The Mutating Big Box
May 21, 2013
During the suburban explosion of the mid-20th century, the typical American city and its suburbs seemed to reflect distinctly different cultural, demographic, and spatial conditions. The central city was conventionally portrayed as the old, dying locus of high culture and employment, demographic diversity, density, and verticality, while peripheral areas were stereotyped as new, growing residential enclaves of mass culture (ergo, cultural vacuity), homogeneity, dispersion, and horizontality. This polarization has proven stubbornly resistant to revision.
Meanwhile — quietly, stealthily — there has been an ongoing "flattening" of the American metropolis, as many suburbs are becoming more similar to their central cities, and cities more similar to their suburbs. Such flattening is both effect and cause; driven by substantial demographic and cultural change and evidenced by new spatial and formal practices, flattening also makes architectural and urban innovation possible. These novel practices, seen most vividly in urbanizing suburbs and suburbanizing urban cores, are exemplified in the emergence of hybrid suburban/urban — sub/urban, for short — conditions that combine and re-configure conventional understandings of these familiar terms. In so doing, each offers opportunities for design innovation and the development of new ways of forming the evolving American metropolis.
One such sub/urban condition is the mutating big box. In 1962, retailers Wal-Mart, Target, and K-mart all opened their first large discount stores in response to the rapidly growing suburban market. Thus emerged the big box, the retail type perhaps most associated with suburbia because its form — which is big and low and dependent upon large tracts of land for both building and parking — both resulted from and embodied the exploding commodity culture often associated with mid-20th century American settlement. But as demographics evolve and markets change in today's flattening metropolis, the big box is moving into denser environments — and as a result, its basic form is mutating into new versions that reflect the increasing hybridization of suburban formats with urban constraints.
This presentation traced the emergence of key versions of the sub/urban big box, both in the inner city and in urbanizing suburbs, and projected possible urban and architectural opportunities of this shift.