From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
BEST stores was broadcast on 11th December 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
A popular university exam question asked to discuss the statement ‘a shed is a building but a cathedral is architecture’. It was based on something architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner wrote in 1942. It’s certainly easy to dismiss the huge showrooms that dot our suburban retail parks as nothing more than sheds but in America in 1972, one company decided to change that. Best Products, a catalogue company that had showrooms across America, engaged an architectural artist, James Wines, to give their showrooms a new look. Wines headed SITE, or Sculpture in the Environment, and from 1972 to 1984, the team created nine showrooms that grabbed the world’s attention and provoked admiration and ridicule in equal measure. Each had a particular theme, like Forest in Richmond, Virginia, in which the front of the showroom appeared to have been split from the rest of the building by an invasive row of oak trees. Another in Richmond looked as though its brick façade was peeling away while the showroom in Houston, called Indeterminate, had a tumbledown look with a dramatic cascade of bricks, as though the building had barely survived an earthquake. The Notch building in Sacramento was a severe brick cube although a corner of it would slide out when the shop was open, as though a giant had pulled away the crumbly corner like a piece of cake. The invention was endless and visually arresting. Many accused the company of gimmickry but Best countered that by saying it was a high risk strategy – after all, no other company was doing anything similar.
The 1970s was a time of architectural reappraisal, with the emergence of all-revealing hi-tech by architects like Richard Rodgers and Norman Foster, but there was also a move back to decoration, playing with details, in what would be called Post-Modernism. This aimed to raise a smile, and certainly the BEST stores did that. The problem was whether they did anything more. There was no architectural invention as such. The company itself folded in 1997, unable to fight the dominance of the new online businesses, and most of the stores have been demolished or stripped of their invention, with only the Forest building remaining intact, repurposed today as a church.
The architecture was, perhaps, smoke and mirrors, more shed than cathedral. And yet their sense of showmanship has continued to have currency in some of the computer-generated buildings we revere today. Are Frank Gehry’s wonky brick walls that far removed?
The real question is whether we actually care what our shops look like. Upmarket brands might commission architects to create visually stimulating showrooms in cities like Tokyo but when we’re buying dishwashers not diamonds then a link with architecture seems superfluous. Perhaps in these pandemic times the store is itself superfluous, a relic of the past, the store front reduced to a computer screen at home. And that, whichever way you look at it, is neither shed nor cathedral.