Why closed-down stores?
The idea went back to 2005 when I drove weekly past a large closed supermarket on the North Side of Chicago. At night the space really transformed from one of neglect and misuse to something incredibly visual that described a Rothko-esque painting space divided in three parts (parking lot, building, and sky). I spent a few nights making some photographs to try and replicate what I saw. I had been working on a larger project dealing with American consumerism, and it was no surprise to me that these spaces would fail and dwindle as fast they arise. I was in the midst of a deeper project, photographing in thrift stores and recycling shops as part of my “Copia” series, so I shelved the idea.
At the end of 2007 with many rumblings of recession, I thought of those pictures and began the project in earnest in May of 2008. In many senses it was a vindication of what I had been talking about in my earlier work. How can an economy sustain a lifestyle based on exponential growth and the leisure and wealth to support it? It’s not rocket science to expect these kind of illusions to fail. What’s strange is how ingrained the brands and spaces are to us that so many were not only surprised to see major retailers and malls sink but were saddened. Many of these ideas were set in motion decades ago.
Many abandoned big-box stores are renovated into schools or churches. What do you think should be done with these empty buildings?
Some buildings can be repurposed but so many cannot. Retail design and use is not only based on the space itself but also location. When a few stores go down often many others in an area go with them—a retail ghost town if you will. Though one can repurpose one space it might sit in a vast area of blight. The problem lies not in what we should do with what we have already but it seems more important to get a lot stricter about what new retail spaces we allow into our communities. The promises are always jobs and tax revenue, but that won’t help in the long run if the store folds or relocates to the next township who offers an incentive.
It may seem cynical but I personally would like to see many of the spaces simply be turned back into fields, woods, and natural landscape, rather than trying to discover some profound solution. This is actually happening not so much by design in Detroit where entire neighborhoods are disappearing. Rather than design a new use for the space, many are arguing to leave it and let it be.
Ghosts of Shopping Past, Interview with Brain Ulrich, from The Morning News