Thinking outside the Big Box

For the purposes of this morning's discussion, the amazing thing about the Spam Museum — as in the meat product — is not that it exists. It's that it was created out of an abandoned Kmart.

"The renovation of the Kmart building into what you see here today has the drama of a great epic," says Julie Craven, publicity representative for Spam in Austin, Minn. "We are going to be in this building for a long, long time. ... We love it here."

This report comes to you courtesy of artist Julia Christensen, 32, whose book, "Big Box Reuse," is being published this month by MIT Press. Its news is that those who gaze at the big-box stores of the nation's malls and fail to see future cathedrals, museums or artists' communities have no sense of history. Or imagination.

This lesson looms because we're going to have to figure out what to do with a whole lot of big boxes, and soon. There are thousands of them — vast prairies of Targets and Bed Bath & Beyonds and Costcos and Home Depots. Wal-Mart alone has 4,224 in the United States,more than half of them Supercenters into which, on average, you could comfortably fit four NFL football fields.

"Big-box space" continues to capture "the largest share of new additions to U.S. retail space," according to the April report of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

Yet consumer tastes are fickle, gas prices unpredictable, and some chains like Circuit City are on the ropes. Will people prefer walkable, village-like shopping experiences or having their goods delivered via the Internet? No real estate trend is forever. Which is why it is beyond time to start thinking creatively about what to do with all the big-box stores that become unsuited to their original function long before they physically wear out.

This inspires The Washington Post to assemble a small team of artists, architects, engineers and developers to think creatively about what to do with them. So what if big boxes seem at first glance like bridesmaids' dresses — big, ugly and not a whole lot you can use them for? With some alterations they can be made to seem promising.

"For these are not as they might seem to be, the ruins of our civilization," the celebrated novelist John Cheever once wrote, "but are the temporary encampments and outposts of the civilization that we — you and I — shall build."

People have been turning stables into apartments, warehouses into offices and palaces into churches since the dawn of fixed settlement.

We hardly remember how loathed and reviled were some ancient buildings before they were reprogrammed. We no longer pause to wonder which genius first looked at those "dark satanic mills" of New England's evil textile past and thought, "Hey, those would make great yuppie condos."

Neither do we marvel at the unrecorded hero who first looked at those sweatshops south of Greenwich Village and said, "Hey, those would make great artists' lofts." Which ultimately would be transformed into the pricey, trendy neighborhood called SoHo. In the 'burbs, however, adaptive reuse of humble, workaday structures still rattles our brains — at least until recently.

"Big Box Reuse" looks at the imaginative people looking at obsolete Kmarts and Wal-Marts and saying, "Hey, those would make a great church." Or a go-cart race course. (Really!) Or a courthouse. ("Law-Mart.")

Christensen has seen the future. "These corporations are not held accountable for the fact that they are building hundreds and hundreds of buildings that will be abandoned in the future. Luckily, our communities are incredibly resourceful, finding amazing things to do with these buildings. That's key. That's the balance of this project, the thrust of the message."

Typical is the situation at At last count 189 Wal-Marts were for sale, and not because business is bad. A typical available Wal-Mart might be a 40,000-square-foot store that was replaced by a 80,000-square-foot store that was so successful it was replaced with a 200,000-square-foot store just down the road — which is precisely what happened in Christensen's home town of Bardstown, Ky., where now you find the repurposed courthouse.

Other reused Wal-Marts include the Calvary Chapel of Pinellas Park, Fla., that Christensen writes about. Or the RPM Indoor Raceway of Round Rock, Texas. Or the senior center of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. Or the charter schools of Buffalo, N.Y., or Laramie, Wyo.

"Big boxes are effectively paid off in seven, eight, nine years," at which point the owners can do just about anything they want with them, notes Christopher Leinberger, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of "The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream."

"If you keep the roof from leaking they can last 30 or 40 years."

Christensen is pragmatic, describing the financing and what people did about it, leaky roofs and what they did about it, the plumbing, the leasing, the whole deal. Her definition of a "big box" is not only one-story, one-room places originally created for retail sales. They are of breathtaking size, some as much as 280,000 square feet, or six football fields. They are marked by dazzlingly tall ceilings, 18 feet or more. And they offer world-class heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

"It's just a big tent — like a circus tent," says William Reeder, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University.

We told our team to come up with ideas that were creative, credible and of the moment. Here are some of the results:

As a developer, what Leinberger hates about parking lots is that they just sit there not making him any money. Fortunately, the vast acreage of big-box parking lots seems almost providentially proportioned to be turned into walkable city blocks, he says. You lay out these blocks with parking garages at their core, and encrust those with an outer layer of shops and apartments. A whole bunch of these blocks, with shops and apartments facing each other across the new streets, makes a chunk of city.

Prefabricated parking deck trusses span about 60 feet, so make your parking deck 60 feet wide and 120 feet deep. Face it on all sides with shops that are 50 feet deep and there's a walkable city block, with enough space left over for sidewalks, bike lanes and streets. Build apartments or offices over the shops. Didn't you always want to live a croissant's throw away from a Target? We thought so.

Big boxes don't need windows but humans do. So the first thing is to core out the center of the big box, so you have a garden open to the sky for people to look into, suggests Roger Lewis, emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

The exterior walls are not hard to punch windows into — structurally, they're just steel uprights sometimes reinforced with diagonal struts. Punch skylights over the interior walkways and the apartments almost start laying themselves out. Add a balcony here, a second floor there, a sleeping loft over yonder, and you're looking at the niftiest affordable housing ever. Unless you make them too nice. Then the yuppies are going to want to move in, and there goes the neighborhood.

Everybody wanted to make these things into gardens.

Organic gardeners routinely lay down weed-suppressing black plastic into which they poke holes to plant their seeds. Asphalt is just like that, only a little thicker, observes Darrel Rippeteau, principal of Rippeteau Architects. So in the process of creating a truck garden, the parking lot becomes an orchard. Under the parking lot is an elaborate drainage network that collects rainwater for irrigation. In fact, the water can be piped into the fire-suppression sprinkler system in the big box, which now serves as a monster mister. Much of the roof has become glass or translucent plastic. Those giant halogens make great grow lights. The concrete slab floor works as a heat sump. Major-league climate control comes with the package. Much of the produce is shipped to farmers' markets, but you can also pick your own.

Once it sinks in how big that roof is, one's thoughts quickly turn to solar voltaic, as demonstrated by Phil Esocoff, principal of the architecture firm Esocoff and Associates, who adds a recharging area for electric cars and a veneer of apartments for people who really want to get near their groceries. He also specifies that everything be easily disassembled and moved as the economics of the box location changes.

Give this assignment to artists and they start thinking about buildings comparable to circus tents that are sitting in former rail yards and pretty soon they wind up with ideas for artists living and working and exhibiting that are possibly unlike any other on Earth.

Peter Winant and Tom Ashcraft are associate chairs of the Department of Art and Visual Technology at George Mason. Thinking about how "the circus tent opens and folds and closes," they got the idea to open up both ends of the big box and roll in railroad freight cars and trailer-size freight containers. They're cheap, fairly maneuverable and stackable, like a kid's blocks.

If you pile two or more, the upper ones can be for living and eating and entertaining, with the lower ones given over to art studios. The big center sliding doors of the freight cars can open up to public galleries.

The ways you stack these things define courtyards and stages and display spaces where people can sit and converse and make music and have small-scale performances. The inside space would transition to the outdoor space, filled with basketball courts, tennis courts, gardens and green space.

All this would be the product of artists' hands, work and money. Nothing would cost any single artist much more than $30,000 or $40,000, Winant estimates.

But if you open up the ends of the big box to the weather, won't that place get awfully cold in the winter? "They'll have wood stoves," says Winant. "They're artists, right? They'll get pallets, break them up and burn them."

After all, what is art without suffering?

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