The yearly construction of hundreds of big box stores across the United States has been so encompassing that it is hard to conceive of where they came from, who owns them, who designs them, and who is responsible for them. Big box buildings are most commonly associated with retailers who developed the industry of one-stop shopping—Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target among them.
But these retailers are not the only corporations to construct big boxes. A myriad of companies has followed suit, supersizing into the big box typology, including the more specifically merchandised "category killers" (like The Home Depot, PetSmart, Barnes & Noble, and Staples), grocers, warehouse clubs (like Costco and Sam's Club), and outlets (like Big Lots). The onslaught of these structures has increased continually since 1962, the year of the first Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target stores.
At the same time, big box buildings are being vacated—not, in general, because the companies have lost business in a certain location, or because the business model has not worked. Rather, big box buildings are being vacated because the retailers are expanding to larger structures, usually within a mile of the original structure. This is especially true of Wal-Mart. At the time of this writing, the Wal-Mart Realty website (www.walmartrealty.com) listed 253 Wal-Mart?owned empty buildings available for lease, all ready for future use (exhibiting the Wal-Mart corporation's land use power, as one of the country's largest commercial landlords). Twenty-six of these buildings are in the state of Texas, 15 are available in Tennessee, 13 in Oklahoma, 21 in Ohio, and 16 in Illinois.
This list does not include the hundreds of vacated Wal-Mart retail buildings owned and controlled by countless other real estate companies across the country, only those owned and controlled by Wal-Mart. And of course, these are only vacated Wal-Mart buildings, so when we include Kmart, The Home Depot, Kroger, and so forth, we are clearly looking at thousands of empty buildings from coast to coast. You can probably think of a few in your immediate region right now.
The reuse of these buildings seems unlikely, with their directly corporate associations and their aesthetically bland hulk. The buildings exude an ephemeral quality, imparted by the frequency with which corporations vacate the structures, and yet the dead weight of an empty big box building does not simply go away. In the 21st century, communities across the United States are adapting these buildings for new uses, just as people have always reused the buildings in our midst.
It is educational—and quite enlightening—to attempt to place the big box reuse phenomenon in the continuous timeline of development in the United States, contemplating not only where the phenomenon has come from, but also where it is leading, and what the future landscape holds. Communities continuously reconnect their needs and activity flow to the landscape, and by subsuming these abandoned big box buildings, they attempt to make them useful within their lives after the retailer has vacated the premises. The result is that we are beginning to see museums, community centers, churches, and other civic groups moving into adapted, abandoned corporate big box structures.
Infinite paradoxes are embedded in the process of reusing a big box. First, communities are recontextualizing this corporation-specific development through primarily nonretail adaptation and reuse. Environmentally, big box reuse offers quite a paradoxical quagmire; despite the blatant environmentally harmful construction of a big box building, reuse is a powerful tool in the fight against the increasing dangers of sprawl. For every building that is reused, another building does not go up.
Humans are incredibly resourceful when there is a need at hand, and it is no surprise that groups of creative people across the United States are successfully turning vacant greyfields into vibrant nodes of community activity. But questions persist: Is this what we want our future landscape to look like? Schools, hospitals, churches, museums, and flea markets, all within the same structure, built by the same handful of corporations, right around the turn of the millennium?
Julia Christensen is an artist and writer who teaches at Oberlin College in Ohio. "Your Town, Inc.," an exhibition of her work, is on display at the Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University through Nov. 23. Book excerpt courtesy MIT Press. Learn more about the book here. See more images at bigboxreuse.com.