What Will Become of America’s Big Box Stores?

© flickr user walmartmovie. Licensed under CC BY 2.0
© flickr user walmartmovie. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Walmart Supercenter is generally considered one of the great antagonists of architecture around the world – the hulking behemoth who sold its integrity for the consumer convenience of having everything in one place. Though the first Walmart Supercenter didn’t open until 1988, big box stores have existed in some form since the 1960s, luring in shoppers with low prices and curbside loading lanes. For all the user psychology design that goes into them, the original designs of these buildings rarely pay much mind to their architectural or urban consequences, excluding a few notable exceptions.

Regardless, for the past 20 years big box stores have continued to prosper, prompting tenants to leave their homes and move on to even larger structures, leaving behind giant, open frameworks – for sale on the cheap. In a recent essay for 99% Invisible entitled Ghost Boxes: Reusing Abandoned Big-Box Superstores Across America, author Kurt Kohlstedt explores the architectural potential of these megastructures, drawing inspiration from the architects and communities that have successfully converted them into valuable assets.

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What Will Become of America's Big Box Stores?, © Lara Swimmer

© Lara Swimmer

Featuring long spans capable of accommodating a variety of program types, these structures have been renovated into libraries, churches, museums and apartment complexes in cities throughout the country. One example Kohlstedt points to is the McAllen Main Library, transformed from a Texas Walmart by MSR Design in 2011, which strategically partitions the open floor plan into human-scaled rooms and zones identified by bright colors and furniture patterns.

The article concludes that as the way we live and shop continues to change, our built environment will need to adapt, and all of the various typologies currently found in suburbia will take on new roles. And while in their current form, big box stores are widely unloved, Kohlstedt argues it is that precise distaste that may save them in the end:

“In many ways, these various suburban typologies are particularly well-suited to adaptation: no one cares about what happens to unloved structures, making them perfect candidates for complete transformations.”

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© Matt Kocourek. Courtesy of 360 Architecture

© Matt Kocourek. Courtesy of 360 Architecture

For more big box transformations and to read Kohlstedt’s analysis in its entirety, visit 99% invisible, here.


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