How an Unconventional Retailer Disrupted America’s Big-Box Mentality
In architecture, the 20th century in America was the era of the suburban tract house, the anonymous office tower, the strip mall, and the big box store. Crank ‘em out, rake it in. Though today we’re moving back to city centers in droves, the big-box typology in particular remains as powerful as ever—even in the age of Amazon, one-stop discount shopping flanked by ample parking remains among the most fortuitous retail innovations of all time. From the explosive growth of companies like K-Mart in the 1960s, it didn’t take long before the US—and later most every industrialized country—was covered with them. By the 1970s, though, it had become abundantly clear that these non-places were a scourge on the urban landscape and an affront to intangibles like beauty, urban vibrancy, and quality of life.
One relatively small retailer, BEST Products, teamed up with architecture firm SITE (an acronym for Sculpture In The Environment), for a fortuitous run of big-box subversion throughout the 1970s and 1980s. While these stores were all still decidedly suburban, requiring a car (it was the 1970s, after all), their willingness to curb homogenization through cheeky, daring, fun plays on their own typology made them outstanding exceptions to the rule. Instead of plopping down indifferent rectangles on plots of valuable land, actual architects put serious critical thought into these buildings.
Nowadays, it is commonplace for luxury brands to commission starchitects for striking, site-specific stores to raise their cachet. BEST and SITE did just that, but decades ahead of its time and in a far more approachable format.
Most of the BEST buildings designed by SITE used rather novel construction techniques for their deconstructionist themes. The most well-known of the SITE buildings was designated Indeterminate Façade, and its crumbling art installation brick front was apparently quite difficult to achieve. The pilot building in Richmond, Virginia used a novel masonry process that made it appear that the building’s brick facade was slowly peeling off. There was another with a break-away facade (above) behind which a jungle of trees sprouted. Another had a faux front that seemed to be lifted skyward by an invisible hand, while a later design’s three-part façade exploded its doors and portico away from the building. One had a corner entrance obscured by a movable brick shell that would slide into and out of place to reveal the door.
The stores today can easily be read as critiques on big-box retail itself—a case of clever architects subtly biting the hand that fed them. But they were brilliant subversions, and if nothing else give us something remarkable to remember their benefactor company for. Unfortunately, their novel construction techniques helped lead to their downfall as they were more expensive to update and maintain than their generic modular counterparts. And when competitors were able to expand by the hundreds per year, these far more deliberate designs required too much time and too much resources to remain viable in the long term.
Under pressure to increase growth, BEST all but abandoned its site-specific strategy by the late 1980s and began to expand more quickly with conventional, characterless off-the-shelf store designs. The company declared bankruptcy in 1991 and then again one final time in 1996, when it closed up shop for good. Most of the stores have sadly either been stripped of their distinguishing details or have been demolished entirely.
Tag Christof is a writer, designer, and photographer based in Richmond, Virginia. He is a graduate of Central Saint Martins and edits the biannual print magazine, Human Being Journal. He is also Art Director at Need Supply Co., where this article originally appeared. The exhibition Sketch to Structure—which features a short documentary, architectural drawings, and model from SITE—is on view in the Heinz Architectural Center at Carnegie Museum of Art until August 17, 2015.