Big Box Urbanism

Posted in L+A+U by Stephen Becker on November 2, 2008

It’s hard for the architectural community to resist creeping schadenfreude regarding the collapse of so many big box stores, and I think that tone spills into discussions of how these behemoths may be appropriated by, and reconfigured towards, a post-suburban environment. Thus, most competitions and research projects (at least the ones with which I am familiar) deal with developing new programs for old boxes. Currently, these corridors are governed by very strict, banal, homogenous patterns of components and use. Without acting as an apologist for the often abysmal architecture and planning present in typical exurban retail developments, I think it’s worth taking some time to discuss why the economic retail model found in most big box stores (as opposed to its usual architectural manifestation) doesn’t have to be in contention with a positive urbanism.

This sort of investigation, which focuses on yet-to-be-built retail centers, is at least as important as investigation of out-of-work boxes. Big box retail corridors are still popular, successful, and increasing in number – especially outside of the United States. Beyond the reality of their still-primary position in much of exurban America, there is a persuasive argument for their increased inclusion in dense, urban environments as well, as was noted yesterday by Matt Yglesias:

“As far as this issue goes, I think urbanists ought to wholeheartedly embrace “big box” chain stores. When there’s a problem with an urban-situated big box store, which there often is, it’s because (like the Home Depot near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station) the site has been laid out in a way that’s inappropriate for an urban environment. But such inappropriate structures are hardly unique to big box retailers (the CVS at 7th and Florida has a strongly suburbanist design quality) or to national chains. What’s more, these problems are often caused by misguided regulations (which of course should be fixed, but are not the fault of the big box chains) or else relate to a general lack of experience financing and constructing stores in an urban environment.

But you can make a physical structure, like DC USA in Columbia Heights, that works in an urban environment. And it would work even better if it didn’t have so much shopping.

But the bottom line is that successful chains are successful because they’re good at bringing to market products that people want to buy at the offered price. If you want people to live and shop in cities, you need to open the cities to the firms that are good at bringing to market products that people want to buy at the offered price.”

Echoing Yglesias’ argument, there is a serious need for architects to (pardon the pun) think outside of the box – though I would go further, and contend that the box is ill-suited for not only urban situations, but suburban conditions as well. Its failing is less a function of some inefficiency at exchanging goods, than it is a colossal missed opportunity to create a vibrant public space.

Koolhaas and the Harvard Project on the City published a study in Mutations arguing shopping is the last mode of public interaction:

“Shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity. Through a battery of increasingly predatory forms, shopping has been able to colonize – even replace – almost every aspect of urban life. Historical town centers. Suburbs, streets, and now train stations, museums, hospitals, schools, the internet, and even the military, are increasingly shaped by the mechanisms and spaces of shopping. Churches are mimicking shopping malls to attract followers. Airports have become wildly popular by converting travelers into customers. Museums are turning to shopping to survive. The traditional European city once tried to resist shopping, but is now a vehicle for American-style consumerism. “High” architects disdain the world of retailing yet use shopping configurations to design museums and universities. Ailing cities are revitalized by being planned more like malls.”

The challenge, then, is to take advantage of the popularity of the big box in such a way as to minimize the manifold problems caused by big box developments, issues like water runoff, asphalt heat sinks, energy use, etc; while fostering engaging, flexible public arenas. The Flip-A-Strip competition cited by Rob in his earlier post is a good example of movement in this direction.

Another study that examines the potential for the re-imagination of the big box is ‘Flatspace’ (published here and here), by Lateral Architecture:

by Lateral Architecture, from their website.

Lateral Architecture analyzed ‘retail corridors’, the urban conditions cropping out outside urban and suburban communities which are defined by “highways and paved planes…dominated by big boxes and retail power centers, conflating an ever-evolving consumer culture with public space.” From their description, “The potential for design in flatspace is less about inserting a foreign program or form and more about positing that the system can recalibrate existing elements and agitate encounters of the public without altering its capitalist dependency on efficiency and geo-economics.” The existing elements (which they termed filters) recalibrated were program, parking and landscape; three proposals for each filter were developed.

by Lateral Architecture, from Young Architects 7 (link above)

What is compelling about this project is that it investigated the logic of the systems as-is, looking at the relationship between the three filters according to how people interact with them. A litany of alternatives was then developed, each a proposition with the potential to reestablish the nature of the retail corridor and its role as commercial center and public space through a novel reconsideration of the nature of the existing elements.

by Lateral Architecture, from their website.

A second point of interest regarding this investigation is that it demonstrates an application of what might be termed as ‘infrastructural thinking’ – that is, considering the ways in which systems not usually thought of as infrastructure – such as retail or parking – function in an essentially infrastructural way in the urban system. Two of the three filters, parking and landscape, are infrastructure; and all three were considered infrastructurally, though this is not how Lateral Architecture framed their research. All three filters are private initiatives by corporations, typically considered only insofar as they may generate profits. These infrastructural filters combine to creating a larger infrastructure which produces profits for these companies, and distributes goods to consumers. Even in the current big-box condition, they have effectively created public space. The Flatspace investigation demonstrates how a re-calibration of smaller infrastructures (the filters) might serve to increase public interaction and involvement. It takes advantage of an existing trend , and develops it according to an infrastructural analysis.

Obviously, similar studies situated in an urban condition would differ in several important ways; requiring the inclusion of housing, more restricted land use, having a built-in pedestrian population, etc. But, much like Lukez’s work , it also hints at how the suburban and urban evolve toward each other – helping us to imagine a situation in which these retail corridors are no longer considered in isolation, but instead are absorbed into the logic of the [sub]urban condition. Instead of the evolution from city to mall Koolhaas observes, retail and city birth a third condition. The evolution of the big box store is no longer an isolated story, but merely a piece of the continuing emergence of the 21st century city. Some student work has begun to explode these novel urbanities, such as the following project by former Princeton M.arch student Christopher Leong:

“This thesis proposes a way to combine the typologies of the mat building and the tower-in-the-park in order to generate a new urban condition that embraces the logics of the dispersed city… By sampling different conditions (housing, shopping, office, agriculture, recreation, wetlands, etc.) within the region, remapping those conditions over a half mile square site, and then layering those patterns into a new inhabitable ground it is possible to create a more cohesive system of inhabitation.”

by Christopher Leong, Princeton University S.O.A. Masters Thesis spring 2006

If anything, more questions are raised by these kinds of projects than are answered: How do they come to be? Can zoning ever effect a development such as this, or must it be engendered by mega-developers? Does it need to be built all at once, creating island community systems linked together by larger, city-wide infrastructure, or does it spread like mold, internalizing existing infrastructures, to become a city itself?

Does the home loan crisis present Wal-mart with a golden opportunity to buy up vast quantities of housing and suburban acreage, extending its monopoly beyond the things we bring into our homes, toward our homes and streets and cities as well?

[cross-posted at ]

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