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12.10.2008
Inside The Box
As a chronicle of Kmarts turned go-kart tracks, Big Box Reuse is an oddly encouraging antidote to architectural cynicism, writes Phil Patton.
Hastings Head Start Childhood Center, located in an old Kmart building in Hastings, Nebraska.
Julia Christensen

Big Box Reuse
Julia Christensen
MIT Press, $29.95

Julia Christensen grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky, a town known for its bourbon whiskey and historic architecture. There, she saw Wal-Mart come to town, build and then abandon a big box store, which ended up as the site of the new county courthouse. A writer and photographer who teaches at Oberlin College, Christensen was inspired to visit and photograph other big boxes like Winn-Dixie and Kmart that have been repurposed. Her photographs are currently on view in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where her images are included in the show Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes.

In Big Box Reuse, Christensen highlights ten cases. The huge metal sheds have been converted to Head Start centers, senior care facilities, indoor go-kart tracks, and libraries. One houses a Route 66 Museum in Lebanon, Missouri, another the Spam Museum and offices of the Hormel meatpacking company in Austin, Minnesota. One has become a church in Pinellas Park, Florida. None are especially great or inspiring architecture, but several involve extensive refurbishing that nearly disguise their origins.

Christensen’s travels are proof, if we needed it, that Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn belongs in the architectural canon alongside Delirious New York, Learning from Las Vegas, and Vers Une Architecture. On the highway, however, reuse is more about earning than learning: Budgets are minimal and the repurposing work, it turns out, requires more than simply redecorating these giant sheds. But while we regularly honor architects for urban reuse, Christensen reports that several of the architects involved in projects were too embarrassed by the work to want their names used. Some of the facilities are grim, others less so, though none of the architects here are as sophisticated as James Wines and SITE’s witty Best Products stores from the 1970s. Still, real creativity is evident, for all the budget limits, in the library and museum in Missouri. Credit goes to Joan True and Charlie Johnson, the interior and exterior architects of that project.

We are accustomed to reuse in the city—former sweatshops housing fashion labels and lofts for printing presses sheltering ad agencies—but pay less attention to reuse elsewhere. Still, it is there. Perhaps you have to be a certain age to recognize the many former Howard Johnson’s restaurants or A&P grocery stores that now vend dinette sets or carpet remnants. Not far from my home in New Jersey, the steep blue roof of an erstwhile International House of Pancakes sells iPhones as an AT&T store. Reuse along the highway will increasingly become a fact of life as more big boxes become available in the current economy. As I write this, Circuit City has just announced bankruptcy and plans to close more than a hundred stores, and Linens N’ Things is running its liquidation sale. Architects looking for work in the current climate would do well to keep their eyes hopefully trained on America’s highway strips for signs of potential. The way seems open for more clever ideas of building inside these modern “ruins.”

Readers may be surprised to learn that up to this point growth, not recession, has made most of these buildings available. Wal-Mart finds it more economical to build a new, larger store down the road than to expand an existing one, leaving empty stores behind like so much discarded snakeskin. Moreover, the chain wants to keep the empty stores as placeholders against competitors, Christensen reports.

It would be easy to react to her stories with anger and indignation at the power of chains that have decimated Main Streets (reuse is struggling there), and bemoan a country where the shivering, starving public sector is forced to wear the cast-off clothing of an uncontrolled private one. Christensen, however, is more encouraged by this process than others might be, although some of the statements from officials involved in these projects seem naively optimistic, even boosterish. I wonder how many other efforts to reuse other big box buildings have been in vain; most of her tales have upbeat endings.

Yet the subliminal message of Christensen’s photographs, which are reminiscent of Stephen Shore’s—empty of people, with expanses of alienating asphalt parking lot or sheet metal facade—is less hopeful than her words. And Christensen’s case studies raise more general questions she doesn’t answer: How durable are these buildings? What is the responsibility of the big chains? What can law or planning do to make big box reuse easier, perhaps by studying the modular mode of malls? (Pull out a Gap, plug in a Delia*s as fashions change.)

Still, Christensen’s enthusiasm is an antidote to cynicism, encouraging and humane. “As I stand there in the parking lot,” she writes, “snapping photos of that reused Wal-Mart sign, I look around and observe an endless ribbon of strip malls, full of buildings just like this. I think to myself, they have stories too. All of these faceless, nameless, corporate big box buildings—which turn over so quickly for the sake of ‘business’—actually have stories behind them, stories well hidden behind their stoic facades. These buildings have an impact on the lives of people.”

Phil Patton

Phil Patton writes for The New York Times, I.D., and other publications.