Systems of Retail: The Bigger Box

By Sara Stevens

Discussions regarding the growing separation between national regulation and financial markets suggest that a nationally-based public policy does not have the control necessary to curtail the economic forces that result in big box sprawl. These organizations are fast, nimble, and powerful, and should we want to stop them, it would certainly require a new approach. Attempts to set building size limits to keep big box retail out results in retailers building a prototype designed within those limits without providing any solutions to their more fundamental problems—increased traffic, environmental concerns, and unfettered growth. Without understanding these conditions and the multitude of inputs that determine the larger system, architects and urban citizens cannot effectively work from within it.

Describing the systems in which retail is embedded will bring us closer to understanding the spatial products they create, and thereby closer to connecting economics to pavement. The real estate operations and the architectural ramifications of company policies raise important questions regarding the built environment and deserve our studied attention. What sets the dimensions and limits for common retail buildings? Why does expansive urban growth depend on these particulars? How can we grapple with the connections to outside networks to better understand large scale retail systems? To draw a bigger box, one that includes not just the store, but the financiers, the highways and suppliers, and the boardroom decisions which encompass retail is what this project aims to do. The question this project asks is: Why do retail buildings change, and why do they stay the same?