Big Box Reuse

The American suburban landscape is fairly strewn with the empty hulks of defunct shopping centers, residue of Kmarts and Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs bygone. “Thousands of empty big boxes can be found right now all across the country,” writes Julia Christensen, and in her first book, Big Box Reuse, a few of these aluminum orphans get a second — or third, or fourth — shot at life. Ten communities from Nebraska to Florida find ten creative solutions to their big box dilemmas: In Missouri and North Carolina, Kmarts become a library and a charter school; former Wal-Marts in Wisconsin and Texas turn into a senior center and an indoor go-kart track. One abandoned mega-shed, the bane of Austin, Minnesota, even gets made over as the Spam Museum (“YES, WE DO ANSWER THE INGREDIENTS QUESTION”). Christensen, Luce Visiting Professor of the Emerging Arts at Oberlin College, is an artist by trade, and in presenting photographic evidence of an investigation into adaptive reuse, her book is an exercise in conceptual art. But she also has the architect’s eye and something of the architect’s mind for the nuances of building typologies and urban form: as big box stores become big box churches and big box courthouses, the cultural perception of the big box type will change, as will the nature of the American city. Which is swell for designers and social scientists, but what about environmentalists? Christensen makes a good case for reuse as architectural recycling, but these big boxes are still car-fed, truck-fed, and interstate-bound.