From Superstore to Super Space: Re-Using the "Big Box"

Oversized superstores such as Kmart and Home Depot—large, free-standing retail spaces with only one major room—were efficiently designed to suit their retail purposes: Stock comes right off the truck and goes directly onto the shelves, ready to convince consumers to buy, buy, buy any and all bargains in sight. But as retailers abandon buildings across the nation in order to move into bigger spaces, what will become of the envelopes they leave behind? That's the question Julia Christensen, an artist with a background in electronics, first began investigating last January...

"I grew up in a town in Kentucky that's been through three generations of Wal-Mart," said Christensen, who uses the term "big box" to describe these spaces. "Thus, we had three empty Wal-Marts. The last one was successfully turned into a courthouse."

Curious about the situation, which she quickly recognized as a nationwide trend she set out by car in the spring of 2004 to investigate how the spaces were being creatively and successfully re-used. Now, after several months and more than 17,000 miles of driving, she is using her collection of photographs, interviews, stories and documents, entitled "How Communities are Re-Using the Big Box," for presentations about how towns are dealing with this common situation in a positive manner—and how they are re-using existing buildings instead of generating new ones—the very first step in any eco-minded architectural (re)design...
Though the locations were often very different, she discovered that the way people build their towns has everything to do with the context of their lives and communities.

"It's amazing the power these buildings have," said Christensen, regarding their ability to draw the masses to them, since most were built with access roads leading directly to them, especially since they are often too large to sit in the center of town.

Gems she discovered include a 33,000-square foot Kmart that has been turned into the Spam Museum and a Wal-Mart-cum-medical center in Kentucky. Other mega-store venues have been reborn as indoor racetracks and flea markets; several have been transformed into churches or schools. There's even a 52,000-square-foot gym that originally housed a grocery store in swanky Princeton, New Jersey, a department store that became a library for the Savannah College of Art and Design, and a Home Depot that became a guitar center.

"I kind of let my presentations speak for themselves," says the artist of the positive and negative impacts the strange but somewhat universal phenomenon has had on communities across the country. "But by focusing on the positive, I've been able to meet a lot of different people and bring what can be done to a wide and varied audience."

Chritensen, who is currently working on a book about the project, also has lecture dates and exhibits tentatively scheduled for the upcoming year. Via Interior Design ::How Communities Are Re-Using the Big Box [by MO]


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