Review: Big Box Reuse 20.03.09

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With the new century come two new building types: the dead superstore and the dead mall. The dead mall is a victim of economic chill. But dead out-of-town superstores are something else. They're like old skins shucked off by saurian retailers as they gobble up sites and pursue unending growth.

Julia Christensen's book Big Box Reuse examines the lifecycle of these creatures, the far-reaching transformations they bring about in towns and cities, and the waste structures they leave behind. Her research is valuable and timely - the unexpected bonus is that the story is fascinating and lucidly written. When a big box superstore moves into a city, or (as is more common) appears on its periphery, it gives that city a new economic centre of gravity. The sales tax that it raises means that local authorities bend to its will. The thousands of car journeys that it generates can attract other businesses to set up next door. And the fabric of the city warps around it: freeway exits are built, turning lanes implemented.

And then it disappears. This is generally because the retailer - Christensen's examples are all former Wal-Mart or Kmart premises - has decided to move to bigger premises, and it is cheaper to build a new store on another greenfield site than it is to suffer the lost income of tearing down and rebuilding the old one. And the boxes don't stay empty because no one else wants to move into them - often, the departing retailer keeps ownership of the site in order to deny it to its competitors, a blocking move in a national game of corporate chess.

These empty boxes, sitting in acres of empty parking spaces like a cigarette packet on a bedspread, could easily be a blight - all too often, they are. But the factors that restrict their use by other retailers can be a disguised boon, reserving an important location - still served by heavy-duty road infrastructure - for civic use. The ten case studies Christensen examines are now courthouses, schools, libraries, chapels and community centres. In each case, she looks at the design considerations thrown up by converting the standardised box to another use - how to get around the lack of daylight in the deep plan, for instance.

The examples of communities making lemonade with superstore lemons are often inspiring, but also somehow unsettling. Christensen sensibly avoids liberal piety about the evils of Wal-Mart and its ilk, but the disproportionate power that these huge retailers can wield over cities is clear. There's a sense that the public sphere is reduced to a sort of cargo cult, making a society in the leavings of corporate behemoths. It's true, as Christensen says pragmatically, we can't simply wish these ubiquitous boxes away - they are already part of our future. But the concluding chapter, "Future", is the most unnerving hint at a possible world to come: a Wal-Mart serving as an emergency hospital in a county devastated by hurricane Katrina, and another that has become a sprawling flea market.

Big Box Reuse, by Julia Christensen, MIT Press, £19.95

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