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Big Box & Beyond: Today's Temples of Consumption Don't Have To Be Tomorrow's Ruins. What's in Store?

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The Washington Post assembles a small team of artists, architects, engineers and developers to think creatively about what to do with 'big box spaces', our most common, underrated and increasingly available major buildings.

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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

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."

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This report comes to you courtesy of Julia Christensen, a 32-year-old artist 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 Rockville Pike or Manassas 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.

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

Yet consumer tastes are fickle, gas prices unpredictable, and some chains like Circuit City are on the ropes. Will people want more walkable village-like shopping experiences? Will they prefer to have 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 in our burbs that become unsuited to their original function long before they physically wear out.

This inspired The Washington Post to assemble a small team of artists, architects, engineers and developers to think creatively about what to do with these, our most common, underrated and increasingly available major buildings. Let your imagination soar. So what if big boxes seem at first glance like bridesmaids' dresses -- big, ugly and not a whole lot you can use them for. At second glance, with some alterations they can be made to seem so promising.

As the celebrated novelist John Cheever wrote about his beloved suburbia: "For these are not as they might seem to be, the ruins of our civilization, but are the temporary encampments and outposts of the civilization that we -- you and I -- shall build."

Big Boxes Packed With Possibilities

People have been turning stables into apartments, warehouses into offices and palaces into churches since the dawn of fixed settlement. Even our nursery rhymes celebrate adaptive reuse -- "There was an old woman who lived in a shoe."

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 dangerous, aptly named 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. The problem there is the history of this built environment. There is little -- at least until recently.

In "Big Box Reuse," Christensen looks at the astonishingly 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 the site for a courthouse. ("Law-Mart.")


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