What It’s Like To Be A Walmart Architect

In Washington, D.C., the retail behemoth gave architects more creative license. The result is a move away from the blandness of Big Box in favor of place-based design.

Late last year, I visited one of the first two Walmart stores to open in Washington, D.C., and discovered a Walmart unlike almost any other in the United States. It was a thoughtfully designed store with a spacious vestibule, parking hidden underground, and—wonder of wonders—windows. You can stand inside that store at the corner of Georgia and Missouri Avenues NW and actually see the color of the sky. I’ve been reporting on the big box retailer for a decade, and that Washington, D.C., store was so distinctive that it inspired a thought no Walmart ever has: Who designed this space?

All Walmart stores have architects, of course. But the stores are so uniform—they are numbered, in order of opening, for easy identification—it’s hard to tell what the architects do. Presumably, they make sure the walls meet the floor and the ceiling at perfect 90-degree angles. I put in a call asking to talk to someone who had been involved in the design of Walmart No. 5968 in Washington, D.C., I mentioned the windows.

About 90 minutes after my request, I got a call from Gabe Massa of MMA Architects, who helped design this Walmart. I asked him how it was that this store managed to be so different and he laughed. “That’s a really loaded question,” he said. “Way before Walmart brought us on, there were a lot of discussions with the developers and the city.” Walmart, it turns out, is working with planners, communities, and architects to bring smarter, urban-centric design to cities like D.C. The design difference at this particular store came down to two key things: meetings and inspiration from a historic car barn.

Meetings galore

Massa’s firm was asked to design the Georgia Avenue store in part because of its experience putting stores in urban settings. His firm has 20 Walmart stores in the mid-Atlantic and the northeast that are either in design or finished (they also do stores for CVS, Office Depot, and ACME supermarkets).

There were a lot of meetings in the store’s Brightwood neighborhood with local officials, residents, planning board members, members of the historic preservation group. The planning process—which lasted almost three years—and the design reviews vested the community in the way the store looked.

“They got a better store than they would have without the design review,” says Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, which worked closely with the city, Massa, and Walmart on the design of the store. “Those meetings offered the opportunity to bounce ideas off each other—they were like brainstorming sessions. They ended up with much better ideas than they would have come up with on their own.”

Finding inspiration in an unusual place

“We looked at this location,” Massa said, “and there was an old car barn there that had been built in 1908. It originally held horses and buggies. It burned and was rebuilt. Then it was used for Washington’s trolley car system.” The car barn stopped being used by D.C.’s mass transit system in 1955, but it was still on the property, tucked behind a Chevrolet dealership that had gone out of business.

The car barn was not a distinguished piece of architecture. It was a boxy building, with wide-open spaces along the front to allow the trolley cars to enter and leave. “History is not always beautiful,” Miller. “It was very much a utilitarian building—it was not high style. But that car barn had an enormous impact on the development of this neighborhood.”


Rendering, Fort Totten Square, Washington, D.C., by Hickok Cole Architects

And it caught Massa’s imagination. “The car barn helped make Brightwood a destination early in the century,” he said. “We wanted to try to make Brightwood a destination again.” The designers also wanted to echo the car barn’s utilitarian and industrial feel. In fact, two of the most distinctive visual features of the Georgia Avenue Walmart are its rugged brick interior facade, with many of the bricks looking old, flecked with paint. Inside, one third of the store is devoted to groceries, and that section sits under an unusual peaked roof that is all glass, supported by robust metal trusses with visible rivets. All very un-Walmart-esque.

It was so unexpected that on my first visit, I asked a staff member if the bricks were re-used from something that had been on the site. (The man looked at me as if I’d asked if the Pampers for sale had been previously used.)

But the “used” look wasn’t cosmetic. “We wanted that industrial feel,” says Massa. “We harvested the brick from the car barn, we used every brick we could save, we took them out, cleaned them, stored them, then rebuilt with it as much as we could."

This is also true for some of the structural elements. “The trusses in the store are the actual trusses from the car barn," Massa says. "We took them off, took them apart, reconditioned them, we put them back together and designed the space around them. The car barn had the trusses and the skylights up in the roof, and we replicated that.”

Along the wide sidewalk out front thread two thick, dark, parallel lines—embedded directly in the concrete. They look like a shadow set of railroad tracks, which is the point. “That’s not exactly where the tracks ran,” says Massa. “We were just trying to evoke the symbolic meaning of what the car barn represented.”

As for the windows, there wasn’t much discussion about them. “I think the planning department mentioned them early on. They’ve always been designed in there.” The city wanted an open, airy design for the store.

Massa said he found Walmart game for fresh design ideas. “I wouldn’t even use the word game,” Massa said. “I would say the project people on Walmart’s side were instrumental to the outcome." Reusing the brick and the trusses, for example. “New is the easiest, new is the least expensive,” Massa said. “It would have been much cheaper to just buy regular brick.”

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