Not so long ago, the rise of the "big box" felt permanent: Every small town and suburb, it seemed, had its Mom & Pop shops replaced by a megastore full of everything local residents could possibly want. But our current financial implosion has spurred a hollowing-out of those big-box stores on an unprecedented scale: While some of the retail giants are trying to ride the wave of change by going green, it's still inevitable that most every suburbanite will soon have an empty big box in their municipality -- and they'll wonder what to do with it.
"Bigboxology" and "bigboxitecture" could be the study and practice of building and re-using retail superstores – and so far, they're wide-open fields. Late last year, artist Julia Christensen published Big Box Reuse, a book (and website) that chronicled the fates of 10 dead big-box retail stores across the country, reborn as everything from medical centers to megachurches. But, according to a recent interview with Christensen at the Infrastructionist, the really big wave of big-box abandonment is on the horizon: those ex-Circuit City stores alone average 25,000 square feet each. (Plus all that parking!) And there are more national chains yet to fall.
So what do we do with all those shuttered big boxes? Do they stand empty until the next retail boom (if there is one)? Do we tear them down? Do they become parking lots for our camel-powered trucks in the coming "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" dystopia? Christensen's book lists a variety of home-spun public and private responses that take advantage of the buildings' easy access, central locations, and wide-open spaces. Recently, the Washington Post convened a think-tank of academics and businesspeople to re-imagine a fictional big box, and came up with a mix of utopian and pragmatic plans that focused on housing.
To further the discussion, here's the first entry in the Bigboxology textbook: The optimistic work of SITE architects, whose whimsical, daring, and just plain entertaining proto-big-boxes for the Best Products Company (1972–1984) pointed in a direction that was never followed, but may be useful as we decide how to re-integrate those air-conditioned temples to the false gods of global commerce back into our civic life.
Dave has contributed to Dwell since its inception. He's a CalArts dropout, a former art critic for The New Yorker, and a producer of comedies on TV. He lives in, and writes from, Los Angeles.