An Aluminum Town Square: Reacting to Crisis in Paola, Kansas

By Tait Johnson.

Published by The International Journal of the Constructed Environment

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: February 12, 2016 $US5.00

Like many small towns across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, the downtown commercial district of Paola, Kansas was threatened by changing modes of consumption and shifting demographics. Small towns were dying, spurring constituents to seek ways to induce economic activity. The municipal leadership of Paola, Kansas influenced a particularly extreme response. In an attempt to arrest decline, entire blocks of historic brick facades facing the town square were sheathed in blue, yellow, and green aluminum—a virtual and instant modernization of main street. Although Paola was a unique case, building owners in towns across the United States adopted similar tactics as a way to combat existential crisis posed by emerging shopping centers. The radical approach evidenced by the complete cladding of Paola’s town square in aluminum was born of power relations that privileged the “new,” promoted by a mayor who styled himself as “Mr. Aluminum.” Ultimately, such contentious power dynamics reversed, the aluminum sheathing quickly fell out of favor and in the years following all aluminum was removed, once again revealing brick facades and detailed cornices underneath. Through examination of city records, media materials and historical archives, this study explores the extent to which the downtown retailers, planners, constituents and city administrators of Paola sought to alter the physical environment in reaction to economic threats. Implications drawn from this research inform how crisis‐born design interventions can yield unexpected and unfavorable results concomitant with larger economic forces beyond the control of local decision makers. This study seeks to guide future designers, users, and project stakeholders to learn from past design interventions such as that executed in Paola, Kansas in order to enact more deeply considered proposals in response to crisis.

Keywords: Architecture, Town Planning, Modernism, Crisis, Aluminum

The International Journal of the Constructed Environment, Volume 7, Issue 3, September 2016, pp.31-41. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: February 12, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 886.227KB)).

Tait Johnson

Doctoral Student, The Illinois School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Champaign, Illinois, USA