Like Putting Mascara On A Battleship

Big-box stores with fancy decoration are still just big boxes.
by | October 2005

Even Wal-Mart admits that the monolithic blue-gray stores it has been building for decades aren't exactly architectural gems. Many of them look as much like battleships as buildings. The question is, what can be done about them?

A growing number of towns think the answer lies in big-box design guidelines. These laws typically require giant retail stores to use brick, glass, wood or stone. They discourage flat rooflines and favor arches and parapets. These guidelines, along with some flexible new attitudes at Wal-Mart, Target and Home Depot, have produced enough interesting designs to warrant a six-page spread in the August issue of Architectural Record.

In some ways, the trend is encouraging. Towns accustomed to letting powerful chains walk all over them are finally pushing back a little. "Every big-box retailer has a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C," says Edward McMahon, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute. "If you accept Plan A, what you're going to get is the lowest common denominator--the 'Anyplace, U.S.A.' manifestation of their store."

The problem is that guidelines yield bizarre results much of the time. A Wal-Mart store in Evergreen, Colorado--one that many communities look to as a model--sports a pointy timber roofline that evokes a ski chalet on steroids. Guidelines in Charlottesville, Virginia, produced a chain store that tries to mimic Monticello. Soon enough, caricatures like this will be the new norm. As Architectural Record put it, "Even the better big-box designs today…resort to a safe, Disneyfied re-creation of reality."

The current design debate only distracts from the most serious problem with big boxes: zoning. Big-box stores almost always surround themselves with 20-acre parking lots. They sit detached from the places where people work and live, making it impossible to shop without having to fight traffic, too. True rethinking of the big box will require more than Mediterranean stucco. It will mean finding ways to integrate massive retail spaces with housing and offices in ways that are both good for the community and good for sales.

Most communities aren't at this stage yet. In Plant City, Florida, a recent big-box design debate turned on the question of how much brick facing was enough. Finally it was decided that 40 percent of the façade was just right. Senior Planner Phillip Scearce admits that Plant City's request is only skin-deep. But then again, its expectations are pretty low. "Anything they build under these guidelines," Scearce says, "is a lot better than what they usually do."