them (the six-foot-wide sidewalks hardly count). The roads are treeless, too, because trees would block the big signs — for the fast food drive-ins, big box discounters, payday loans, etc. — which are critical when your customers are clipping past at 40 mph.


Photographer Paho Mann began to learn from this landscape a decade ago, when he was a student at the University of New Mexico, commuting across Albuquerque from home to campus. Mann — who wasn’t yet born when Venturi and Scott Brown took their Yale studio on the road and did the research distilled into Learning from Las Vegas, arguably the most influential architectural investigation of the postwar era — has paid special attention to the Circle Ks, a national chain of convenience stores founded in 1951 in El Paso. But what actually attracted him were “re-inhabited” Circle Ks — the small local businesses that had set up shop in locations that the corporation had abandoned in the past two decades, largely due to changes in business strategy and identity (including a bankruptcy restructuring and series of acquisitions) that emphasized fewer but more profitable sites.

Mann continued his drive-by research when he moved to Phoenix to go to graduate school at Arizona State University. “The shells left by this migration were filled by dozens of small businesses, each inhabiting a practically identical structure,” he writes. “The new occupants would paint, put up new signs and modify windows and doors.” To make his study more systematic, Mann used old phonebooks (from the ‘70s and ‘80s) and Google Earth to create a database of existing and former Circle Ks and map their locations. (You can see the map on Mann’s website.) He discovered that new owners had found diverse uses for the old franchises, including a dry cleaners, a couple of florist shops, a tattoo parlor, a tuxedo rental place, several mini-marts and dollar stores, and Bridgett’s Last Laugh Karaoke and Fish Fry. In the process they've injected a welcome dose of local commitment into the strip.

The photographs presented here are part of an exhibition at the Sam Lee Gallery in Los Angeles, opening October 30.

— Nancy Levinson