public landscapes of distribution – mammoth // building nothing out of something

public landscapes of distribution

[A model from SITE Architects’ series of projects in the seventies and eighties for BEST Products Company; I don’t think this particular one was built (I’d like to be told I’m wrong about that), but those that were built are also rather entertaining, and early examples of attempts to modify the architecture of big-box stores.]

I thought that, having discussed distribution in a relatively abstract manner, it might be interesting to look at some particular architectural proposals for distribution.  (To be clear, these are quick looks, not careful readings.)

If there is a common thread here — and I don’t know that it is necessarily particularly important to find one — it might be the effort to re-program, to seek new typologies that might negotiate between the desire for a healthy public realm (which is something these architects bring to distribution) and the spatial demands inherent in the logic and logistics of distribution.

Roger Sherman Architecture and Urban Design

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Those who have been reading the Infrastructural City along with mammoth will probably recognize Roger Sherman as the author of the chapter before “Distribution”, “Count(ing) on Change”.  In “Duck-and-Cover” Sherman proposes both an architecture and a business plan, aiming to create a series of new identities for Target stores — “Target Green”, “Target Town”, and “Target Play” — which bundle public spaces with specialized big-box architectures which cater to more narrowly conceived audiences than the traditional Target store.  Each aims to offer something to the surrounding community which is missing in its context — thus “Play”, for instance, is situated on an “infill site in open-space starved Brooklyn”.


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Many of mammoth‘s readers are presumably familiar with Lateral (Mason White and Lola Sheppard); “Flatspace” is one of their earlier projects, circa 2003.  (Some of the images above are taken from Lateral collaborator Neeraj Bhatia’s The Open Workshop.)   I’ll let text from Young Architects 7 describe the project:

“As exurban growth is increasingly consumed by agglomerating retail corridors, its single-use status begins to systematically redefine public space at the margins of cities.  This assembly of highways and paved planes is dominated by big boxes and retail power centers, conflating an ever-evolving consumer culture with public space.  In this environment, public space as an indeterminate open system has been supplanted by a highly controlled environment of familiar homogeneity.  The possibilities of intervening in this exurban condition, what we call “flatspace”, on its own terms remain overlooked.

Detached from a larger, complex spatial network, flatspace is comprised of autonomous adjacencies of selfsame components–big box, parking lot, landscape lining.  Accessed or linked only by stretches of asphalt within the confines of an automobile, flatspace limits the physical contact of bodies.  In its subordination to the car and the ease of mobility, flatspaces are places of sterile transit, or nonplaces.  The potential for design in flatspace is less about inserting a foreign program or form and more about positing that the system can recalibrate existing elements and agitate encounters of the public without altering its capitalist dependency on efficiency and geoeconomics.

A typical retail corridor in Columbus, Ohio, served as a case study.  Three filters–program, parking, and landscape–are used to test alternate organizational strategies.  Each contains three strategies of recalibrated protocols for organization.  The nine networks are not intended as design proposals but as strategies or tactics for emergent relationships already at work within exurban corridors.”

When we talk about expanding the territories that we consider in designing a work of architecture (as mammoth often does), one interesting question that is raised is whether we respond with tactics that are seeking to accommodate these influences in a more expansive way, or with tactics that seek to use the act of architecture as an opportunity to alter the processes influencing that territory.

What makes “Flatspace” such an interesting project — and different from many architectural proposals for big-box stores and ex-urban landscapes — is that it is an example of the latter.  It emgages the spatial logics which define those architectures and landscapes, and in doing so shows a series of ways in which the logic (and extended context) of the ex-urban landscape becomes an opportunity to re-configure that landscape.

You can watch videos explaining in depth three of the nine networks — “Pixelscape”, “On-Off Ramps”, and “Confetti” (the same three included in the slideshow above) — at The Open Workshop.

University of Arkansas Community Design Center

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The UACDC’s “Study for Wal-Mart” aims to construct “viable civic expressions” within the “generic development protocols” of the big-box landscape, focusing on the zones of transition between different components of that landscape — “from public street to store checkouts” — which the Center refers to as “ecotones”.  For larger images, click through to UACDC’s site.


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The R&DAR team (which, in another connection to The Infrastructural City, includes Frank Ruchala, who wrote “Crude City”), like Sherman’s team, proposes both a set of architectural elements and a business plan — though, in comparison to Sherman’s proposal, their proposal probably emphasizes the business plan more heavily and the (traditional) architectural elements less heavily (which is not to say anything about the relative merits of the proposals).  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the proposal is the attention that R&DAR paid to how a typical existing zoning code might be artfully modified to support the viability of their proposal — a small hack, perhaps, but one which suggests just how fruitful a willingness to carefully read and think through the impacts of such dull legal texts might be.

For further reading: Free Association Design brings up RTVR’s “Post-Carbon Highway”, which focuses on another landscape of distribution, transport corridors.  Check out Brett’s post, and read more at Alphabet City.  Also: we’re testing a new capability here — slideshows — and I’m guessing there’s a bug or two we haven’t encountered yet.  If you see something (or don’t see anything), let us know.

The pixel scheme begins by ‘lowering the resolution’ on the current landscape, in order to read it as a series of patches. In digital terms, a pixel is, in fact, composed of three colors that oscillate between varying degrees of purity. Here, pixel types correspond to surface types of building, parking and landscape. Zones of pixel corruption are introduced, and hybridized pixels emerge. The resolution is then ‘turned up’ again, revealing a new ‘impure’ landscape.  It is in these ‘impure’ landscapes that hybrid conditions emerge – a mixing of programmes and modes of transport.  These hybrids encourage unlikely encounters which contribute to the public sphere.

10 Responses to “public landscapes of distribution”

  1. jonathan says:

    All the slideshows are linked; as I click “next” on one, they all move.

  2. namhenderson says:

    Hmm, I am particularly intrigued by R&DAR’s proposal. For two reasons. As we have discussed before playing with ordinances, zoning issues etc seems to be an “easy” way to “hack” the existing fabric/infrastructures of development.
    Furthermore, I like their idea of a “community porch” and the integration of the Big Box into a one stop community center. Sort of takes the big box approach (of being your source for everything) and applies it to a more community-scaled (as opposed to consumer goods) context. The idea of porch as infrastructure but more social than physical is also an interesting continuation of our Infrastructural City discussion re: soft vs hard infrastructures and the role of infrastructures within the urban/suburban condition.

    • rholmes says:

      Agreed. While it is perhaps not as intriguing formally as, say, Roger Sherman’s proposal (which I read as slightly tongue-in-cheek), it offers a clever diagnosis of an opportunity to create a (economically) self-supporting social infrastructure.

      Close similarities to the UACDC work, as well.

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  4. Mark Hogan says:

    I like the idea of the general store- in a logical world, it would make perfect sense. I fear, however, that without disincentives to make driving less attractive, most suburbanites are more than willing to drive miles to save what amounts to pennies or find easier parking. Many, many people go out of their way to shop at Wal-Mart merely for the perception of savings, even if they could walk (or drive a much shorter distance) to buy their shampoo at the Walgreens down the street. I think there is a mentality of the suburbs that negates distance- in Dallas “just down the road” could easily mean ten miles- which in turn removes physical proximity as a factor when making shopping decisions. Of course, if gas was suddenly $7 a gallon, this could all change very quickly.

    • rholmes says:

      All true. In defense of the general store (which I don’t feel particularly compelled to defend, because it’s not my idea, but I’m going to anyways…), I think the theory behind it is that it offers something social that the Wal-Mart or Target does not. Perhaps that something social would be sufficient incentive to alter shopping patterns?

      It might also be less that you’re trying to eliminate trips to Wal-Marts to produce the fossil-fuel-use-reductions R&DAR indicate, and more that you’re interested in fostering those social interactions, so you might not care whether you eliminate trip, only that you’ve provided an alternative business model that overlaps somewhat but by no means entirely with that of Wal-Mart. Even if the proposal doesn’t necessarily produce an ecological good, it could still produce a social good.

      Anyways, this idea of introducing a social element is at least an interesting notion. Though (for instance), in the small South Carolina town where I spend most of my childhood, the Wal-Mart really did already function as a social hub, it’s hard to deny that there aren’t a lot of ways that the architecture of a Wal-Mart impedes rather than enables that capacity — whether you think the right alternative is a new business model and architecture (as in the case of the general store) or some sort of alteration to the architecture which accomodates the existing business model (as in the case of UACDC’s project).

      Also, how great is it that they have a guy on a Segway in one of their renders?

      • Mark Hogan says:

        The Segway was, clearly, very convincing. Especially after seeing somebody on one in Hyde Park yesterday. It is the mark of fully-fledged urbanity.

        I think you’re right that the combination of architecture with the social that makes the proposal different from the typical store. However, as you point out with the Wal-Mart example, community develops in the types of places that make architects cringe. I see no reason why an architect-designed space makes for better social interaction than Dunkin Donuts, 7-11 or the supermarket in the town where I grew up.

        My point is that architects overthink the importance of architecture (myself included of course) in improving peoples’ lives. I think the design of the entire community is very important though, and I think something like the general store in combination with some infrastructural hacks to the suburb itself could be a promising solution. I don’t think the solution is just in the zoning, we need some larger-scale changes in society that go beyond new meeting places- there are many communities where it would be impossible to get to the general store without either walking in the road or driving, which is unacceptable.

  5. […] the project — and produce sounds. And the second was a research project from 2003, entitled “Flatspace”, which we pursued as Lefevre Fellows at Ohio State University. We were researching the reformatting […]