ARQ, n. 62 Consumos / Consumption, Santiago, march, 2006, p. 37-39.



A big container and many little carts

Alejandro Crispiani*, Marcela Silva

* Profesor del área Teoría, Historia y Crítica de la Escuela de Arquitectura de la Universidad Católica de chile, Santiago, Chile.


An important part of our daily urban life is described here with such accuracy and perceptiveness, that it finally comes out of its domestic anesthesia. Thus, we recognize this choreography that gathers cars, customers, carts and products within the super sales room of the supermarket.

Key words: Architecture critique, commercial buildings, supermarkets, hypermarkets, retail, stores.

The supermarket is dead. Long live to the supermarket. The hypermarket has taken its place, a worthy heir that has cleverly multiplied both the undoubted advantages of its predecessor and its threatening flaws and ambiguities. Without being a public place, and more so than a mall, to which it may appear to be associated, but not necessarily so, the hypermarket is one of the main meeting places for the public in the city at present. It serves the most basic needs of this public, but nothing prevents it from also serving the most sophisticated ones. Regular visits to it could be spaced out, but have become ever more inevitable due to its impressive power of convergence and its apparent steam-roller effect in the retail business of basic products. In principle, the hypermarket could stock, and sometimes I have the impression that it really does, the total amount of brands and types of products that circulate in the national market relative to foodstuffs and hygiene, embracing in a limited way, but ever more decidedly, the other items that end up inhabiting our homes: clothing, electrical appliances, utensils, furniture and others. It is a key link in our urban life, in which there is just about everything, and just about everybody.
At the rhythm of economic growth, it would appear that in Chile the hypermarket typology has acquired notable importance at the urban and social level over the past few years. The rigor, growth and propagation of the supermarket industry in our country are several decades old. The first supermarket belonging to the Almac chain was inaugurated in Providencia, in the metropolitan region, back in 1957. The rise of a new architectonic type and the location and image criteria that it demands will undoubtedly have lasting consequences for the city and the market. But perhaps the most important aspect is the new relationship between the client and the product that the supermarket proposes, eliminating the mediating and paternal figure of the salesman and giving rise to a more direct and introverted relationship with the product that no longer channels that ancestral contact between the buyer and the seller (there are only buyers in the supermarket). This is directly reflected in the introduction of the self-service concept in traditional stores, changing the spatial and programmatic distribution of their interior, increasing their surface areas and reducing the sale of non-packaged products to the absolute minimum. Crowning the rapid growth and expansion process that supermarkets have been experiencing since the eighties, the hypermarket became consolidated as a new commercial typology at the end of the nineties, being the result of a series of negotiations, restructuring and movements in national industry that will condition its growth and development in years to come. As of that moment, the idea of the hypermarket as a sort of urban container, strategically located in the city, and a link in a greater framework of programmatic and advertising networks and systems, has become exaggerated(1).
Macro-consumption and macro-city / Supermarket architecture harks back to a referential type in the origins of modern architecture: the great vessel, be it either industrial or exhibition fair, built according to a meccano-type industrial system of dry assembly, with important spatial and construction flexibility, capable of absorbing modifications at any moment. It is a vessel capable of accommodating large quantities of people in motion, generator of a micro-climate with strictly controlled lighting and ventilation conditions, that contains all the buying activity without cracks or filtering to the exterior, guaranteeing concentration on the product. Like the industrial ship, it is guided by the idea of maximum spatial efficiency based on a primarily lineal ordering which could be called the consumption line.
The great hall is the most patent manifestation of that change in the relationship with the products that we mentioned: in the supermarket the buyer is the one that buys, whereas before, the seller was the one that sold. Even thought the disappearance of the salesman makes the products directly accessible, reaching out to the buyer like never before, this does not necessarily mean that buying has become a lonely activity. It is well known that buying in the supermarket is in many cases an act of socialization. Family shopping is frequent. Now that the salesman is gone, the supermarket appears to strengthen preexisting or already established bonds. On the inside, the products offer themselves using different techniques. In the first place, of course, there is the container, no longer designed for products that will coexist more or less pacifically on the shelving of shops, but rather for the relentless war of image in the aisles. The siren’s song of the products, made up by their containers, fills the great hall. Following a long-lasting western tradition of valuing naturalistic images, vision is more important than any of the other senses here. Sight is the great avenue that channels the desires that the products untiringly generate. It wanders unceasingly in a field fully occupied by meticulously clothed merchandise. Few of them dare show themselves naked under some more or less transparent covering. Sight may be supported by hearing (at some moment it may guide us to products the great hall wants to get rid of), but never by the sense of smell, which only sneaks surreptitiously into the great hall, against its wishes. The great hall also has other techniques to promote or discourage the circulation of a specific product. The main one of them is location, which has to do with the greatest exposure to sight. To see is to desire, and the more a product is looked at, the more it rotates. That is where those privileged places come from: the heads of the aisles, and the shelving at eye height. Above all, these aisle heads reveal that the order of the goods is not static (although it appears to be), but entirely to the contrary: within an unchanging length of aisle the different trademarks appear and disappear. Besides, in its shelving, the products are constantly being withdrawn, they move before our very eyes, but this movement is imperceptible; despite their removal and repositioning they seem to continue to be there, as if they were produced by the shelving itself. There are certain characteristics of the great hall that make it a particular place, isolated from the rest of the spaces in which the mass of the public meet. One of those traits is what we might call the suspension of the property of objects. Upon entering the great hall, the user must get rid of the greatest number of objects of personal use that custom and social practice allow. Once in the hall, objects don’t appear to belong to anybody. The only valid law for them is visibility: all the products have to be visible, and it is not only about a sales strategy. While the product shows itself in full view, there is no suspicion of theft, (in the great space of the hall there is no theft of merchandise, only suspicion of such, which will become effective or not when one passes through the tills). In this regard the carts show the wisdom of their design: nothing can be hidden in them. Taking merchandise out of a neighboring cart could be a sign of unforgivable rudeness, but it does not constitute theft, as the person that had it in his cart is not yet its owner. While it is in full view, it will only be a change of location. It implies an irritation, but it does not represent a material loss for the person it was taken from. Hence that relaxed attitude towards bought objects that one can feel inside the great hall. They can remain inside the cart free from their fate for a while; in the end, their improbable removal will only mean a waste of time. This quite particular and extraordinary condition of objects makes the space of the great hall consistent. Going through the till puts an end to it: the visibility of the products ends as they are covered by the white bags; from then on they have a specific personal owner, their open availability is over, they are hidden from sight. The power of attraction of their containers can rest under the thin white cover: it has fulfilled it commitment. From that moment on, with the product having become private property and very exchangeable, the function of the container becomes principally informative, whereas before it was basically to arouse desire.
Another notorious characteristic of the great hall is its sectoring by specialties: bakery, meats, fish, wines, cosmetics; each family of products creates its own niche, the characterization of which in many cases is based on the commercial typology of the city itself. Added to theses sectors are the food courts –not necessarily fast, that allow for interrupting or energizing the shopping sequence–. Thus the hypermarket corresponds to a type of neighborhood network(2). Probably like in ancient cities where every productive activity had its own sector, the borough of the blacksmiths or the tinsmiths, the hypermarket sectorizes on the basis of families of objects or products. Different set characteristics distinguish each one of these families within the impassive framework of the general architecture of the vessel. The dividing lines between the different micro-boroughs may be subtle or striking, but the flow network connects them all. The tills act as a sort of customs of this interior citadel: one must render meticulous accounts of the objects one is taking out of it and introducing into the real city. But the citadel is surrounded by other spaces. Obviously, the warehouses, storerooms and places for food production that serve it; the parking lots and a mass of shops in the traditional manner, with personalized attention, that have taken cover under the great container, or are crowded together at its edges. Evidently, the hypermarket does not exclude these ancestral forms of commerce, it only minimizes them, it puts them in their place: rotating in orbit around itself.
The efficient use of the great hall requires a sort of mobile cupboard: the supermarket shopping cart, without doubt one of the great creations of modern design: easy to maneuver, heavy, transparent, it can be packed into extraordinarily compact rows, capable of transporting apparently enormous amounts of merchandise; it is the key piece of this architecture. Without it, the entire supermarket apparatus would be inconceivable. It is the perfect counterpoint to the immobility and the apparently frozen and efficient order that the shelving imposes on objects. The cart takes the products out of this order and piles them up one on top of the other, but not senselessly. The content of the cart constitutes a portable universe of personal preferences and economic possibilities, perhaps more expressive of their owner than any other group of goods to be exhibited in public. The supermarket cart mirrors the great hall, as it is itself a variant of the container; it is in fact a mobile micro-container. It is the instrument that allows the closed-in sea of merchandise contained by the great hall, always at the point of overflowing, to flow past the tills and then filter to the cars and from them to the homes. Its identification with the supermarket itself, its almost inoperable clumsiness outside this environment, reinforces the condition of singular and differential space of the sales hall, a space that needs a tool for its proper use, that is its own, and only works inside it.
The contents of the cart spill out into the boot of the car. Both wheeled vehicles share this other great container: the parking lot. The parking lots are indispensable as they contain that extension of the supermarket cart - the automobile. In them, the automobile becomes a hyper-cart swallowing buyers and merchandise. However, the parking lots have an inverse relationship with the objects they contain compared to the relationship the great hall has with its goods. Contrary to the latter, whose natural state is jam-packed, the parking lots accept being (or maybe secretly want to be) an empty space, or at least partially occupied. A completely full parking lot is ineffective or imperfect, shows its lack of coherence with the great hall, is incapable of fully fulfilling the desires the latter awakes. There is nothing more irritating than the tight knit of other people’s cars at the expectant moment of entering the great hall. Strangely enough they reach perfection in their relationship in its partial occupation, in its wasteful use. Its holes and empty spaces are necessary for the fluid circulation of merchandise. They are only perfect when they are not full. This partial occupation would be intolerable for the shelves (for those who have witnessed it, there is no more disturbing sight than a half-empty supermarket). On the other hand completely empty parking lots are a sign that the great hall has closed its doors. When completely empty they dissociate from the great hall and its extension on wheels, acquiring an esthetic fullness that makes them valid in their own right. We architects educated in the modern tradition, have been trained to admire this type of space: a great hypostyle hall, an enormous flat form, perfect, extensive, nocturnal and uninhabited. It is intriguing that these spaces reach their utmost expression when they are no longer fulfilling their purpose, when the objects they must accommodate have abandoned them. They are not, nor can they be, useful, but if they were, they could be considered beautiful abstract sculptures to be contemplated from a vehicle in motion.
Despite the complexity of the interior of the hypermarket, from the city one only perceives a container that is installed on an urban scale. A common skin covers its entire perimeter. Different advertising objects, of relatively long or short life, usually announcing bargains and new products, are hung on this skin. But the purpose of the existence of this skin is to be the impassive background against which the company’s logotype and the letters that make up its name stand out. In effect, both things make up one graphic unit, one trademark that reflects all the trademarks in its interior. One hyper- brand that hovers above all the products in the interior and spreads out on an urban scale. The outer skin exists to give the logo its place. The entire architecture is impregnated by it(3). The logos have to be simple and unforgettable, they are the reference points in the consumer world: “modern lighthouses that guide us in our experience and journey through the world” the logo tells us where we are(4).
The exterior of the hypermarket is decidedly poor: all the resources used are rudimentary: a simplistic use of volume, the elemental gigantism of the logo and the equally elementary relationship of form to background. It is bearable when seen from afar, isolated from other buildings, and whenever possible, in the midst of greenery. But the consolidated city does not digest it well. Expressed so brutally, its huge interior scale only produces urban isolation. Observed from the outside, the hypermarket seems to retain its condition of a large habitable advertising object without ever becoming a building. The intentions of making the hypermarket an important link in the functioning of the borough, which its design embraces and articulates in the great sales hall, does not appear to have rubbed off on the outside of the building, which only appears to want to impose its trademark. The contrast between the inside and the outside of the hypermarket could not be more manifest. The number of artifacts used to regulate the flow of objects and people that inhabit its interior, allowing for the satisfaction of many diverse interests, encouraging certain aspirations and desires and blocking others, does not even lightly touch the relationship of the building to the city, which is somewhat childish; (despite its efforts in this regard it has not been able to surpass the department stores). This problem will hopefully change, as it is an eminently architectural problem, or one that could be resolved with tools that architecture could provide. Here and there, but definitely more there than here, there seem to be signs that our profession is beginning to take this matter, and other similar ones, in hand. The great hall still awaits its architect.


1. See Silva Fischer, Marcela: Hyperarchitecture: a contained micro-city. The hypermarket in Santiago, Chile. Thesis for the title of Architect and Master in Architecture, Universidad Católica de Chile, 2005. Guiding professor Fabrizio Gallanti.
2. For more details see: Marcela Silva Fischer, op. cit.
3. For greater expansion on this theme as well, see Marcela Silva Fischer; op. cit.
4. Pozo, Patricio; “ The global economy of image” In ARQ Magazine Nº 49, p.27.

Silva Fischer, Marcela: Hiperarquitectura: una microciudad contenida. El hipermercado en Santiago de Chile. Tesis para optar al grado de Magíster en Arquitectura, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, april 2005.
Pozo, Patricio; “La economía global de la imagen”. ARQ Nº 49, Ediciones ARQ, Santiago, 2001, p. 27.