Friday, November 28, 2008

Thinking Out of the Box, Pt. 1

The ubiquitous big box store is a staple of modern life, which, along with it's associated expansive parking areas eat up a good portion of our cities. The collections of big box stores, known as power centers, exacerbate this phenonmenon by multiplying the footprint and impact of the store uses - creating significant gashes in the urban fabric. Tool around Google Earth and you can find these everywhere - particularly at the nexus of highway access points and areas of flat lowland zones.

:: Big Box Power Center in Portland - image via Google Earth

:: Sensitive Big Box Power Center? - image via Nave Newell

This urban typology has special resonance after working on a big box alternative in the Integrating Habitats competition entry for Urban Ecotones, where we re-envisioned a significantly sized green home store - giving a twist on the modern big box, amongst other idea - focused on parking, site, and building form.

:: Integrating Habitats Big Box - images via L+U

An article recently entitled Big Box & Beyond by Joel Garreau with the tagline: "Today's Temples of Consumption Don't Have To Be Tomorrow's Ruins. What's in Store?" provides some additional visions of the big-box phenomenon. This coincides with the publication of 'Big Box Reuse' by Julia Christensen - which furthers the great work from her blog of the same name. Although a range of 'reuse' options exist, everyone's favorite (and perhaps mine as well, having visited the factory back in the day) is the Spam Museum nee Kmart, in Austin, Minnesota.

:: Spam Museum - image via Big Box Reuse

Garreau's article jumps in with some stats: "This lesson looms because we're going to have to figure out what to do with a whole lot of big boxes, and soon. There are thousands of them -- vast prairies of Targets and Bed Bath & Beyonds and Costcos and Home Depots. Wal-Mart alone has 4,224 in the United States, more than half of them Supercenters into which, on average, you could comfortably fit four NFL football fields."

:: Even with Solar Panels - it needs some work - image via Treehugger

Christensen gives some context for her project: "In the background is this very large problem that is being thrust upon our landscape. The big-box buildings themselves were not necessarily wanted in the first place. These corporations are not held accountable for the fact that they are building hundreds and hundreds of buildings that will be abandoned in the future. Luckily, our communities are incredibly resourceful, finding amazing things to do with these buildings. That's key. That's the balance of this project, the thrust of the message."

And a clear definition as a starting point, narrowing in on not just vacant retail, but looking at a question of scale. Again from Christensen: "Big boxes are not only one-story, one-room places originally created for retail sales. They are of breathtaking size -- some of them as much as 280,000 square feet or six football fields. They are marked by dazzlingly tall ceilings -- 18 feet or more -- that beg to have additional levels, balconies and cantilevers added to them. And they offer world-class heating, ventilation and air-conditioning."

The article continues with some of the motivations behind the phenomenon - sometimes due to economic downturns where stores are closed, but also due to policies such as 'dark stores' - in which a property is still owned by the company but kept undeveloped to limit direct competition with a replacement Superstore. Uses such as churches seem a popular choice - and are more viable because they don't compete with the original owners. There were many options kicked around, including homeless shelters, cemeteries, and the favorite - inverting the box and using it for a litter box for a 10-story tall cat. Now that, is adaptive reuse.

:: image via Washington Post

So what can one do with such specialized open framework? As Garreau mentions and the article shows, quite a lot... and the options are not necessarily limited. "Nonetheless, big boxes are nothing if not generic. So possibilities that can be imagined here can work elsewhere."

:: The Estates at Place W - images via Washington Post

After this interesting rumination on the topic, the interesting aspect comes as the Washington Post collected a series of architects, developers, engineers and artists (no landscape architects...?) to re-envision the big-box paradigm through visual media. The premise: "Let your imagination soar. So what if big boxes seem at first glance like bridesmaids' dresses -- big, ugly and not a whole lot you can use them for. At second glance, with some alterations they can be made to seem so promising." A collection of these items with some narrative is found below, but check out the full visual feast here.

In Build A Town in the Parking Lot, Christopher B. Leinberger and Darrel Rippeteau use the big box parking as a field for future urbanization. "The vast acreage of big-box parking lots seems almost providentially proportioned to be turned into walkable city blocks"

:: Build a town in the Parking Lot - images via Washington Post

Esocoff & AssociatesArchitects look at gardening and design for disassembly: "The vast roof supports solar voltaics, which enables not only a greenhouse, but a recharging area for electric cars, and a veneer of apartments for people who really want to get near their groceries. Everything is designed to be easily disassembled and moved as the economics of the box location changes."

:: La Vigne de la Grande BoÎte - images via Washington Post

Rusty Meadows and Tammy Kim of the Perkins+Will Washington office used viticultural as a point of departure, draping the roof and parking lot with grape vines: "The interior of the big box has plenty of space for a retail outlet as well as areas for bottling, case storage, processing and shipping. It also features a wine-making school and a cafe."

:: Variation on a Garden - images via Washington Post

The final one that I really took a liking to, maybe just for the montaged lined paper presentation, is by Darrel Rippeteau called The Gardens of Gathiersburg. "Organic gardeners routinely lay down weed-suppressing black plastic into which they poke holes to plant their seeds. Asphalt is just like that, only a little thicker, observes Darrel Rippeteau, principal of Rippeteau Architects. So in the process of creating a truck garden (below), the parking lot becomes an orchard. Under the parking lot you find an elaborate network of drainage pipes..."

:: The Gardens of Gaithersburg - images via Washington Post

I'm actually amazed by how many similar design moves and concepts that we investigated in the Urban Ecotones submittal for the big box ended up in these sketches... gardening and urban agriculture, parking lot adaptation, re-development of urban parking voids -- I guess great minds think alike.

Look out soon for Part 2, which will feature another unique big-box transformation by a great firm, Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis (LTL) - from their book 'Opportunistic Architecture' which was and continues to be one of those influential texts for us, at least. Stay tuned.

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