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If an unexpected volcano out at Mammoth suddenly turned California into a huge, gooey papier-mache snapshot, where should twenty-first century archaeologists start digging to figure us out? What one location will tell them the most about how we lived?

I’d tell them to find the remains of a Price Club membership warehouse store.  Scraping away at the goo, these archaeologists would find the bare bones of the ‘90s life preserved more thoroughly than any museum ever could.

A Costco or a Home Club would do just as well.  Buying in brain-boggling bulk, these immense emporia offer almost everything anyone would need for a well-stocked household – food, VCRs, tools, diapers, tires, ground tillers, industrial strength cleaners, restaurant packs of napkins and catsup, clothes, toilet paper, tires, Coke, umbrellas, office supplies.  It is a survivalist’s Disneyland.  Limiting entry to a paid membership drawn from associations, credit unions, savings and loans and professions, they keep prices down.

But just as important as the stuff inside is the building these goodies are wrapped up in.

These are mean, lean selling machines.  They strip the capitalist distribution system down to its raw bones.  No skyscraper, no corporate headquarters, no band building conveys the nature and guts of our economic system more effectively than a single Price Club.

The tradeoffs in the design reflect the belt-tightening of the ‘80s and ‘90s based on the warehouse selling model of Toys-R-Us.  Warehouse stores don’t sell 7-11 corner close convenience.  Located in mammoth warehouse buildings on the edge of town where land is less expensive, you have to drive to them.  They dispense with the departments, salesclerks (a dying breed anyway), fancy displays, mannequins, ceilings, paint and mood lighting of frou-frou stores like K-mart.  All that’s left are bare walls of unpainted concrete block, the bare roof structure of laminated wood beams, and the loot of the consumer culture spread out like a starry firmament before your dazzled eyes.

Economic necessity is always the mother of architectural invention.  Today’s warehouse stores have direct ancestors in Macy’s and Marshall Field’s, where several small shops were first successfully combined under one roof to create department stores.

Gone was the homey friendliness of visiting the local milliner, shoemaker, or dressmaker on Main Street.  All were available under the roof of one efficient multi-storied block – “World’s Largest Store,” Sears called itself.  You had to go all the way downtown to shop there, but it was worth it.  These emporia were progressive steel-framed architecture, too, with vast lightwells cutting through the center of the block to bring natural light to all departments.

Such features, inspired only by efficiency, rose into great architecture in the hands of Louis Sullivan in his 1901 Carson, Pirie, Scott and Co. department store on State Street, Chicago.  He exploited the eye-catching advertising potential of window displays by surrounding them with his trademark organic ornament.  He raised merchandising necessity into expressive architecture.

No one has taken a Price Club that far yet.  But the raw ingredients are all there.

For one thing, warehouse stores are evolving as proto-community centers.  Social centers historically develop around shops, on Italian piazzas or by Egyptian bazaars.  Malls have made limp attempts to create public gathering spaces with sculpture, fountains, fashion shows and food courts.  None of them quite work.  Warehouse stores’ windowless walls and vast parking lots make absolutely no attempt to be a welcoming place for people to sit and gather.  But without trying, they’ve become the place to be on Saturday mornings.

Clustered around the entry are ice cream pushcarts and hot dog stands – festive accents for the otherwise nondescript entry through roll-up overhead doors.  A few redwood picnic tables shoved against the tilt-up concrete walls are all that’s needed.  Later generations of Price Clubs may pull these pieces together to capitalize on the energy of gathering people.

Inside, the central space stretches almost 400 feet to the rear of the building, its floor filled with merchandise.  At each side, steel frame warehouse shelving extends to the high ceiling.  Most of the inventory is stored overhead – no niceties of hiding cartons behind the scenes as at Bullock’s or the Broadway.  At eye level are the open boxes or bins from which shoppers can pick.  Hawkers tempt you with samples of food and drink.

Without the usual grocery store displays, the colored logos on unopened pasteboard boxes are the only notes of decoration.  But they are surprisingly effective.  Against the gray concrete floors and seemingly endless space, neatly stacked boxes of Brillo pads, Clorox bleach and tomato soup turn each aisle into a mini Andy Warhol retrospective.  Life mirrors art mirroring life.

Echoing the small brown pasteboard boxes at another scale are gargantuan cubic industrial freezer units, extending just shy of the ceiling beams.  Their titanic bulk and glittering galvanized sides match the scale of this mammoth functional architecture.

If the aisles feel too wide, they are.  This store is designed for forklift trucks, not for people.  After customer hours, trucks scurry around, replenishing shelves and bringing in new deliveries.

At the end of this Alice’s Wonderland is the checkout line – a couple dozen cash registers chiming away in computerized beeps.  Nearby, as at any supermarket, stands the candy display.  But stretching at least fifty feet, this one is the ultimate checkout counter candy display.

This is true American design.  Membership warehouse stores are an anti-mall where the irrelevant frills and petty distractions of mall architecture are edited out.  All that remains is the soul of consumerism.

Here is a raw architecture, but it has a raw clarity about it that gives it a raw beauty.  It feels good to shop here because it has no style but is a celebration of the act of economic distribution itself.  Your family stationwagon is one more link from the factory and farm field to the store to your kitchen shelf.

What it lacks in grace it makes up in muscle.  This is no effete prissy namby-pamby high tech boutique with bumpy rubber flooring and a few exposed light bulbs.  This is real utilitarianism.

And in its bare-boned glory, it is magnificently beautiful, a thing of awe and splendor as hundreds of people go about the business of buying.  Price Club is a museum of American Culture, displaying everything from the no-calorie, no-sugar, no-caffeine beverage-like substances we slurp to the pre-sliced, pre-packaged, pre-buttered slices of cheese we much, to the electronics wizardry we rely on for entertainment and keeping in touch with each other.

If Mammoth blows, somebody save it.

Alan Hess

Back to October/November 1990 Newsletter