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An Acropolis on the arterial

September 29, 2013
By DAVID D'AMORE - 'Design Matters' columnist , The Leader Herald

For all those who may have been living under a rock over the summer months, I need to tell you, in case you haven't heard, the Walmart Supercenter is open for business. With much fanfare, I will add.

It is the high water mark of recent commercial development that has transpired along the arterial. Clearly, money is being spent to reposition and modernize the businesses in this corridor, and I think that can rightfully be considered an economic benefit.

However you may feel about any of the projects or Walmart itself, though, there is a language of commerce being spoken, and it is in the dialect of design.

Walmart is the centerpiece. As such, it now is the standard bearer for what is to come, good or bad, so it is imperative that we understand how this kind of design works because it is now the template for future development. To evaluate the design of the Supercenter we need to set the context. This is first and foremost the standard pattern of corporate retail development in most of small-town and suburban America.

Its only purpose is to leverage capital investment to capture the market and drive profit. If there is any sense a store cannot achieve profit, it does not get built. So to be clear, from the beginning, the only reason Walmart put up with all the delays and municipal wrangling is because of corporate confidence that the store will be profitable and consolidate its strength over this market.

So in many ways it physically translates its political and economic influence into the hub of our commercial life. By its relocation and position on the hill, it now dominates the landscape. It is a modern American acropolis - the 800-pound gorilla in the room.

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Only a multibillion dollar national corporation has the resources to so radically transform the landscape that the roads bend to its will, dutifully delivering consumers and tax revenue while commanding reverence from its now loyal subjects.

This is the embodiment of its power. It's big, and works at the level of infrastructure, more or less passively invisible, but we can scarcely deny its importance and influence and maybe its imposition in our lives.

The architecture is the lesser consideration on this site. Its primary utility is holding all the stuff we feel we can't live without. So it is nothing but a big, modestly decorated box. The sheer physical size is yet another indicator of its power.

There are more products for sale under one roof than both Johnstown's and Gloversville's downtowns combined. As a discount store, it offers definitive purchasing power for a broad spectrum of potential buyers who crave the same material wealth we observe in more affluent communities. It really doesn't need to create a "shopping experience" with its architecture to drive traffic.

Because it is designed to hold a lot of stuff, the new Walmart pretty much ignores most of the tenets of good design that many of us have come to appreciate in our downtowns.

Let's start with the orientation of the building on the site. It creates no edge along any street, least of all the main artery that feeds it. Its distance from the traffic circle is simply to make room for all the parking, which is always a hazardous navigation once you leave your car.

The landscaping is minimal, especially as you get closer to the store and there are few sidewalks to better define pathways and keep us safe as we traverse the expanse of pavement. But many of these issues are indicative of the building type. Most big-box stores suffer the same problems.

What I do see on the outside is an attempt to co-opt a more modern aesthetic language in its brand architecture. So gone is the familiar tri-tone blue, gray and red Walmart box, replaced by a more modern looking beige box with arched parapets. I am still scratching my head to understand the relevance of the arches and the color switch; they seem a bit out of left field.

But as I think on it, it seems to me to be an effort to infuse an element of modern design Target has successfully leveraged as an alternate shopping experience.

By my eye, this newly branded edifice falls flat, as it lacks depth, texture and balance, diminishing its character and potential impact. Its sandy color seems more like a desire not to offend than a firm statement of brand philosophy. But maybe that is the point of the new brand architecture, to not be too threatening. It all just comes off as a clunky attempt to co-opt a competitor's branding strategy. But, as I mentioned, the building doesn't need to be special to sell its contents.

Where I think Walmart did improve the shopping experience is in the interior space planning. I cannot say enough how much I disliked the claustrophobia-inducing layout of the old store. The supercenter seems to have addressed this with wider aisles and longer views of departmental signage, so finding your way around is easier. And it seems there is better attention to visual organization and clarity.

It remains to be seen how this development will affect our downtowns. It will certainly make it more difficult for downtown merchants to offer goods that can compete with the pricing at Walmart.

So it will be necessary for downtown to visualize itself as a legitimate alternate shopping experience. Retailers and property owners will need to put their heads together to take advantage of what they have that Walmart is betting it doesn't need - a public realm for its customers.

David D'Amore is a member of the American Institute of Architects and owner of AND Architecture and Design, based in Johnstown. You can find links to his past columns and additional commentary and photos on his "Designs Matters" blog, on the web at and-architecture.blogspot.com.

 
 

 

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