Jesse LeCavalier


On his book The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment

Cover Interview of November 29, 2016

In a nutshell

In this book, I look at the back of house operations of Walmart to better understand the relationship between logistics, architecture, and urbanism. While logistics has always been a part of any large managerial effort, whether civilian or military, it was in the 1960s that a so-called “logistics revolution” prompted organizations to think about their operations in a more comprehensive way. This shift in thinking was supported by deregulations of policies and by an explosion in communications technologies like the computer, bar code, and satellite. Deregulation allowed organizations new opportunities to externalize costs and advances in computation allowed the speed and scale of operations to increase dramatically. With the revolution in logistics, a manufacturing company, for example, could begin monitoring all aspects of its enterprise in a much more precise way than ever before, from the sourcing and extraction of its raw material, to searching for new labor markets (often even more deregulated), to predicting future demands of consumers. The Rule of Logistics uses the operation of one such organization, Walmart, to focus on how this transformation affects the built environment, including buildings, cities, infrastructure, and their inhabitants. It is organized in chapters related to each scale and ties together diverse protagonists to tell its story, including people, technologies, and artifacts.

One of the primary arguments of the book is that logistics and its architecture are mutually constitutive realms. Logistics is a science of contradictions in that it relies upon the need to abstract whatever material it is handling and yet cannot escape the physicality of that same material. While this is one of the larger themes of the book, in the chapter “Buildings: A Moving System in Motion,” I look more closely at the frictions that these conditions produce in order to better understand the relationship between logistics and the built environment. In the case of retail for example, even if logisticians imagine their inventory as data to be managed and manipulated, its stubborn physicality persists, thus obliging sustained encounters with its concreteness. In other words, even if the path of a parcel is guided by optimized algorithms and tightly calibrated, it still has to be carried along its route at each step, often by someone and often under unfair conditions. These processes of transmission are supported by a collection of technologically sophisticated infrastructure elements, i.e. buildings. In Walmart’s case, the buildings within its logistical system mediate between abstraction and concreteness through a range of specific architectural techniques, possessing what I refer to as “loose” forms capable of adapting to a range of unexpected conditions while maintaining tightly scripted operations. In a certain sense, buildings within this logistical system become tools to absorb risk.

A second tension within retail logistics is evident in fantasies about the dematerialization of inventory through just-in-time and on-demand services and the physical systems they require. The more companies like Walmart try to eliminate space through the promise of instantaneous delivery, the more they must encumber vast amounts of space through their giant distribution centers. The chapter, “Location: From Intuition to Calculation” looks at how Walmart locates its buildings, including its super centers, data centers, and distribution centers, all of which are part of a vast machine for organizing material in time and space. My argument in this chapter is that Walmart’s operations at the level of territory present evidence of the coordinated capacity of buildings to act in geopolitical ways. By looking more closely at two stories of Walmart’s efforts to expand, one in Vermont and one in California, I show how the company uses its buildings and their locations to effectively create new territories that override established political boundaries. In a similar vein, the chapter “Bodies: Coping With Data Rich Environments” examines the working conditions in the spaces of logistics in which humans are entangled in an immense and often exhausting machine environment.

The last chapter, “Territory: Management City” turns to Walmart’s hometown and current headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas to explore the ways that its logistics operations are transforming the post-agricultural landscape of northwest Arkansas to provoke a form of urbanism connected to mobility and information management instead of industries of manufacturing. Even though Walmart is one of the largest companies on the planet, it remains based in Northwest Arkansas and, as a result, is transforming the region through the influx of a new and diverse managerial class. The company is using its influence to create new cultural institutions like the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, emerging as one of the premier collections of American art anywhere. The density of managers and supplier representatives is also catalyzing specific kinds of building configurations, including high-density office parks, locally known as Vendorvilles. By looking at these transformations, I use the chapter to explore the changing understanding of what it means to be urban, especially in light of tendencies toward privatization and consolidation evident in Walmart’s operations.

The Rule of Logistics concludes on a note of cautiously optimistic speculation by developing a concept of the logistical to describe the spatial conditions and phenomena analyzed throughout the book. For me, and this is still work in progress, it was important to find a way to escape from the subject matter of the case study (i.e. of Walmart) to find ways to think logistics in a more generative way. This is a challenge and maybe not immediately possible because its sources are so fundamentally rooted in war and capitalism. By using the conclusion to make connections between consumer behavior, logistics, and the spaces produced by that intersection, I ask how infrastructural and logistical systems could instead support alternative forms of fulfillment. This is something suggested at in the end of the book but is one of the directions of my current work.