The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1114] Old-World Markets and Post-War Grocers: a comparative analysis

United States

¬Health is rooted in few things more explicitly than food. Food contributes to our physical and mental health in a variety of ways, contributing to an obesity crisis in addition to precipitating any number of health issues. These reasons bring specific importance to the culture of food; markets and sites of food commerce have long been places of cultural gathering and exchange. At their best they promote a valuing of experience, interaction, and culture. At their worst, they promote unhealthy choices through sales slight of hand, poor lighting, and limit choices to industrially produced products at the large-scale suburban shopping centers that arose with the advent of a postwar suburban culture. Understanding the history of the grocery store is critical to understanding how to change the status quo towards a more sustainable, healthful future. This comparative analysis examines both the development of the suburban grocery store and the history of old world markets. These two disparate approaches to grocery culture will be further explored, using Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town in the Great Lakes region, as a means to explore possible improvements to contemporary grocery culture that might be implemented on a broader scale.

The contemporary grocery store, now a well-established part of the American urban fabric, is a comparatively young model of food commerce. In fact, the typology is little less than one hundred years old. In 1916, the first self-service grocery store, called Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis, Tennessee. This was a major paradigm shift moving away from general stores or trading posts with clerks gathering the customer’s orders for them as the customer waited. The customer was now exposed to products in new and independent ways. Product advertisements thus played an entirely new role in the shopping experience. Whereas before the customer expressed a need for (product) the new model put the customer in the position to expose themselves to more product and to have to chose between competitors. In a Times Magazine article from 1929, the success of this new paradigm was discussed: “the Piggly Wiggly idea has proved extremely successful, partly because of its novelty, partly because neat packages and large advertising appropriations have made retail grocery selling almost an automatic procedure.” The new reliance on consumer advertisements shifted the process of selecting products away from purely product-based to identity based. This transition marked an important moment in shaping our contemporary food culture, by virtue of shifting away from need and towards a model that provides for desire. The reality of what was in the box was augmented by a series of promises in the advertisements; a promise-based system one can see today, with promises for “happy children” or “a thinner you” adorning many products.

Grocery stores have grown ever larger and franchised across the nation. The homogeneous architecture mirrors both the products and the newly suburban cities they service. The illusion of choice delights consumers as they select between this grocer over that or two differently branded, albeit nearly identical, products. Advertisements constructs images of these products and architectural elements such as industrial lighting, long uniform aisles, and shared cold storage between departments allowed for cost saving efficiencies and have precipitated a lack of awareness as to what one was actually consuming. Consumers instead find themselves buying the lifestyle the product purports to provide, rather than the product itself. Thusly, the grocery store becomes not just a place of food acquisition but also a theater of sorts: the advertisements perform for the consumers as the consumers perform for each other. For the illusion to be maintained, the performers’ stage is wholly distinct from backstage. The architecture makes explicit this division separating the performers’ stage from the behind the scenes; we now understand the faux wall containing the refrigerated rooms and the deli to exist on this division. These provide a prepared backdrop for the theater and mechanically allow for the logistics of food storage and movement to occur out of sight of the consumer.

The architecture of the grocery store provides a first impression and frames the customer’s relationship to food. Originally only selling dry goods merchandise, the grocery store model long ago folded in the butcher, the bakery, and the produce-stand into the grocer without adapting itself. The resulting large-scale, clear-span industrial spaces replete with long aisles stocked high with product, have been the unquestioned architectural answer to grocery store commerce. Indeed, since the 1930s, the architecture of grocery stores has changed very little. Lit by an unrelenting grid of oppressive florescent lights, the design of grocery stores moved away from the “Ma and Pa” style general good store. Shifting from architecture’s that encouraged community or relationships. The post-war period saw the rise of mass marketed and manufactured products across the nation. An impulse reflected in architecture through the International style and the early modernists. The architecture of the grocery stores adopted non-place-ness, a term theorized by French anthropologist Marc Augé most notably in his 1992 “Non-Places, introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”. In this exploration Augé explores modernity’s “willed coexistence of two worlds”, focusing on how this conflation of situation and theater leads to a misread of both. Such it is when the architecture framing food is a non-place: the architecture easy supports, and possibly creates, a cultural understanding of food as an omnipresent object as the theater’s influence prevents a read of the true situation. The processed grocery store is architectural permission for the artificial hot-dog. The assertion is not that this is a causal relationship; rather an understanding that architecture’s relationship to food commerce should be addressed as a part of any effort to affect public opinion on food with the aim of supporting a more healthful public.

This theatrical misleading contributes, socially and architecturally, to a misunderstanding or ignorance. Staff at a local grocery store revealed that the baked goods presented in a glass case, an implicit promise of freshness, are not as healthful and fresh as promised. The cakes brought to the store baked and frozen; the bread is baked on site from industrially produced dough. The “bakery” veils the reality of the product at the same time that it purports a fictional reality. The title of “bakery”, the glass box, the decorations adorning the section all lead the customer to believe the fiction of freshness. It is worth noting, like the packages that advertisements use to sell themselves, the truth of the bakery is always visible in quantitative nutrition labels and qualitatively in the products themselves. More then deceiving them, these theatrical operations encourage the customer to fall into the fantasy and perhaps provide permission to.

Early states of evolution of the grocery store present possibilities to create a more healthful future version of western food commerce. Across town from the grocery store a collection of merchants have established a market named “The Markets at Kerrytown” or Kerrytown for short, in a collection of historic buildings. The collection of markets bears resemblance to the markets and bazaars that can still bee seen in other parts of the world. In these precursors to the grocery store, referred to as “drive-up markets”, multiple vendors would have shops around a common parking lot. The architecture of the Kerrytown markets is fractured and layered (these are traits which I believe contribute to the healthfulness of the space and are explored later in proposal form). In one space a coffee shop, a produce and general goods vendor, a seafood vendor, and a Bibimbop diner all share one space. Each merchant operating a zone in an old warehouse space, zones abutting each other with no “hard” architectural divisions, instead there is a Spartan deployment of curtains and glass partitions. There are also a number of small converted houses and smaller stand-alone shops in adjoining lots, which create an unofficial pedestrian district. Here shopping is not the homogeneous stroll in the florescent sterile grocery store but a richly sited ritual. Each zone or shop has its own distinct character but the whole complex shares an interest in material honesty and the identity of the space. That loaf of bread is not an artifact from an endless supply of plastic wrapped units but rather a specific item, one that often involves a conversation with the baker herself; it’s a weekly tradition. This architecture supports food advertised by memories more so then corporately constructed images.

These memories assist in the creation of a different relationship between customer and food. Where the grocery store puts the food in the role of calories or marketing promises, the market’s food biases an event-based role. This is the bread you bought for a recipe, this is the wine for the dinner party, and thusly it is more likely that the items carry intentionality. This intentionality is to awareness in what food is being consumed: this is an important component to the markets healthfulness. When one is mindful of the food chain they are participating in they are likely to consider what they consume and what suppliers they want to support. This allows the customer to exert a force for change on the industrial food providers. While this is conceptually optimistic, the market should not be viewed with exclusively rose-colored glasses. The market has more then a few foibles: higher prices then the grocery store, a constructed advertisement is formed of the very wholesomeness here praised, and its selection is intensive but not nearly as extensive as the grocery store. The challenge becomes sited in how to adapt the traits of the market for genuine, and practical, architecturally driven improvements to the grocery store type.

Following that intent, there seem many plausible adaptations that the grocery stores could undergo. These options range from simple changes to major operational alterations. Possibilities ranging from the most cynical as providing “novelty” (which at worst draws customers in) to the most optimistic views that these changes posses the potential to improve the shoppers’ relationship to, and the perception of, food. Changing things such as the uniformity of space, the singularity of the space, and providing alternative spaces for utilization. These would help to both remedy the identified unhealthful traits of the grocer at the same time that lessons learned from the more healthful Kerrytown markets are grafted onto the grocer, adapting for their new situation.

Perhaps most simply, the grocery store could begin to employ tactics often seen at higher-end stores, such as Whole Foods, have already made a part of their franchise. One such possibility is… that is, they could begin to break the homogeneity. Lowering the ceiling or applying different materials to the floor or ceiling in response to the items sold. These actions would begin to make the spaces more differentiated with the aim of increasing awareness of the shopper to the products. This concept can quickly be taken further; the grid of aisles can be broken. Reconfiguration of the aisles off a regular axis and inserting voids alters the speed and monotony of the shopping experience. While the aisles are being adjusted, it seems very possible the theater of the grocery store could be architecturalized more firmly than an aisle. Permanent partitions could begin to divide the space. My altering the homogeneity of the space, one can also break the homogeneous perception of products: suddenly the architecture distinguishes between the items being sold. Each department thus gains additional specificity and intention. One has the architecturalized opportunity to make ritual of buying a loaf of bread.

The whole store could shift with the seasons satisfying seasonal demands, and with the added benefits of fresher, more sustainable, local food chains. Defining the departments would make strange the ubiquitous “seasonal aisle” instead; the seasonal items could be dispersed throughout the store. Contributing to seasonal shift through the store and awareness to seasonal changes in food availability. Also allowing for an opportunity to contract with local providers to fill the newly created voids shortening food chains. The seasonal segment of the produce department could be provided by a local farmers organization. This relationship would allow for seasonal farmer’s markets in the asphalt abyss of a parking lot. Local bakers providing fresh deliveries, local farms providing material to the butcher. Moving this even further, the departments fragmented contracting for seasonal material can be extended to the model of many department stores and the LA drive up grocers. Departments could be subdivided into vendors where the grocer could operate a number of their own “store brands” alongside local fare. This would protect the owner of the store against possible inconsistencies inside one vendor. This would take great strides towards curing the grocery store of its banal non-place-ness transforming it instead into a place the community could find belonging in.

Belonging and community are traits that the market engenders par excellence through the inclusion of events that draw a local population in and provided reasons to linger. There are many ways to accomplish this; the Kerrytown market uses restaurants, coffee shops, and specialty shops. Come for the coffee pick up some groceries along the way; or, come for the specialty product you cannot get anywhere else and sit at the bar eating bibimbop with neighbors. The grocery store would benefit from this tactic by bringing in customers for longer periods of time; the community would have a reason for a public conversation on, and sense of community pride in food. Coffee shops or restaurants could be inserted into the store either operated by the store or, like the product vendors, leased to an outside restaurateur. This is not calling for a Starbucks counter at the entrance to caffeinate the florescent shopping daze but for the creation of someplace to dwell in. It’s easy to imagine imbedding multi-use spaces in the store, Wednesday night knitting club draws people into the building. Getting into the building more often, buying food shifts from a weekly or monthly stockpiling to picking up food every few days. This means there is less necessary demand for preservatives and a greater ability to keep fresher things in the house.

This combination of tactics represents a larger strategy for making the post-war grocer architecturally support a more healthful relationship to food by both emulating a number of traits of the old world market as well as remedying a number of unhealthful traits of the grocery store as it stands today. Addressing some of the unhealthful traits of the grocery store is key if an architectural solution is to be found. Taking a moment to learn from its predecessors, the grocery store can quickly remedy a number of unhealthful ailments that find their roots in post-industrial social rituals. Not thinking that the architecture will singularly alter the urban condition, but recognizing the great effectiveness architecture can have sculpting social perspectives and relationships. Changes are of paramount importance at a moment when food culture is contributing so detrimentally to the health condition in western society. Looking back thoughtfully with a critical eye allows for the root of the more unhealthful traits to be removed and more healthful elements to be integrated to contribute to an architecture supporting a more healthful reality.

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