Archives for posts with tag: Architecture

1-Rise of the road use tax

The decade after the Second World War (WWII), which gave rise to the Baby Boom generation, along with technological innovations and rising wages and employment, resulted in unprecedented growth in consumer demand, and consequently, freight. This demand for additional freight was felt by all transportation modes, and saw the growth of heavy truck traffic. With consumers in North America adopting automobile use at a much more rapid pace, and truck traffic increasing, the road networks saw increased use.

Traffic gridlock, as seen from behind Tractor trailers on Highway 40 near St-Lazare, Quebec

As an initiative to make road travel safer for all concerned and reduce accidents, laws specifically written to address heavier commercial vehicles started to surface in different jurisdictions to enforce height, weight, length, and width of commercial vehicles. Enforcing these requirements would give rise to weigh stations, checkpoints to be located along established and emerging road-based shipping routes.

Semi-tractor trailer with dump trailer (source: wikipedia.org)

In many jurisdictions, heavier commercial vehicles were required to pay road use taxes  based on weight, which highlighted the need to weigh this particular class of vehicles.

However, the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) created an integrated system to replace road use taxes (source: wikipedia.org). Although taxes may still be paid at weigh stations, tax enforcement, vehicle inspections, safety violation detection and operational compliance, are bigger components of their mandate (source: wikipedia.org). In effect, promoting motorist safety and assisting in the prevention of the premature degradation and deterioration of the road network has overshadowed tax collection.

2-Approach with caution

Almost exclusively located along major road-based shipping routes or highways, most weigh stations, or permanent truck scales, are still in use to enforce weight restrictions. Although temporary “portable” scales may also be used, either for remote locations, special purposes, or as a supplement to existing scales during a peak period or season, most weigh stations are fixed to a defined location.

Typical locations are in relative proximity to jurisdictional borders, such as State, Province or Country. Additionally, many weigh stations are located at choke points, preferably with few alternate routes accessible to prompt would-be evaders, or the freight origination or destination points (source: wikipedia.org).

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source: maps.google.ca)

For automobile motorists, the haphazard locations of the weigh stations, dotting the route along the highway, may serve to break up the monotony of a lengthy trek without much concern. However, for heavy equipment operators, freight movers and truckers, these seemingly unobtrusive stops are more problematic.

As some jurisdictions require every commercial vehicle to stop at the weigh station, possible back-ups and issues regarding heavy trucks re-entering the flow of traffic need to be addressed. As such, circulation into weigh stations is typically designed to flow in the direction of traffic, thus attempting to minimize traffic flow disruptions.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (source: maps.google.ca)

There exists some recent examples of median scales, which are placed between the opposing lanes of traffic, accessible from either direction of traffic, resulting in heavy vehicles exiting and re-entering the roadway from the left lane (source: wikipedia.org).

Notwithstanding emerging median scales, favouring one side, generally the right hand side of highways in North America, weigh stations tend to operate wholly with unidirectional travel, stressing one-way in/one-way out traffic. Unfortunately, this does entail that traffic in the opposing direction must complete a U-Turn when required to stop at weigh stations.

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source: maps.google.ca)

Designated signage, at a distance that preferably would allow for safe merging, alerts motorists to the presence of a weigh station ahead, as well as instructions regarding whether stopping requirements are in effect. Coming up to the weight station, featuring an approach lane of varying length, truck traffic is diverted off the main route onto the lane. Depending on volume, trucks may need to line up, perhaps out into highway lanes, depending on the queuing space allotted.

When finally reaching the head of the line, the inspection and weigh station comes clearly into full panoramic view.

3-Punching above its weight class

When seen at speed along the highway lanes, weigh stations seem rather small, with motorists spotting them up ahead and perhaps once again as they pass by with little attention paid. Their built footprint so small, they do not elicit a long visual pause, but rather a blip, along the route.

True to form, even at close range, many of these enforcement posts are physically quite miniscule compared to massive task they are called on to perform. In this instance, small but mighty is a very real idiom.

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source: maps.google.ca)

Sparse, stoic, utilitarian and set in rather unglamorous or remote surroundings, the architectural design direction would seldom be labelled as colourful or cheery. In fact, it compounds and reinforces the rather sombre and serious nature of the exercise.  Task driven with a focus on administration, enforcement and compliance, the architecture for the building is secondary, derived entirely from the functional needs.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (source: maps.google.ca)

Efficiently sized, the outpost itself is but one component within a significantly larger site intended to accommodate several tractor trailers, complete with adequate space and requisite equipment for safety inspections, along with administrative tasks.

4-Establishing authority

One of the most striking architectural features is an expansive glass area, customarily wrapping the approach side. This massive unobstructed scene affords the weigh station operators an unparalleled, 180 degree or greater, view from within, to visually scan vehicles approaching. Implicitly aware that cameras or other surveillance equipment are in use at these legal enforcement points, the glass wrapped façade asserts explicitly that few things will be out-of-sight.

Superseding the basic needs of natural lighting or ventilation, the design sets an imposing, if not oppressive tone, stressing visual control, whereby users are keenly aware that every movement is potentially and purposely being viewed, documented, interpreted and analyzed. Amplifying this aura of authority is electing to make use of one-way looking glass, thus promoting probable feelings of powerlessness and apprehension from some queued users.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (as seen from Westbound lanes)

Numerous weigh stations in current use are constructed as single storey structures, allowing easy and rapid access to the exterior for staff from within, as well as for transaction activities by incoming users. However, by situating the access point at the furthest most point from the approach, each incoming user must forcibly travel the span of the glazed expanse, sensing peering views the full length. Not without intent but by design, the authoritative aura is again reinforced and made unambiguous with every footstep.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (as seen from Westbound lanes)

The imposing thematic can be noted in the use of other building materials, electing to make use of materials that communicate strength, durability and stability, such as concrete, stone, brick and CMU block (concrete masonry units). Moreover, the use of some lighter materials such as steel can sometimes be present, but the preponderance of high mass/heavier weight materials is evident.

Weigh Station at Westbound direction, near Alexandria, Ontario (as seen from Eastbound lanes)

In cases where weigh stations are spread out into two-storey structures, the lower portion tends to make ever more use of solid materials, limiting openings and adopting an almost bunker like aesthetic, furthering the authoritative mantra. The upper portion takes on a rather delicate, light and airy aesthetic, clad almost exclusively in glass. Nonetheless, the massive glass expanse accentuates the feeling of being watched, ever more attentively from above, as it is set solidly on a seemingly quasi-impenetrable base.

http://thearchitecturegroup.com/portfolio/transit/franklin-county-weigh-station/

5-The weigh forward

From their initial scope of commercial vehicle weight and road-tax collection to their current mandate which includes enforcement and public safety, weigh stations have expanded in size, stature and scope.

Weigh Station, Indiana, circa 1950s (source: in.gov/isp/2649.thm)

The advent and adoption of newer technologies, such as Weigh-in-Motion (WIM) scales, electronic bypass systems (PrePass, NORPASS, or simply A.V.I.) are increasing efficiency, and revolutionizing the process and, by extension, progressively altering the role of weigh stations (source: wikipedia.org).   

The primary need to establish an authoritative presence combined with a continuous line of sight for those entrusted with enforcing public safety regulation will continue to influence and be reflected in the built environment design decisions. Therefore, the architectural identity and tells that define weigh stations will continue to be evident and trace a reference to the past, even as the scope of services offered may continue to be redefined into the future.

Two lane stretch of Highway 17, near Hawkesbury, Ontario, heading Westbound, night time view 

Disclosure:
All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Automotive moon shot

After several years of faltering small car sales in its home market, witnessing their market share being unmercifully eroded at the hands of Japanese manufacturers, American automobile manufacturer, General Motors (GM), embarked on a novel experiment that would involve evaluating, challenging and rethinking everything it knew about the automobile business. This would be, to paraphrase former US President JFK, General Motors’ moon shot.

What began as discussions of a “revolutionary new, small-car project codenamed ‘Saturn’” in June of 1982 would evolve into the founding of the Saturn Corporation in the first few calendar days of 1985 (source: wikipedia). The linchpin of the plan was the requisite objective to recapture buyers who had shunned General Motors brands in favour of their Japanese rivals.

Unlike General Motors established automotive divisional organization, Saturn was to operate as a distinct and separate entity, fundamentally separate from the GM parent company. The Saturn Corporation would have its own assembly plant, manufacturing process, labour contract, unique models, and dealer network.

Saturn LOGO (with Retailer reflection beyond)

Additionally, by locating the dedicated Saturn specific assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, physically remote from the entrenched operational base in Detroit, Michigan, GM provided Saturn with a clean sheet to achieve its lofty goals.

2-From different to division to divestiture

Initially, Saturn cars proved to be popular with buyers. However, with 41% of Saturn buyers already owning a GM vehicle, it turned out to be Pyrrhic victory as sales were cannibalistic (source: wikipedia). Moreover, Saturn’s operational independence combined with its $5 billion start up cost, which ultimately diverted financial resources from other divisional projects, lead to growing resentment within the sprawling GM universe.

Saturn S-Series, First Generation, SL Sedan model

The S-Series, which consisted of a 4-door sedan, wagon and 2-door coupe, all built on the same platform, was the first Saturn model line. Touted as “different”, the initial Saturn models featured dent-resistant plastic body panels. Surviving in part on the strength of a single model line, the S-Series would be complemented by the larger L-Series, introduced in 1999. Built at a non-Saturn plant and sharing a GM-derived platform, the L-Series would prove to foreshadow the undoing of the Saturn experiment.

Saturn L-Series, First Generation model

In the subsequent years, General Motors would reset Saturn under a divisional arrangement, thus stripping its independent operational status, and fill the product pipeline with shared GM designs. Launching with a single American-built model line, the Saturn brand found itself flush with multiple rebadged European sourced products across several model lines in its final year.

General Motors, struggling for its survival during the financial crisis of 2008, declared its intention to divest the Saturn brand. Although a deal had been announced in June of 2009, the sale to Penske Automotive Group proved to be unsuccessful. The Saturn division and all dealers were scheduled to shut down by the end of October 2010.

3-Laying the groundwork

When Saturn launched, it was revolutionary for General Motors. However, except for the space frame and the use of plastic body panels, the initial Saturn cars were widely panned as being rudimentary and raucous. What the cars lacked in refinement would be compensated for in customer experience at the dealer level.

Saturn Vue, First Generation model

Part of the Saturn offensive involved offering premium customer service, something common in the luxury automotive dominion, but unheard of at the lower end of the pricing spectrum, Benchmarking the hospitality industry for customer service, Saturn quickly gained a reputation for best-in-class sales experience, even though it was hampered by a portfolio of average product.

Committed to changing consumer perceptions about small cars, particularly, American-built small cars, as well as the sales experience, Saturn became a champion of the “no-haggle” pricing policy. Saturn effectively removed the negotiation component of car buying that many consumers found off-putting. The sales process was transformed, and became welcoming, inviting, no-pressure, removing significant apprehension for many would-be first-time buyers.

Saturn Retailer, 9415 av Papineau, Montreal, Quebec (source: maps.google.com)

Building the brand from the ground up, Saturn presented an opportunity to recast everything. The dealer body would be all-new, and every Saturn dealership could be clearly consistent, and on-message for the nascent brand.

Saturn Retailer, 814 Guelph Line, Burlington, Ontario (source: maps.google.com)

In Saturn parlance, dealerships would consistently be referred to as retailers, as the customary confrontational sales process would be turned onto its head. Catering heavily to first-time buyers, Saturn would need to introduce and define the brand, as well as have an opportunity to shape the buying experience for many consumers.

The architectural approach of Saturn retailers would help to define this experience in many subtle and not-so subtle ways.

4-Setting the stage

Irrespective of the Saturn naming convention for dealerships, the retailers still required the functional trappings of standard automobile dealerships. Showroom area, service bays, sales areas, support functions, large parking areas for warehousing cars, all the traditional components of a typical automobile sales operation would need to exist in the Saturn experience.

Thus, a fairly simple, functional, cost efficient geometric building shape would be anticipated. Capable of accommodating vehicular access and interior circulation, a large column-free showroom and service area, the architecture would be limited by additional factors such as lot dimensions, orientation, street access, and other zoning and planning requirements.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), 3/4 Rear View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Nonetheless, it would still be possible for Saturn to be “different”.

A hallmark of the Saturn approach was transparency, in the sales process, and in the manner that the company sought to interact with its customers and stakeholders. General Motors having made a significant investment to form Saturn from the ground up, its activities were being closely scrutinized, internally and externally.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), 3/4 Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

The architectural identity highlighted this need for transparency with squat buildings with large glass expanses, resulting in a respectable glass to overall mass ratio, opening up the storefront of the retailers.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Another fundamental architectural element of communicating transparency was the distinctive protruding customer delivery and inspection area. Completing the delivery process inside, while providing some protection from the inclement weather, allowed for an added dimension of the Saturn sales process. Recasting the process indoors, Saturn created a de facto stage setting, elevating the delivery into an emotional event, rather than a simple transactional one.

FORMER Saturn Retailer, Front View Right, Genesee Street, Syracuse, New York

Saturn retailers earned a reputation for performing customer reveals inside the delivery area, unveiling the customer’s new Saturn by pulling off a car cover with much fanfare and glitz, engaging staff and onlookers to witness the event. Putting the customer on the spot with an enthusiastic souvenir photo opportunity, complete with instant Polaroid photographs available from the Saturn retailer, added to the overall experience.

Upon taking possession of the vehicle, the exterior scenery in the background and foreground, visible through the wall of glass, customers could figuratively picture themselves driving off in their new Saturn. In most instances, the process was quite literal, the large aluminium and glass doors permitting the vehicle to be driven straight out of the delivery area.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front (far), Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front Left, Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front Right, Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

From the exterior, the projecting delivery area commanded immediate visual attention, and with its glass box aesthetic, allowed for would-be window shoppers to peer upon the activity within. Conversely, with such a prominent architectural appendage, it could easily be mistaken for an oversized vestibule area at the principal entrance.

Saturn Retailer, 19550 Langley Bypass, Langley, British Columbia (source: maps.google.com)

However, the main entry typically proposed a covered walkway, or cantilevered roof element, framed by columns and tie-backs, reminiscent of one half of a suspension bridge. Additionally, a similar element would be repeated to form the roof element at the delivery area.

5-leading the way

Unfortunately, as the brand matured, the product range grew tired, and competitors started copying some or all of Saturn’s customer service practices, such as no-haggle pricing, too few customers were finding the entrance to Saturn retail stores.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View at Entrance, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

In 2005, Saturn would attempt to restart its stumbling sales numbers by revamping their dealership experience. Embracing multimedia displays and new technologies, improving interactions with sales staff and adding new interior themes and aesthetics, Saturn’s ultimate salvation hinged on new products. The transformation was more than aesthetic, as Saturn needed to be reinvented into a full line automobile brand, selling everything from entry-level vehicles to SUVs and performance vehicles to survive and thrive.

Saturn badge

After having starved Saturn product development for several years, General Motors finally recommitted to the Saturn brand and by the latter half of the decade would source European influenced (2007 Saturn Aura), and European designed (2008 Saturn Astra/Opel Astra, 2008 Saturn Vue/Opel Antara) for sale in North America.

Weathered and damaged Saturn Customer Parking Only signage

The decision could not have been more ill-timed, as the recession of 2008-2009 would soon take hold, crimping credit and decimating car sales in America. General Motors would wind down the Saturn brand before the first full decade of the new century was complete.

Saturn Retailer (Now converted to MINI Dealership), Mount Laurel, New Jersey (source: maps.google.com)

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now MINI Dealership), Mount Laurel, New Jersey (source: miniofmtlaurel.com)

The Saturn legacy lives on in business practices adopted throughout the industry, as well as the democratization of high levels of customer service as a luxury vehicle exclusive experience. Furthermore, the protruding glass appendage delivery enclosure stands as a prominent architectural testament to the brands ideal of transparency.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Disclosure:

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Acronyms and archetype

For the initiated fans, IKEA is synonymous with stylish ready-to-assemble (RTA) furnishings and home goods exuding cheap chic and fashionable functionality. Alternatively, for those less fond of the brand, it is seen as an outlet selling cheap, disposable, low quality furniture.

Appealing to the converts and responding to the critics, IKEA describes itself as providing “… a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them” (source: ikea.com). Combining style with low prices, IKEA, not coincidently, ranks as the largest furniture retailer in the world (source: wikipedia).

IKEA logo and typeface

The IKEA name is an acronym, which consists of the initials of the founder’s name (Ingvar Kamprad), his childhood farm (Elmtaryd), and home parish (Agunnaryd, in Småland, South Sweden). (source: wikipedia). Founded in Sweden in 1943, IKEA remains privately held, extensively controlled by the founder through a series of profit and non-profit organizations and foundations.

Originating in Småland, Sweden, now based in Denmark, the IKEA group of companies sells and distributes its products through its global network of over 300 retail stores in 38 countries, clustered mainly in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia (source: wikipedia).

2-Out-of–home advertising

IKEA has a long history of taking chances, going out-of-the-box, and straying away from the norm when it comes to promoting the brand and broadening its appeal. The company has demonstrated a willingness to not take itself too seriously, often portraying itself playfully, in a profoundly tongue-in-cheek manner.

Nonetheless, IKEA has taken a leadership role in tackling serious social issues. In 1994, early to embrace alternative lifestyles, IKEA was one of the first companies to feature a homosexual couple in their television advertisements (source: wikipedia). Subsequent commercials depicted Gay and Transgender individuals also (source: wikipedia).

In addition, it has often managed to find innovative ways to shock and surprise, bringing attention to the brand, by recasting non-traditional spaces with IKEA products and flair. Transforming the mundane into memorable, IKEA has revamped, subway train cars in Russia (2008), the monorail in New York (2008), heavily trafficked metro stations in Paris (2010), temporarily altering them with a flurry of furnishings and décor items into life-size mobile showrooms (source: wikipedia).

IKEA decorated metro station, Paris, France (source: fastcompany.com)

Likewise, the temporary “pop up apartment” installation in Brooklyn (2008) brought the retail store into the streets, ever closer to the consumer, exemplifying the brand vision “… to create a better everyday life for the many people” (source: ikea.com).

http://theikeablog.com/2008/08/29/ikea-brooklyn/

In early 2009, prior to the Southampton (UK) store opening, the MV Red Osprey of Red Funnel started a year-long deal that would see it sport the IKEA yellow and blue colours, instead of the Red Funnel red and white (source: wikipedia).

MV Red Osprey of Red Funnel in IKEA blue and yellow livery (source: wikipedia)

Emboldened with a willingness to experiment with various innovative and sometimes ground-breaking out-of-home advertising campaigns, IKEA also employs its cache of distinctive retail stores in establishing, communicating, and reinforcing the brand position.

3-Augmenting the big-box

Wrapped in an aura of Nordic cool, IKEA has skilfully sidestepped some of the big-box invective, escaping unscathed, whilst proposing, in many instances, substantially larger, more imposing stores than those of its stigma afflicted rivals.

Sam’s Club (Former), Route 31, Clay, New York

IKEA retail stores simply cannot be classified as big, they are truly massive. Many of the retail outlets equal or exceed their big-box neighbours in size, at times eclipsing them completely (source: wikipedia). While a standard Wal-Mart Superstore may measure in at roughly 160,000 sq. ft, many IKEA stores surpass 400,000 sq. ft. in size (source: globalnews.ca, lesaffaires.com). Notwithstanding a sampling of newer smaller concept stores, mostly constrained by site and urban density issues, the basic design premise remains sprawling size and scale.

IKEA store, Stockholm (Kugens Kurva), Sweden (source: googlemaps.com)

Indeed, tasked with the dual purpose of being both, a showroom and a warehouse, an IKEA retail store requires a substantial footprint. This twofold demand ultimately results in buildings of outsized proportions, in length, width, and height, in order to fulfill the supplemental brand objective of immediate availability across the product range. Thus, IKEA stores are expansive, imposing, recognizable, and highly visible from a distance.

IKEA store, Paramus, New Jersey

IKEA store, Vaughan, Ontario

Clad in the colours of the Swedish flag, blue and yellow, and acting very much as immense surrogate billboards, these monuments to merchandising have become an integral part of the brand experience. However, the architectural identity of the stores tends to adhere to a set of guiding principles and overarching features, rather than forceful attempts to apply a pre-ordained prototype design.

IKEA store, Montreal (Ville St Laurent), Quebec (during expansion in 2012)

In fact, there is a clear degree of localization within each IKEA, responding to a myriad of issues including site conditions, environmental concerns, market demands and product mix, to name just a few. Although the basic rectilinear/rectangular form is prevalent, there is an increasing incidence of multi-storey and irregularly shaped retail stores in the IKEA portfolio. Almost without fail, the overarching encompassing feature that binds them together is the colossal scale.

IKEA store, Ottawa, Ontario (during construction in 2011)

Ingress and egress functions occur at separate locations within the storefront. The entrance is typified and highlighted with a preponderance of the contrasting yellow colour, a more liberal use of glass, and a ceremonial path ringed with flagpoles, benches and other accoutrements.

IKEA store, Montreal (Ville St Laurent), Quebec

The main customer exit, comprised a series of aluminum and glass sliding doors, is comparatively more subdued, with little attention or fanfare, quietly serving its function. The necessary series of emergency exit doors scattered along the perimeter, along with various service rooms and spaces, are made inconspicuous, blurring into the background field of blue coloured metal siding.

IKEA store, Montreal (Ville St Laurent), Quebec

Typically, ground level windows are sparse, clustered near customer touch points, or non-existent, with some windows present at upper storeys, and a spattering of skylights to provide natural light, particularly in the warehouse areas.

In suburban locations, the retail stores are traditionally supported by expansive parking areas which feature easy in and easy out circulation. In denser urban locales, space-saving multi-level parking garages are becoming more prevalent.

Although applying the same principles as other retailers, IKEA has deftly managed to escape much of the criticism lobbed towards other big-box retailers.

IKEA store, Boucherville, Quebec – Front elevation – Right portion

 IKEA store, Boucherville, Quebec - Front elevation – Left portion

In as much, the IKEA ethos is not so much about improving the big-box concept, as it is about augmenting it.

4-It’s a-maze-thing

IKEA’s massive monolithic warehouses give little away from the outset. Upon approach to the main entrance, the imposing vertical presence, a wall of yellow and blue, reveals little at first, effectively increasing pent-up anticipation. Intentionally, a slow process of discovery, a progressive strip tease of domestication delight unravels with every successive step, thus engaging eager, adventurous, and curious shoppers to discover ever more of the store.

 IKEA store, Boucherville, Quebec

Although IKEA was not the first furniture retailer to begin displaying their goods in themed room settings, it has certainly gained an edge over the competition. In order to ensure that shoppers see as much of the merchandise as possible, circulation inside the store is designed to flow in one direction, along a predetermined path: entrance, showroom, warehouse, checkout, and exit.

The path, often compared to an elaborate maze, adds a sense of adventure and discovery to the shopping experience, uncovering new design ideas at every turn and around every corner. The intentional misdirection and myriad turns disorient shoppers, and carves up the massive footprint into less overwhelming parts. However, gently coercing shoppers to view and experience the entire IKEA range of offerings, in a soft sell manner, is the real design ingenuity of the path.

IKEA sample showroom, kitchen

Furthermore, the sheer size warrants an almost leisurely exploratory pace, as shoppers meander, peruse, shuffle and dodge their way down the path. Astutely, shortcuts and cheat routes are provided along the path for those that would prefer to jump forward towards the warehouse directly.

Yet for those taking in the entirety of the experience, IKEA provides several other features to increase stickiness, and encourage increased time in-store, such as a supervised play area for the children and shockingly inexpensive meals in the cafeteria.

IKEA cafeteria, Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York (source: wikipedia)

And finally, after having invested umpteen amounts of time trekking through the store; it seems almost foolish to leave without a purchase.

5-Elmtaryd to Emulated

Although not initially in the home furnishings business, IKEA nonetheless managed to gain the enviable position of global market leader. During that period, it has improved, if not perfected the process by which to compartmentalize aircraft size hangars into small easy to digest morsels of dwelling bliss, and stock on hand the implicit required levels of product to instantaneously feed the imaginations of many individuals around the globe.

However, IKEA has been studied and analyzed without doubt, and its operating procedures and methods are reproducible by competitors. Case in point, in August of 2011, news stories surfaced about a “fake” IKEA store in Kunming City, China.

Fake IKEA store uncovered in 2011, Kunming city, China (source: reuters.com)

Parachuted into the store, one would find many of the signature IKEA brand elements, showrooms, wayfinding, signage, fonts, pencils, shopping bags, cafeteria, all emulated and tweaked. However, standing outside, one could certainly not construe the “fake” store for a true blue and yellow IKEA.

IKEA shopping list and pencils

IKEA yellow and blue shopping bags packed into in-store bin

Successful ideas and concepts tend to attract many more imitators than failing concepts, and IKEA will surely continue to receive such unwanted flattery. As IKEA embarks on its expansion plans in North America and around the globe, it would be wise to defend its market position and strengthen its enduring unique brand elements. A cursory overview suggests that the established path of developing monstrously vast retail footprints, with the two-pronged advantage of providing immediacy and abundance, seems destined to continue to fortify the architectural identity as an integral part of IKEA’s brand character.

IKEA store, Ottawa, Ontario (new in background, existing in foreground, during construction in 2011)

Disclosure:
All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Incremental to exponential growth

Initially growing in a slow methodical fashion since its American arrival in the mid-1970s, deep discounter Aldi had, for the most part, quietly established a network of stores concentrated in several beachhead states.

Founded by brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht in 1946, German-based grocer ALDI operates a total of approximately 9,000 stores located in the United States and several European countries (source: wikipedia). At the outset, in a fanatical effort to sell at the lowest possible price, merchandise selection was limited, slower-selling items would be systematically discontinued, no fresh produce was available, advertising was non-existent, store size was kept small, and the brothers pioneered the practise subtracting the maximum legal rebate of 3% before sale (source: wikipedia).

A dispute in 1960 would lead to the company being split into two groups, ALDI Nord (North – operating as ALDI MARKT) and ALDI Süd (South – operating as Aldi Süd), which continue to operate separately in defined trade areas (source: wikipedia). The Aldi name was introduced in 1962, and international expansion followed in the 1970s (source: wikipedia).

Methodically converting a subset of American shoppers to the no-frills approach along the way, the company added stores at a pace averaging 20 to 25 per year in the initial years, seeing that pace increase to roughly 50 per year by about mid-2000. In the later half of that same decade, Aldi embarked on an ambitious expansion plan that would see the number of new store openings approaching 80 per year in 2011 and 2012 (Source: NYTimes.com). The states of Texas, Florida, and New York, as well as the Northeast, are primarily targeted to absorb the bulk of the projected new Aldi stores.

Tampa Skyline with Convention Centre in foreground, Tampa, Florida

2-Breadth not depth

One of founding principles of Aldi’s approach to retailing has been limited selection, and ruthless shelf space competition. Although name brand products can be found, a high proportion of products sold at Aldi are Aldi branded products. Nonetheless, every single product sold must earn their space through continuous competition. Shelf space at a premium, product velocity is crucial.

A modern-day Aldi store offers over 1,400 regularly stocked items, including a limited selection of fresh produce and meat, refrigerated and frozen foods, as well as beers and wine (source: Aldi.us). By comparison, a typical supermarket may offer up to 30,000 items, and a Walmart Supercentre may stock well over 100,000 items. Thus, while most shoppers can complete the bulk of their food staples and essential items at an Aldi store, a shopping trip to a complementary merchant or traditional grocery store may be required to round out the weekly shopping list.

3-Efficient. Efficient. Efficient.

The disciplined approach to cost cutting and efficiency, from pallet displays, limited selection, limited service, bag fees, cart fees, packaging, and signage, is part of the Aldi brand philosophy. It permeates through operations, procedures, and design, and is physically evident in the store design and layout.

Although some stores are located in retail strip malls, Aldi stores are predominantly stand alone prototypical stores on distinct lots. These stores in particular best exemplify and reinforce the Aldi approach to cost cutting and wringing out efficiencies in every single part of the business channel.

Aldi, Erie Boulevard, East Syracuse, New York

The stores are low, squat and flat, with simple roof structures, ample yet not excessive ceiling heights, and minimal plenum. The utilitarian shape complete with compact height translates into a smaller built wall surface area as well as smaller volumes for air handling equipment which results in a reduction in heating and cooling costs.

The sides are also typically flat, unadorned, with little ornamentation. A simple banding element may be present, blending into the wall surface or perhaps completed in a contrasting colour or material to the adjacent field element.

Aldi, Park Street near Route 37, Ogdensburg, New York

The main customer entrance is located at the corner. The entrance is graced with a modest raised parapet marquee topped with a simple cap flashing. Minimal signage adorns the marquee. Straight columns frame the entrance appendage in an uncomplicated manner, with little flair or design drama.

Windows are clustered near the entrance, concentrated at a single corner of the building.

Aldi, Route 31 near Soule Road, Clay, New York

In areas with inclement weather, the entrance canopy may be closed, affording an area protected from the elements which also doubles as cart storage. In such cases, additional windows allow daylight to penetrate towards the main store glazing. Concrete curbs, visible at the base of the walls and columns, provide additional wall protection from carts as much as snow clearing equipment.

Long wearing, durable, abuse resistant materials are used at the building exterior. The use of brick also communicates a sense of solidity, heft, and permanence to the stores. Seemingly contradictory at the outset, utilizing construction materials of a higher quality, durability, and at times cost, is nonetheless wholly consistent with the long-term view espoused by Aldi’s with regards to many of its components and buildings systems, preferring to invest prudently while also reducing waste and operational downtime.

The colours are muted, with prominent earth tones such as beige and brown.

4-How about a proper introduction

For shoppers already versed in the ways of Aldi, it may be unnecessary to roll out a new prototype store, as the current one still serves the intended purpose. The Great Recession which took hold in 2008 resulted in many more introductions for those uninitiated with Aldi, as many Americans began to trade down by necessity or circumstance.

This economic reality combined with Aldi’s increasingly ambitious expansion plans in the United States resulted in a confluence which coincided with the introduction of a new prototype store that would enhance the Aldi brand.

Erroneously derided for selling lower quality goods by many non-shoppers, the opportunity could be seized to alter the brand message for the unversed. The new prototype stores would expand on the existing store design elements, and offer more flair, style, and presence, items which were purposely lacking in the previous design.

The new stores benefit from some additional height, along with a marginally bigger footprint, yet remain rather simple geometric box shape.

The sides begin to receive some relief, breaking up the long expanses with some articulation and pilaster elements. The materials suffer from some welcome interruptions, minimizing the slab sided look, and adding a sense of rhythm to the side walls.

Aldi, Cornelia Street near Cogan Avenue, Plattsburgh, New York

The main customer entrance remains located at the corner, yet now benefits from a higher volume, framed with glass and filled with natural light. The main entrance becomes a more focal point, more prominent, and definitely more welcoming. Even the cap flashing is more pronounced, projecting slightly, capping the high parapet and providing a play of light and shadows. Simple signage remains at the marquee, complemented by stylish block lettering that seemingly floats above the cantilevered roof. Column projections, nested at the main corner of the building, extent to become part of the marquee. A thin and elegant cantilevered roof, with requisite though not necessarily functional cable ties, provides shade and cover at the entrance.

Aldi, Cornelia Street near Cogan Avenue, Plattsburgh, New York

Clerestory windows punctuate the side walls, with more ample glass present at the main entrance. A belt line, achieved through a change of material, can be seen below the windows, accentuating and defining the transition from the opaque to clear materials. 

Aldi, Cornelia Street near Cogan Avenue, Plattsburgh, New York

Materials, such as brick and split face CMU, which are rich and durable, continue to be prominent in the exterior design. The colour palette is more expansive and varied, with the addition of more natural and clear finishes to the traditional earth tones.

5-Efficient meet Drama. Drama meet Efficient.

As Aldi expands exponentially, bringing its efficiency message into virgin territory to a whole new generation of Americans, it has latched onto the notion of methodically investing in the most visible prominent brand asset, its architectural identity summed up in the Aldi retail store design.

Applying the new prototype to existing stores is delicate proposition, yet the redesign seems to be ideally suited to retrofitting existing stores. Although hampered by many preset hard points and limitations, even small subtle changes can provide revolutionary results.

Aldi, Route 11 near Interstate 81, North Syracuse, New York

As the majority of the design drama is concentrated at the main entry, skilled updating to the basic box shape can begin to draw out elements that help align the older stores with the new prototype.

Substituting the heavy marquee over the entrance with a svelte roof perimeter profile begins to lighten some of the bulk that defined the older store, and almost instantly opens up the entrance. Adding a high volume element, even devoid of the contributing daylight, adds a sense of lightness to the design.

Aldi, Route 11 near Interstate 81, North Syracuse, New York

The new prototype Aldi store attempts to reset the brand image to a higher level, with better materials and a more upscale design, adding onto the established traditions without a churn and burn approach. Along with adding new stores and refreshing the existing stores, Aldi faithful should find reason to breathe a sigh of relief as the familiar stores will continue to advocate the core brand values of simplicity and efficiency, only now, served with an extra helping of drama.

Disclosure:
All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-It’s MY Yard

The Yard, that bordered area of land commonly tied to a building, instantly conjures up its distinct images yet has broad implications. In modern parlance, a yard is commonly understood to consist mostly of a lawn or play area.

The term has also sprouted derivative words such as, shipyard, schoolyard, courtyard, graveyard, stockyard, cattle yard, churchyard, prison yard, each neatly tied to the purported function with the adjacent land area (source: wikipedia).

For a typical house, the yard in the front is referred to as the front yard, those to the side, if any, as side yards, and the one at the rear as rear yard, or backyard. Depending on lot size and zoning requirements, the actual size of each yard can vary substantially, with denser areas seeing minimal, or even non-existent yards, and suburban lots generally benefiting from much larger yards.

Regardless of physical size, each yard type is unique, and architectural identifiers brand each.

Highrise condos, front yard and side yard, Tampa, Florida

2-Front yard: Facing the street 

Formal and semi-public, the front yard can, in some instances, be extremely small, especially where properties access directly onto a street, or access route. The street presence demands a public persona that is achieved through several means. The architectural expression at the front yard is more cohesive, subject to stricter aesthetic urban forms, more comprehensive neighbourhood norms, and thorough design review committees.

Therefore, a disproportionate amount of architectural capital is expended at the front yard. The street façade is commonly more heavily adorned, replete with parapets, cornices, friezes, lintels, and various other architectural details.

Yards, Front, Mont Royal and Avenue du Parc, Montreal, QC

Yards, Rear, Mont Royal and Avenue du Parc, Montreal, QC

There is a definite premium attached to front (street) façade, both in term of function as well as curb appeal. Curb appeal, that intangible that real estate professional like to speak about, makes one property stand out from the others and increase the desirability factor.

Commonly, the materials are of better grade and quality, the details are more ornate, the overall composition is better attuned to that of the neighbourhood, and the design is better structured, highly organized and deliberately uncluttered.

Yards, Front, Guilbault and Clark, Montreal, QC

Yards, Rear and Side, Guilbault and Clark, Montreal, QC

Additionally, the architectural style at the front is more functional and intuitive. It is from here that one enters to experience the structure; it is the point of entry and the reception point. The functional transition from public to private realm is achieved at the front yard, thus requiring a more formal, and structured approach to architecture.

3-Side yard: Transitory space

The side yard, if any at all, is largely forgotten, and sometimes missing in quantity. Semi-detached, terrace, or row houses are examples where the side yard is a non-issue as individual housing units are adjoined, for example by way of a mitoyen wall, resulting in each unit without independent and distinct exterior side elevations. Although there are fewer side yards, the architectural character of the side yard is evident.

Yards, Front, Montreal Road near Aviation Parkway, Ottawa, ON

Yards, Side, Montreal Road near Aviation Parkway, Ottawa, ON

Yards, Side and Rear, Montreal Road near Aviation Parkway, Ottawa, ON

Whereas the front yard is defined by formality, the side yard is defined by being a transitory space. In the side yard, a transformation happens, a dressing down of sorts towards the rear yard, played out in the architecture with a subsequent downgrade of material quality, a marked shortage of architectural relief and ornamentation, a clear indication of a more utilitarian aesthetic, and a lack of visual intrigue.

Floor plan, residence, showing decreasing order of primacy of spaces, from the public realm to private (2048, 20110204 FE NL)

Instances where side yards are not present, a psychological and somewhat subconscious undressing can happen through the house, aided and abetted by the architectural topography of descending order of functions and rooms. This primacy of spaces, from more formal to less formal rooms, in the path from front to back, invariably leads to the panacea of yards, the backyard.

4-Rear yards: Away from street view

The rear yard, or backyard, is the antithesis of the front yard. It is less formal, less tense, and much more relaxed. The backyard could not be more divergent in purpose, utility and architectural style than the front yard.

The backyard is more of an oasis, a private space that is less subject to societal norms, upkeep and maintenance. In some respects, the constraints that are imposed in the front are relaxed in the back, away from the street. Backyards are spaces typically teeming with life, where barbecue cookouts, Friday nights, patios, pool parties, family gatherings happen partially shielded from direct public view.

Yards, Front, Coloniale near Napoleon, Montreal, QC

Yards, Rear, Coloniale near Napoleon, Montreal, QC

The relaxed laissez-faire attitude of the backyard is evident, encouraged and celebrated in the architectural expression. Typically, the least adorned side of house, finished in an almost clandestine manner, sometimes with complete disregard for zoning norms and building regulations. Construction techniques are highly improvisational, assembled with whatever materials available and within reach, resulting in a vernacular quality to the architecture. Mismatched, recycled, reclaimed, and unstructured, there is an inventive, creative and somewhat amateurish quality to the architectural composition that physically imparts and actually reinforces the casual nature of the backyard.

A hodge podge of additions, mismatched siding, sun porches, balcony enclosures, atriums, garages, cold rooms, all jut out into the backyard like unintended and unplanned appendages that would seem out of context and out of place anywhere, but in the backyard. Yet, here, in the backyard, these constructions add to the aura and expand the palate of the architectural expression, forming a visual kaleidoscope of styles and forms. Whereas norms and composition integrity would abhor to allow such a visual assault to exist in the front yard, it is a somewhat welcome presence in the relaxed confines of the backyard.

Yards, Front, Rue Clark near Rue St-Cuthbert, Montreal, Quebec

Yards, Rear, Rue Clark near Rue St-Cuthbert, Montreal, Quebec

Indeed, many municipalities have bylaws and norms that are more lax on rear yard alterations precisely because they do not detract from the front yard and street character.

Although newer developments are less likely to utilize an abundance of varied and conflicting materials in the backyard, the degradation of materials is quite common, resulting in rear yard elevation clad in vinyl siding, and the front yard elevation finished with a hybrid of more durable materials such as brick and stone.

Yards, Front and Side, Dahlia near Laurier, Rockland, ON

Yards, Rear, Dahlia near Laurier, Rockland, ON

5-Architectural Mullet

Like two sides of a coin, the branded architectural styles of both the front yard and rear yard are complete opposites. Adorned in the best of materials under the strictest of norms, front yard architecture is trim, prim and proper. Clad in the best of the rest and overseen by lax regulations, rear yard architecture is uneven, unkempt and offbeat.

Yards, Front, Rue St-Laurent near Rue Bagg, Montreal, QC

Yards, Rear, Rue St-Laurent near Rue Bagg, Montreal, QC

This widely contradictory nature results in the architectural equivalent of a mullet, with business in the front and party in the back. One of the enduring tenets of this dichotomy is the fact that the front yard exits in the public domain, visible from the street, whereas the rear yard is private, visible by invitation only if you will.

A horde of BBQs, a common backyard essential

The duality of architectural styles that persists between front and rear is pervasive and makes both unique. Equally important to the overall character of the built environment, their unique and discernable features make them easily identifiable and contrasting.

Disclosure:
All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Military grade to civilian issue

After taking a leading role in the Persian Gulf war circa 1990-1991 (Gulf War Operation: Desert Storm), the military Humvee became part of contemporary culture. The High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV or Humvee) was a 4-wheel drive vehicle designed and built by AM General Corporation for military duty under contract for the United States military.

The Humvee was to be versatile and adaptable, serving such functions as Ambulance, Troop carrier, Cargo carrier, along with being outfitted with a variety of military-based assault and recognizance equipment.

US Marine Corps HMMWV in difficult terrain, Afghanistan (source: wikipedia)

Igniting with a slow boil, the brand’s masculine and audacious image, combined with its military associations, quickly built an audience. In 1992, a civilian version of the Humvee, based on the proven structure and mechanical components, enhanced with passenger car accoutrements, was being marketed to the public by AM General under the Hummer brand name.

Nearing the end of 1999, AM General sold the brand name to General Motors. Under the tenure of General Motors, the original military derived model was renamed H1, a civilian-market platform derived H2 SUV and SUT were introduced, and the midsize Chevrolet Colorado truck platform based H3 was launched. HUMMER’s narrowly focused philosophy appealed to a core group and it rapidly became a status symbol of the brash, affluent and upwardly mobile.

HUMMER H2 model on auto display ramp, front quarter view

In 2008, the smaller two door HUMMER HX Concept vehicle was revealed but never made it into production. Shortly thereafter, General Motors in dire financial straights and forced into corporate bankruptcy, GM found itself unable to secure a buyer for the brand and after several attempts, shuttered HUMMER in 2010.

HUMMER HX Concept vehicle (source: wikipedia)

2-What identity crisis?

Adhering to a narrow product focus, HUMMER remains the only auto brand in the United States whose entire model range lineup came equipped with a low-range transfer case, relatively high ground clearance and off-road tires. This particular trait would be both a blessing and a hindrance.

HUMMER brand model lineup, model year 2006 HUMMER H3, H1 and H2 models (source: wikipedia)

As a brand, HUMMER possessed a vaunted attribute, a clear, concise and cohesive brand message, that of unparalleled off-road capabilities. Despite this attribute, few other automotive brands suffered the ills that HUMMER did. Poster child for all that was wrong in the world at the moment by environmentalists and politicians, HUMMER shouldered the load as only it could.

Bold, brash and unapologetic, polarizing, incendiary and divisive, HUMMER never aspired to be all things to all people and never attempted to water down the message. As a brand, whatever tribulations HUMMER might have experienced, it never suffered from an identity crisis. This characteristic was evident in the product, and reinforced by the architectural design at the customer interaction touch points, the brazenly distinctive HUMMER dealerships.

3-Brash from the outset

Brash, loud and unmistakable, these brand attributes carried all the way into the built environment. Pavlik Design’s Quonset hut inspired “Urban bivouac” design theme for the HUMMER brand was on point, and captured the elemental ethos of the brand without ambiguity or vacillation (HUMMER H3, Larry Edsall).

Quonset huts Laguna Peak-Point Mugu 1946 (source: wikipedia)

The Quonset hut profile, tracing its origins to WWII, is a clear association to the brand’s military beginnings. In many ways, the polyvalent, adaptable and versatile Quonset hut design, which served as mess hall, hospital, munitions depot, sleeping barracks, is a fitting metaphor for the HUMMER brand. This superbly fitting choice of the built environment transcends, echoes and reflects the polyvalence built into the original military grade Humvee (HMMWV).

Quonset hut emplacement in Japan 1947-48 post-WWII Japan (source: wikipedia)

Instituting a Quonset hut inspired vault design, the typical showroom architectural design made extensive use of steel, glass and concrete. The resultant arch created by truncating the Quonset hut form was impressive, anchoring one side of the showroom and cresting over to the opposite side to form the roof plane. Massive expanses of glass, framed by structural steel columns and beams, would allow abundant amounts of natural light. The interspaced steel elements would either be left exposed and painted, or clad in break-metal or sheet-metal to blend in with the window framing.

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Rogers, Minnesota (source: mjs-inc.com)

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Houston, Texas (source: asreme.com)

Adding a sense of ruggedness and mass as well as anchoring the design at grade, concrete was utilized in the overall aesthetic. Several exterior wall surfaces and finishes would stop at the concrete base. In many instances, the roof beams would extend and ultimately terminate into concrete piers, anchored to the base, ostensibly cantilevering to form the roof profile.

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Cicero, New York

Furthermore, a stylized “H” forming part of the showroom would often complement the exterior design. At times, it would be clear glasswork integrated into the overall glazing. In other cases, it would be opaque, clad in similar adjacent or complementary materials to the remainder of the façade.

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Davenport, Iowa (source: DDHStorefront.com)

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Las Vegas, Nevada (source: treehugger.com)

The unique attitude extended into the site design also. Along with the unique dealership architecture, an adjacent rock-crawling, water-fording, side-hill-sloping, angle-of-approach-and-departure challenge demonstration test-drive area was provided (HUMMER H3, Larry Edsall). The unmatched off-road capabilities of every HUMMER model could be best experienced, demonstrated and tested over the purpose-built course.

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Cicero, New York

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Las Vegas, Nevada (source: yourautostuff.com)

The overarching message was more explicit than implicit; this was an altogether different automotive animal, a beast among beauties if you will.

4-Blatant bravado inside

Premium priced, HUMMER was not a refined old-world brand with a long distinguished history like Range Rover, or some quasi off-road luxury vehicle. HUMMER was a true no-compromise, no-excuse capable off-road vehicle that proudly displayed its military roots. As much as the exterior communicated that this was a different experience, the interior design reinforced and amplified the message.

HUMMER Dealership, Interior view, Louisville, Kentucky (source: vbnarch.com)

In many instances, due to the expansive use of glass, many of the interior design features could be perceived. The exposed structural members, bare corrugated metal ceilings, huge pendant lights, exposed ductwork, massive ceiling fans alluding WWII plane propellers, everything served as in your face reminders, galvanizing the notion that the dealer experience is a divergent departure from more timid and pedestrian brands.

HUMMER Dealership, Interior view, Mahwah, New Jersey (source: pascaleelectric.com)

The macho overtone was pervasive, and the bravado was everywhere. Outdoor activities, rugged, athletic, masculine, adventure-seeking extroverts were heralded and celebrated in print advertising that hung from the exposed ceilings inside the dealerships like pennant banners from the rafters of sports stadiums. The interior finishes were basic, utilitarian and functional. Ornamentation was limited.

HUMMER Dealership, Interior view, Mahwah, New Jersey (source: pascaleelectric.com)

The message was clear; a HUMMER dealership is different, and instantly identifiable.

5-Architecture as legacy brand trait

In the case of HUMMER, every part of the built environment, exterior, site and interior, spoke in unison to strengthen and reinforce the brand message. It truly was a brilliant example of architecture adopting and fully integrating into the role of brand advertising.

At the height of  SUV popularity in the United States, the brand had broadened far beyond its core base, turning an off-road icon into the portrait of quintessential conspicuous consumption. Pinched by stubbornly high gas prices in 2008, combined with a faltering housing market, HUMMER found itself with a product mix for which desirability was decelerating.

HUMMER Dealership Service Bay, Exterior view, near Boul des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

Even though the product faded into the history books, the brand name continues to remain relevant as numerous licensed items, from HUMMER branded colognes, flashlights and bicycles, continue to be sold in retail stores and online. Nevertheless, the astute alignment of brand and architecture could not salvage a product line that was waning persistently.

HUMMER Dealership, Exterior view, Oxford near Wonderland Road, London, Ontario

Although the buildings might find another use, the Architectural form will serve as a recurrent reminder to the brand that was the genesis of its being. Failing to re-imagine the architecture, the lineage to the brand will not be broken. As such, the HUMMER brand name will continue to be associated with the building shape and architectural profile, thus extending the brand perpetually forward into the public consciousness even as the product has faded away.

Disclosure:

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Revealing a latent frustration

Sensing that his frustration might be shared by others, Thomas G. Stemberg stumbled onto an idea in 1985 that would become a global market leader and Fortune 500 company. Along with co-founder Leo Kahn, that idea would grow into office supply retail titan, Staples, Inc.

Based inFramingham, Massachusetts, Staples Inc., has operations in 26 countries, totalling over 2,000 stores (source: wikipedia). The company operates principally under the Staples Inc. brand name, and also operates subsidiaries in Argentina as Officenet-Staples, Belgium and Netherlands as Staples Office Centre, Canada as Staples Canada (Bureau En Gros in Quebec), and in Italy as Mondoffice (source: wikipedia).

The first retail store, since relocated, was opened in 1986 in Brighton,Massachusetts. Expansion into the western United States began in 1990, followed by expansion into Canada in 1991 (source: wikipedia).

Staples, Savi Ranch Center, Yorba Linda, California (source: wikipedia)

Over the course of the years that followed, Staples attempted to merge with a competitor, strengthened the Staples brand name in foreign markets, namely Canada, and ventured into the other non-core business areas.

2-Business Forward

 The dual emphasis on Business-to-Business (B2B), and Business-to-Consumer (B2C) sales channels by Staples has resulted in an efficient, fairly standardized and thoroughly recognizable retail presence. Arguably, the stores have been skewed towards the business portion of the customer base, adopting a subservient function to business needs.

Although needs on the corporate side are at times divergent from those on the consumer side, consumers benefit en masse.

Staples, between Pitt Street and Sydney, Cornwall, Ontario

Consistency, immediacy, predictability, these are all features that are primordial to businesses. Much like Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, a shortage or lack of a critical product for proper operations can mean more than a minor irritant, it invariably means lost profits.

Thus, for corporate customers, a multitude of factors come into play in purchase decisions, with price being a single component of the evaluation matrix. Product availability, delivery, ease of transaction, lead times, payment terms, return policies, these and other factors can be weighed with business purchases. 

 

Staples, Watertown, NY

Availability, simplicity and speed being prized by corporate customers, the architectural approach to design is no-nonsense, straightforward, and efficient. Ironically, the ease of telephone, and especially online ordering, increasingly negates the need for some corporate customers to ever visit a retail location.

In many ways, the stores are quite plain, like an afterthought; as though they were too busy making other businesses look sharp to have time to spruce up their exterior.

3-The XYZ design imperative

Inheriting the favoured business ethos, Staples stores are consistent, predictable, and easy to recognize. The architectural identity stresses the horizontal (X-axis and Z-axis), while fussing less over the vertical (Y-axis). Long, low, wide and deep, the stores hug the landscape, creating a sense of mass for the office supply superstores. 

Bureau En Gros, Le Plateau, Gatineau, Quebec 

Where Staples anchors a corner, both the X- and Z-axis are utilized to utmost effect. The long windowless sides stretch towards the back, elongating the building, and adding to the dramatic depth effect. Little to no effort is expended to break up the length into smaller compartments to disguise depth.

Staples, Hawkesbury, Ontario

In instances where the stores are ganged with others in a commercial strip mall arrangement, only the X-axis is apparent to be manipulated. Maximizing the X-axis becomes ever more imperative, stressing the linear projection to provide maximum frontage, as well as provide the sense of mass that has become entrenched.

 

Staples, Ogilvie Road, Ottawa, Ontario

The horizontally dominant stratified approach, with a top and bottom division, aids to lengthen the overall design. The lack of vertical markers, surface breaks, material changes, and even projected vestibules, guide the eye towards the vanishing points, visually widening the bifurcated elevations.

Staples, Bank Street South, Ottawa, Ontario

 The resulting squat retail footprint is also quite versatile, and scalable.

4-Carving up the strata

The adaptable nature of the architectural identity affords Staples some flexibility in tailoring their stores to local market conditions without compromising its basic bisected design mantra.

In fact, the corporate visage does not seem adversely affected by the various length of frontage. Unadorned and uncomplicated, the stores vary from smaller to larger, yet eschew the tall and narrow effect entirely. Expansive or compact, the design can stretch, contract, expand and still retain a sense of mass.

Front focused, with the ingress/egress point quickly discernible from a distance, signage is located above the entry point. Typically central, the main entry can slide to the left or the right with little effect on the overall design. 

  

Bureau En Gros, Riocan Centre, Kirkland, Quebec

Staggered step or curved parapets might rise vertically, or also jut forward, to provide a reprieve from the elements, adding slight relief to the façade, as well as draw focus towards the entrance. In other cases, the climatic conditions simply warrant a canopy.

Staples, Kemptville, Ontario

Framed entrances, rising vertically and breaking up the horizontal façade, counteract the horizontal focus, but add a dimension of height and cast shadows that add the overall sense of heft. Although favouring principally the horizontal axis, the vertical elements are finding increasing favour and do provide an idyllic location to frame the signage.

Bureau En Gros, Vaudreuil, Quebec

Staples, Rockland, Ontario

Nonetheless, uncluttered and uncomplicated is the imperative. From the outside in, it is clear that the superfluous is avoided.

5-Betting it all on Red

In some cultures, red is seen as fortuitous. In business parlance, red is never quite so desirable. Nevertheless, red demands attention, it catches the eye, and it can be quite well received from an advertising standpoint.

Staples has managed to make the colour red a little less unappealing business, utilizing it in their logo, and across assorted Staples branded items such as, staples, paperclips, paper, and other assorted office products.

Various Staples branded office products

Staples branded paper product 

Red is prevalent in all their branding. In the traditional store elevation format, red dominates the upper portion balanced against a bright white base. The reflective red ribbed metal profile lends an air of lightness above the bulk of the concrete block and stone base.  

Staples, Hawkesbury, Ontario

In less traditional installations, where the bulk of the elevation is determined by external forces, such as integration into the neighbourhood, consistency with adjacent retail tenants, urban design covenants and standards , the red uppermost section is unfurled like a banner across the greatest expanse possible, to effectively mimic the traditional store aesthetic.

Bureau En Gros, Boucherville, Quebec

Furthermore, as vast expanses of real estate become less available, Staples will be forced to roll out locations in denser, less suburban areas, where the long, low, and wide approach requires a thorough re-evaluation. Reinterpreting some of the established architectural identifies and brand elements into a newer, denser composition will inevitably build on the previous variants.

Bureau En Gros (Downtown/Urban location), Vendome and Sherbrooke, Montreal, Quebec

Also, as consumer and business needs evolve, new opportunities will emerge that might also recast the established architectural slant. Case in point, as in recent years, Staples has increased focus on small business needs and technology services, launching several concept stores, known as Best Tech stores, in the New England area (source: wikipedia).

Nonetheless, after a quarter century expended galvanizing red as a colour that businesses, and consumers, can get enthused about, it can be certain that Staples will continue to bet it all on red to stay ahead of the competition and keep its market leader position.

Roulette wheel (source: wikipedia)

Disclosure:
All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Purpose built

As one of the purest examples of “Form follows function”, an architectural credo espoused by Walter Gropius, firehouses were principally purpose built to accommodate equipment and crew, and to fulfill a narrow and explicit mandate. From the earliest days, the form and aesthetic generated from real needs with few characteristics that could be construed as applied aesthetic.

In the early 1900s, horse-drawn steam engines were the norm making multi-storey firehouses necessary. Keeping horses was a large part of firefighting life, whereby fire fighters and horses would cohabitate in close quarters. Equipment and horses would be kept on the main floor, sleeping quarters and hay storage on the second floor. The sliding pole made for rapid access to below, while the spiral stairs were space efficient and served as a deterrent to the horses ascending to the upper storeys.

Fire Station, Hiawatha Blvd, Syracuse, New York

A single, or in some cases, a multiplicity of doors facing directly onto the street, established a look that is both unmistakable, and completely genuine. In the event of a call, quick access to the street equated to reduced response times. Additionally, being centrally located allowed for virtually equidistant response times to the assigned coverage area. Tall doors, some with archways, allowed for horse-drawn engines, or narrow yet tall trucks, to circulate with a degree of ease and expediency.

Fire Station, St-Laurent and Fairmont, Montreal, Quebec

The lookout tower, which in many cases served double-duty for hose drying, punctuated the roof line, allowed fire fighters to pinpoint the location of fires prior to the introduction of more sophisticated locating devices. The height of the tower was derivative of the area of coverage and the adjacent construction, with the aim to provide as unobstructed a view to the widest extent possible.

Signage indicating Fire Station in the vicinity, Ottawa, Ontario

2-Exponential evolution

As populations grew, cities expanded, and building stock became denser, demands on firehouses became evidently strained. The need for larger and more functionally responsive firehouses developed in tandem with advancements in equipment, vehicles, training and techniques.

Fire Hydrant, Red

Due to a litany of evolving realities ranging from budget cuts, new technologies, updated equipment, improved response times, consolidation, hiring freezes, staffing compressions, real estate speculation, development encroachment, urban sprawl, out-migration and gentrification, a significant number of older firehouses have been decommissioned, or simply left to flame out. Some sit for several years, languishing, falling into disrepair, only to eventually be found listed for sale and disposal to be removed from the public accounts.

Fire Hydrant, Yellow

3-Requisite re-interpretation

Though not as exquisite in detailing, modern-day fire stations pick up many of the themes laid by their predecessors, and amplify them. Perhaps lacking in some of the more revered qualities ascribed to vintage, especially Victorian era firehouses, the primacy of the branded characteristics is nonetheless evident.

Fire Station, between Pitt Street and Sydney, Cornwall, Ontario

Although contextual, location specific and artistic variations can be noted, the general theme remains. Street facing doors for rapid street access, central locations, lookout towers, many of these integral, established and branded elements are evident to one degree or another in numerous modern fire stations.

 

Fire Station, near Oakland Park Blvd, Lauderdale, Florida

Fire Station, Industrial Road near St-Laurent Blvd, Ottawa, Ontario

The tall yet narrow doors have been replaced by wider ones, making it easier to accommodate modern equipment. As before, priority is given to locations that allow for quick access to multiple nodes within the assigned coverage area by way of main thoroughfares or highways. As newer information technologies emerged, the need to pinpoint fire locations visually became less common. Nonetheless, lookout towers carry forward as part of the aesthetic, serving as a crucial brand marker, having found a new use in training procedures involving high-buildings which require different techniques and fire mitigation strategies.

Fire Station, St-Joseph near Mont Bleu, Gatineau, Quebec

Functionally more efficient, modern fire stations nonetheless almost universally lack the more ethereal qualities, size and scale that make Vintage firehouses desirable.

Fire Station, Boundary Street/County Road 34, Lancaster, Ontario

Fire Station, St Andrews West, Ontario

4-Romanticism for Vintage firehouses

Centrally located by design, these historic stately structures still tend to command prime locations. Some, having stood for over a century, became part of the social fabric and the location of civic and community gatherings. Hence, for a myriad of reasons ranging from civic pride, nostalgia, childhood memories, or even a sense of public duty, some of these heritage firehouses find buyers who eventually repurpose these for unintended and unconventional uses.

FORMER Firehouse (Current use: Arts centre), St-Dominique near Rachel East, Montreal, Quebec

Firehouses have been converted to serve various uses such as offices, places of worship, community spaces, performance theatres, restaurants, dance studios, hotels, and residences. Former firehouses converted to residences served as backdrops for several television shows such as “Spencer for Hire”, “Jonas” and “Real World Boston”, as well as feature film “Princess Diaries”. Feature film “Ghostbusters” also made use of a converted Fire House, recast as the improbable paranormal central.

 FORMER Firehouse (Current use: residence), near Des Allumetieres and de Maisonneuve, Hull, Quebec

In no small measure, part of the charm of these structures is the lineage, history, location and distinct aesthetic, if not the unique aura that emanates from classic firehouses. Even though they have found new uses, they still retain the vestiges of their previous life, effectively branded as such, and these undeniable markings enhance the value.

5-Incessant integration

As a rather instructive display, some of the same harsh realities that pushed classic firehouses into redundancy and disuse are also working vis-à-vis their modern replacements. Some newer fire stations are staring down the similar culprits of financial realities, population displacement and emerging technologies.

Although current fire stations retained elements of their forerunners, newer streamlined stations bear a lesser resemblance, forging a blended aesthetic influenced heavily by cost controlled function trumping form.

Fire Station, Salina Street, Syracuse, New York

Adopting a look that is more related to multi-bay auto repair service and storage garages, these “service centres” could be easily mistaken for anything other than a fire station. This trend is ever more complicated by the trend revolving around the all-encompassing service centres, which combine all first responders, Fire, Police and Ambulance, into one single nondescript building.

Active Green+Ross, Oxford Street West, London, Ontario

Fire Station, Old Liverpool Road near NYS thruway, Liverpool, New York

Midas, Saint-Charles Boulevard near Highway 40, Kirkland, Quebec

As modern fire stations were already declining in conserving a semblance of the charms of the past, some of the cost imperative service centres  have obliterated them almost entirely.

Fire Station, Route 43, Avonmore, Ontario

Fire Station, NYS Route 11 at NYS Route 37 West, Fort Drum, New York

Inheriting a recognizable aesthetic, coerced into quasi-perpetual decline through emerging financial realities, it is difficult to visualize, how a century from now, nostalgia could make one yearn to convert a 21st century service centre with the same red-hot fervour that early 20th century firehouses elicit today.

Fire Station, near A1A, Lauderdale-by-the-sea, Florida

Disclosure:
All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Early to market

In September 1898, J. Milton Eckerd and Z. Tatom opened the Erie Cut-Rate Medicine Store in Erie,Pennsylvania, thus becoming pioneers of the discount drugstore industry. The discount outlet met with success early on, offering over the counter medicines, personal hygiene items, tobacco and assorted products found in grocery stores of the era.

Panorama of downtown Erie in 1912, looking West along the 15th Street tracks (source: wikipedia)

In 1912, Milton Eckerd would sell his successful Erie,Pennsylvania store to sons, William and Ken, and opened a new store in Wilmington, Delaware. In the 1920s, the Delaware chain expanded into North Carolina, becoming the leading drugstore chain in the state by the 1930s (source: fundinguniverse.com). Ownership of the Delaware and North Carolina chains, as well as the original store in Erie, would remain within the Eckerd family, although distinct isolated operations (source: fundinguniverse.com).

In 1947, Jack Eckerd, son of the founder Milton, was introduced to the concept of self-service drugstores during a trip to California. In 1949, Jack established QuikChek in Erie, therefore opening the first self-serve drugstore on the East coast (source: fundinguniverse.com). The concept met immediate success. The lower operating cost self-serve model allowed for significantly lower consumer prices, which inadvertently led to consumer confusion between the two Eckerd-run drugstore brands.

Jack Eckerd opted to leave Erie in 1952, and institute the operational model in an entirely new market, purchasing three struggling drugstores in Florida, and turning them into financial successes (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Map of the United States, Florida highlighted red (source: wikipedia)

In 1959, grocery chain Publix, approached Eckerd to build drugstores next to five of its supermarkets in strip shopping malls (source: fundinguniverse.com). The Eckerd-Publix partnership would lead to 150 new Eckerd drugstores. In 1961, Eckerd Drugs of Florida was incorporated, marking the beginning of a state-wide expansion that would follow.

Publix supermarket, near Miami, Florida

2-Growth, competition and industry consolidation

Starting in the late 1960s through the end of the 1970s, Eckerd grew and diversified, acquiring both drugstore and non-drugstore businesses.

In 1970, Eckerd Drugs of Florida was renamed Jack Eckerd Corporation and continued its growth by acquisition strategy throughout the 1970s, purchasing Thrift City Wholesale Drugs, Mading-Dugan Drugs, Galaxy Drugs, Eckerd Drugs Eastern Inc. and Ward Cut-Rate Drug (source: fundinguniverse.com). The acquisition binge culminated in 1977 with the acquisition of Eckerd North Carolina, finally consolidating all Eckerd branded companies under single ownership, allowing Eckerd to leapfrog into the number two position among drugstore chains with 766 stores (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Throughout the 1980s, Jack Eckerd Corporation continued to acquire competitors, although it suffered from massive store closings due in part to a management buyout in 1985. Shuttering some lesser performing stores in the process, Eckerd then resumed adding new locations (source: fundinguniverse.com). In 1990, Eckerd acquired 220 Revco drugs stores when the company declared bankruptcy.

In 1993, Jack Eckerd Corporation was renamed Eckerd Corporation when it returned to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Beginning in 1994, Eckerd had divested its non-drugstore assets to focus on its core retail drugstore operations (source: fundinguniverse.com). In the subsequent years, Eckerd resumed its growth through acquisition strategy, buying North Carolina-based Crown Drugs (1994) and Kerr Drug Stores (1995), acquiring most of the assets of Rite Aid’s Florida operations (1995), and New York-based, 270-unit Fay’s Drug (1996). (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Subsequently in 1996, Eckerd would be acquired by department store, J.C. Penney, merging its Thrift Drug operations, Thrift Drug, Kerr Drugs, Fay’s Drugs, and some Rite Aid stores, under the Eckerd umbrella (source: wikipedia). Purchasing an additional 114 Revco stores in Virginia in 1997, the Eckerd chain was ranked fourth in the nation, behind Walgreens, CVS and Rite Aid with 2,778 stores (source: fundinguniverse.com)

3-Weaning off the strip fix

Due almost completely to a growth by acquisition policy, as opposed to an organic growth, Eckerd ended up with a portfolio of disparate, varied and conflicting real estate aesthetics, and stores with divergent looks.

Frank Newman, CEO and president, implemented a strategy in 1996 that was intended to move the chain away from locations in strip malls, which typically were anchored by supermarkets, as by now most supermarkets had pharmacies and were direct competitors to drugstores (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Eckerd, typical strip mall location, Upstate, New York (source: wikipedia)

Eckerd began the process of opening new, larger, freestanding locations, at about 11,000 square feet, designed to offer an enhanced selection of convenience foods and drive-through pharmacy windows (source: fundinguniverse.com). In the late 1990s, Eckerd would continue to vacate existing strip mall locations and relocate existing units into newer freestanding locations. In 1998, the majority of newly opened stores would constitute relocations, 175 of 220 (source: fundinguniverse.com).

Eckerd (prior to Rite Aid conversion)  Rochester, Pennsylvania (source: wikipedia)

Although the chain had embarked on a total redesign of Eckerd stores, it had become hooked on its own medicine, returning to its growth by acquisition blueprint when it absorbed the 141-store Genovese Drug Stores chain in 1999. After the purchase, Eckerd had nearly 3000 stores, and had set its sights on adding 575 new and relocated stores by 2001 (source: fundinguniverse.com). At the time, Eckerd also planned to convert some 2,000 strip mall units to freestanding units by the end of 2010 (source: fundinguniverse.com).

4-Prescription: Becoming a destination

By instituting a visible and distinctive look, style and identity for its stores, Eckerd managed to gain a modicum of success in consolidating its motley collection of divergent and disparate acquisitions into a unified retail theme.

One of the major highlights of the stand alone stores, in addition to increased sales, was the fact that Eckerd stores had graduated to destination status. Now a trip to Eckerd was intentional, as it was no longer a store amongst a collection of other retailers within a strip mall. 

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Old Liverpool Road, Liverpool, New York

On the site, the stores were set back from the street, ringed by parking spaces, and visible from a distance, unlike the strip mall locations that had but a banner sign to identify them. The store design revolved around a basic geometry, rectangular in nature, with little to no articulation.

The entrance was front and center, typically street facing on major street. The front entrance was framed by built-up column elements and pilasters, and featured a vestibule in colder climates, with additional doors located on the sides of the framed entrance.

The front also featured the most ornamentation with high set windows on either side of the entrance. The framed front entrance was capped by a prominent gable that tied the entrance element. The centered front entrance featured a slight arcade that extended to wrap the either side of the vestibule, returning around the side towards the back of the store, and typically terminating into a replica of the gable capped entrance component, opposite the drive-thru pharmacy window.

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Buckley Road, Liverpool, New York

The arcades doubled as covered sidewalk to provide shade in sunnier climates, as well as to add architectural relief to the facades. The drive-thru pharmacy was typically hidden behind, and at the rear, away from view, contributing little by way of visual clutter. 

Predominantly clad in light coloured materials, like white and crème coloured CMU block, EIFS, or precast concrete. The field material was broken up horizontally with banding elements. In light coloured renditions, a distinctive metal banding element in Eckerd blue, tied in with the metal roof sheathing material at the prominent gables.

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Route 11, Clay, New York

Where the material was brick, the colour palette was a darker, warmer, muted, and typically a traditional red. In this rendition, the blue banding was displaced, substituted by a lighter, off-white crème to beige colour. The banding was accomplished with precast concrete elements, coloured stone, or EIFS. Although the blue banding was absent, the metal roof was nonetheless present and accounted for. Keys and various other stone and brick reveals were also featured to dress up the blank facades and add some visual interest.

Rite Aid (Former Eckerd), Smithfield, North Carolina

Rushing headlong into the plan to move away from strip locations, Eckerd had managed to recreate its portfolio of disparate stores, revitalize its retail presence, and create a recognizable and enviable retail brand image in less than a decade.

5-From forgettable to recognizable

In July 2004, J.C. Penney sold its Eckerd stores, dividing the lot between Jean Coutu Group and CVS, with the stores in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic going to the former, and the Southeast and Southwest US stores going to the latter.

CVS rapidly converted its newly acquired Eckerd locations, changing exterior signage almost instantly, removing the Eckerd name in several markets.

CVS/pharmacy (Former Eckerd) Southside Place, Texas (source: wikipedia)

Conversely, Jean Coutu Group initially merged Eckerd with its American pharmacy chain, Brooks Pharmacy, to form Brooks Eckerd. The merged chain would later be sold to Rite Aid in June of 2007, with Rite Aid applying a Paint, Powder, Re-set (P.P.R.) exercise to revamp the stores, along with a revised design scheme and new signage (source: wikipedia). By the end of September 2007, the over a century old Eckerd name had effectively been erased completely from the American marketplace.

Rite Aid, new prototypical storefront (RiteAid.com) 

CVS/pharmacy, new prototypical storefront, St. Louis, Missouri (source: wikipedia)

Near the end, Eckerd had one of the newest retail store stocks in the industry, with some 65% of its stores less than 5 years old. In the process of carving up the Eckerd real estate, the entrenched design remained, with seemingly only the name changed. Due principally to Eckerd’s unprecedented build out of stand alone stores in its last decade, the architectural identity that Eckerd had established, nurtured and promoted will remain recognizable in the retail presence of its acquiring competitors, serving as a visual link and constant reminder of the former drug store pioneer.

Disclosure:
All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Southern roots are showing

Travel along the US interstate system and you will likely come across a Cracker Barrel, a chain of family-friendly casual restaurants with a southern country theme, at one of the numerous exits along the way. At over 600 locations, covering 40-plus US states, Cracker Barrel has grown to become a common, comforting sight for road weary travellers.

Interstate I40/I85 through Burlington, NC (source: wikipedia)

Tennessee native Dan Evins, a Shell Oil sales representative, pioneered the restaurant and gift store amalgam in 1969, initially as a means to improve gasoline sales. The first of the innovative restaurant concept was built close to Interstate 40 in Lebanon, Tennessee, and in September 1969 began serving traditional Southern dishes including biscuits, grits, country ham and turnip greens.

Interstate I40 through the Smoky Mountains, NC (source: wikipedia)

Evins incorporated Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores in February 1970, and began leasing land on gasoline station sites near interstate highways to build-out more locations. The Cracker Barrel of that era featured on-site gas pumps, a practise that was in vogue until the oil shock of the 1970s. In the later half of the 1970s through the early 1980s, on-site gas stations would become less prominent, eventually being phased out entirely, as the restaurant and store operations gained increasing company focus.

Interstate I75/I85 downtown connector, view of the downtown skyline, Atlanta, GA (source: wikipedia)

In the early years, sites near highway exits in Southeastern and Midwestern US states were a natural fit. During the decades that followed, the chain would expand across the country, opening new locations in non-traditional areas like residential areas, therefore lessening the emphasis on prominent highway access points.

Although the site selection criteria changed over time, many characteristics that define Cracker Barrel have remained unwavering, including the traditional menu loaded with Southern comfort foods and the straightforward Southern influenced distinctive architectural design.

Cracker Barrel, Morrisville, NC (source: wikipedia)

2-Country Store sensibilities

From the outset, founder Dan Evins envisioned a trustworthy place, which would be welcoming, that would appeal to both friends and strangers to stop in for a home-cooked meal, that was unhurried and allowed folks to take a moment to slow down and that acted as a home away from home for homesick travellers. The essence of that kind of place was the traditional country store he frequented in his youth.

Country stores, also referred by aliases such as general stores, trading posts, village shops, were something every small community once had. Typically excelling in breadth, not depth of product, they also acted as the primary shopping destination in rural and small towns.

Gray’s General Store (Est 1788), Little Compton, Rhode Island (source: wikipedia)

However, more important than material subsistence for local residents, general stores served a social role, strengthening community ties and maintaining the social fabric. It was a place that was equal parts retail establishment and social network, a place to pick up essentials and catch up with the neighbours and the events of the day. It was a chance to change pace, slow down and to connect with others. Cracker Barrel even notes “a trip to the original Cracker Barrel was a lot like a friendly visit to a neighbor’s home” (CrackerBarrel.com).

3-Covered porch memoirs; Walk up, sit down, kick back

A typical Cracker Barrel is disarmingly simple, welcoming, comforting, with the homey vibe achieved in no small part by the building design and architecture. Pulling into a Cracker Barrel, one of the most prominent architectural features is the expansive front porch, stretching from end to end of the facade, filling the entire field of view. Purposely rustic and unhurried, it serves as an invitation to stop in, slow down and relax. Such an offer would have been difficult to resist for the travelling clientele that Cracker Barrel would initially seek to attract.

Chester Inn, Jonesborough, Tennessee (source: wikipedia)

The invitation to leisure is doubly encouraged with the provision of rocking chairs for guests to sit, read the newspaper and converse before or after enjoying a down-home country meal. As New Urbanism proponents contend, street-facing porches help to build communities, and the prominent street-facing porch typified by Cracker Barrel communicates a rustic openness and genuineness. The Hinkle rocking chairs populating the massive end-to-end porch has also become a Cracker Barrel fixture; with each location having them line the length of the porch.

Cracker Barrel, Cicero, New York

Cracker Barrel (facade), Watertown, New York

Themed around the traditional Southern U.S. General store ideal, the informal, unpretentious street-facing, rocking chair filled, porch clad façade, is supplemented by an equally unadorned rectilinear building, as evidenced by a profound lack of ornamentation and superficial elements.

Cracker Barrel (right side), Watertown, New York

Cracker Barrel (rear of building), Watertown, New York

Cracker Barrel (left side), Watertown, New York

Short of the adorned façade, all other sides are fairly blank and slab sided, clad in a palette of earth tones and natural materials, recalling traditional wooden exteriors and providing a timely nod to the agricultural heritage of the era and the litany of weathered farm buildings in rural small town landscapes.

Weathered farm building, along Highway 401, Ontario

Weathered fram building, along HIghway 400, Ontario

The open, friendly and communal values of the country store of old laid the foundation for the distinctive, welcoming design that Cracker Barrel would adopt and continues to promote. Like the menu, the design is recognizable, un-experimental and instinctively familiar, exhibiting no aspirations to emulate nouveau or in-vogue tendencies.

4-Distinctively different, from the outside in

Walking up to a Cracker Barrel is much like stepping into a firm handshake, no pretence, no posturing, just a warm familiar friend. Conversely, venturing inside is a cacophony of nostalgia and surprise at every turn. Whereas the exterior is plain, straightforward and unadorned, the interior is awash in frivolity and fun, overfilled with local artifacts, woodcrafts and other assorted goods for sale.

Cracker Barrel, Dunn, NC

The interior is adorned with unique and locally relevant original antique advertising signs, farm equipment, early kitchen appliances, toys, tools, farm implements, photos, and the like skilfully restored by Cracker Barrel. Cast iron pots and pans, scented candles, novelty items, collectible dolls, classic children’s toys, clothing, and old style chocolates and candies, is but a partial list of items featured for sale in the gift store.

General Store, Deaf Smith County Museum, Hereford, TX (source: wikipedia)

The unique crossbreed, as both restaurant and gift store, adds a further dimension to the dichotomy. Ingress and egress circumvents through the gift store, accentuating the laid-back invitation to slow down the pace, browse, look around and appreciate the surroundings. The process at Cracker Barrel feels deliberately anti-milestone driven, without any rush or pressure to get-in, get-seated, get-served, get-out revolving door throughput of other restaurant chains. The heritage affords guests the opportunity to take a country mile to their destination as opposed to having to decide in a New York minute.

5-Not just another roadside attraction

Authenticity, from the recipes to the heritage, is one of the differentiating factors that have allowed Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores to grow from its Southern base to a nationwide chain, spreading its culture and cuisine to the converts and the uninitiated. The Southern country store ideal translates well to many collective histories from the North, East, West and South, making it easy to grasp the concept as both familiar and instantly nostalgic.

Harking back to a simpler time in America’s not too distant past, when things seemed less hurried, uncomplicated and family mealtime was an opportunity to catch up, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores continues to operate on long held traditional principles.

Lebanon, Tennessee, downtown square (source: wikipedia)

Gallatin, Tennessee , downtown (source: wikipedia)

Franklin, Tennessee, downtown area (source: wikipedia)

Proudly displaying Southern roots and a staunch dedication to authenticity, in the menu and architectural identity, Cracker Barrel Old Country Stores has combined these elements to work in concert to reinforce and promote a reverence for traditional values, without resorting to kitsch or retro trappings.

Cracker Barrel, Ashland, VA

Disclosure:

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.