Book Review: The Rule of Logistics

The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment by Jesse LeCavalier, published by University of Minnesota Press, 2016. Paperback, 282 pages. (Amazon)

Think about Walmart and most likely architecture does not spring to mind. The company Sam Walton started in Arkansas in the 1960s became the world's largest retailer by erecting inexpensive and efficient boxes to store and display good sold cheaper than anybody else, not by championing attention-getting architecture. Nevertheless, their Walmart stores, Supercenters, and Sam's Clubs are instantly recognizable, and their interiors incorporate research on the benefits of natural light and other environmental factors toward getting customers to open up their pocketbooks. In other words, Walmart is well aware of the importance of architecture; it's just executed in a manner quite distinct from capital-A architecture.

One aspect of Walmart's physical reality is logistics, which appears to have been a passion of designer and educator Jesse LeCavalier for some time now. I first became aware of his research in 2010 when I posted "Walhattan" and a link to his essay, "All Those Numbers," at Places Journal. A couple years later I came across his ongoing research in Cabinet Issue 47: Logistics, where his piece, "The Restlessness of Objects," appeared. He got a fair amount of attention back then in part from a graphic showing the square footage of the various Walmart iterations next to the island of Manhattan. It drove home the scale and influence of the corporation, while also revealing some apparently insurmountable conditions for the retailer – to this day it does not have a store in Manhattan.

Yet as LeCavalier reveals in last year's book on the role of logistics in how Walmart functions, impediments are design problems to navigate, not road blocks. Specifically I'm referring to the way the retailer lined stores along – but not inside – the Vermont border in response to the state's ban on the company's stores. Walmart used its logistical expertise to best position these stores to nearly saturate the market within Vermont; the same expertise was used to locate the stores that eventually got built inside Vermont once the state relented. The way Walmart handled it, Vermont had no choice but to relent, since all those dollars were being spent in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New York – not Vermont. Although this example will make opponents of Walmart (like me) even bigger opponents, it serves to express just how widely logistics infiltrates the corporation's practices.

That said, there is one example of capital-A architecture in The Rule of Logistics: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Designed by Moshe Safdie for Sam Walton's daughter, Alice, the building dramatically spans a waterway not far from the Walton house designed by Fay Jones. Yet in LeCavalier's hands, the museum is not important in terms of form; rather he focuses on its role in creating a cultural draw, alongside the Walmart Museum, in a region that would normally be considered "flyover country." Even with the inclusion of Safdie's building, it's the stores, data centers, distribution centers and other aspects of Walmart's physical infrastructure that will stick with readers, prompting them to consider just what they mean for architecture in a broader sense.