Wal-Mart no more. Photo via Inhabitat.
Yes, Wal-Marts turned into libraries. That's the glorious word from Weburbanist:
There are thousands of abandoned big box stores sitting empty all over America, including hundreds of former Walmart stores. With each store taking up enough space for 2.5 football fields, Walmart’s use of more than 698 million square feet of land in the U.S. is one of its biggest environmental impacts. But at least one of those buildings has been transformed into something arguably much more useful: the nation’s largest library.
Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle transformed an abandoned Walmart in McAllen, Texas, into a 124,500-square-foot public library, the largest single-floor public library in the United States.
The design won the International Interior Design Association’s 2012 Library Interior Design Competition. MSR stripped out the old ceiling and walls of the building, gave the perimeter walls and bare warehouse ceiling a coat of white paint, and set to work adding glass-enclosed spaces, bright architectural details and row after row of books.
Holy f'ing hell that's awesome. I'm obviously not the only one who thinks so either, after I tweeted this particular piece of news this weekend (a tip o' the hat to Joshua Ellis for alerting me) people pounced on it: it ended up retweeted more than any item I've put out into the ether in awhile.
I think it partly struck a nerve because it represents the reverse of a widely-disliked corporate giant in favor of a wonderful public institution that's recently seemed in irreversible decline.
But there's something else here too: the last decade has seen a rise in "ruin porn," especially of blighted urban areas like Detroit. It's an admittedly addictive genre and I've occasionally succumbed myself. For much of the modern era, especially in America, the emphasis was "build," with the implicit assumption that cities and towns were perpetually on the make. The reverse of that trend in constant photos of grand old abandoned buildings fits into a narrative of perpetual rollback.
That's got it's allure certainly — there's a reason apocalypses are wildly popular — but people like tales of rejuvenation too. In a day when streetlights are going dark and roads are turning back to dirt, it's energizing to see something to the contrary, especially as big box stores themselves aren't exactly doing well.
McAllen's success also highlights that abandoned space is, in its way, a resource. Building shit from scratch is expensive, and the bigger it is, the more expensive it tends to be. People who want to try new models of living or development usually don't have a ton of resources, so places where they don't have to compete for space are particularly appealing.
This actually happened in my own city: downtown Asheville's a thriving place today because it had a bunch of old buildings left around that were initially cheap to renovate and try some interesting ideas in. Detroit's ruin porn too has been rebutted by a narrative of revival (and suitable skepticism). Berlin's a cheap place to live because it's got a ton of old buildings left around.
While the usefulness of old space isn't exactly new (Jane Jacobs was harping about it 50 years ago), it does seem resurgent as cities have regained their importance relative to the suburbs. The reuse of big-box albatrosses in particular seems to bode well for smaller cities and rural areas, where this has been the primary form of development boom for too long.
Of course, once one starts reusing those spaces, the next battles come up: gentrification, city governments' political limits, and more. Nonetheless, this is a lovely example of using a supposed detriment as an advantage.