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.
This book looks at some of the technologies, infrastructure, and habits of mind that underpin American consumer society. It makes connections between our buying habits and the kinds of spaces we inhabit. The click of a button at an on-line retailer has a range of global implications, from energy use to labor practices. In processes of externalization, companies like Walmart work hard to make these entanglements distant from the minds of shoppers. While the book is implicitly critical of these tendencies, it is also genuinely curious about their effects and their possibilities, specifically the intelligence and potentials embedded in these logistical systems. While it is fundamentally important to remain aware of the tendencies of capitalism to bend technologies to its ends, it remains equally important to not see this as inevitable. Thus, one of the book’s larger ambitions is to provide material that could help support alternative worlds in addition to looking critically at the current one.
My background is in architecture and design with a particular interest in the way that public spaces take shape and the ways that infrastructure, as one of the few remaining sites of collective investment, can shape and support that process. As transportation infrastructure is increasingly used to support logistical functions and as sites like Walmart are sometimes the only places open 24 hours a day, the combination was a natural one. Logistics intersects with such a range of contemporary topics that the more I researched the operations of Walmart, the more connections I found to a host of issues confronting the built environment of the US, from aesthetics to questions of policy, labor, economy, resource distribution, data, privatization, belief systems, and demographic shifts. With results of the 2016 presidential election now in, trade policies, infrastructure development, and logistics more generally are all likely to be topics of intense discussion. The incoming administration has promised to both heavily invest in infrastructure and to also dramatically reduce federal income through substantial tax eliminations. Meeting its stated infrastructural goals will then require financial support from the local level, from public-private partnerships, or from the private sector entirely. While the pro-privatization position argues that such an approach can yield faster, better, and cheaper results, it threatens the fundamentally collective dimension of infrastructure. Moreover, and more disturbingly, the versions of infrastructure that the incoming administration has emphasized are not those that provide collective benefit and opportunity but instead those that create division and inequality including, especially, the border wall that was a refrain of the campaign. Likewise, if the incoming administration’s isolationist trade policies come to pass, contemporary logistical systems would be reorganized and with them a potentially dramatic impact on the built environment, among other things, confronting the US with the consequences of the externalization enabled by decades of neoliberal trade policies. Walmart, of course, has been one of the beneficiaries of these, as described by Bethany Moreton in her book, To Serve God and Walmart.
The book includes a 16-page color section that is a kind of visual overture of the project. This section uses a series of drawings and diagrams to address the main features of the book, including the ways of looking that attend the logistical mindset, Walmart’s corporate history and current reach, detailed drawings of the company’s main building types, maps of its locations and strategic positions, as well as images of its operations centers. With the exception of two images, these are all original drawings that synthesize a range of information in order to present an image of Walmart that emphasizes its high degree of technical sophistication as well as its coordinated geopolitical efforts. Since the material for the book comes from a range of sources, I was interested in synthesizing it not only through text but also through image. As a more visual learner myself, I find this a more natural way to bring diverse material together.
Much of the book’s text is guided by analysis of visual material related to logistics and Walmart, including architectural drawings, patent documents, real estate diagrams, and promotional material. Based on an idea that constructed images reflect conditions beyond their authors’ intentions, a closer look at Walmart’s presentation of itself reveals a number of implicit beliefs. For example, while the company in popular media was often presented as small town retailer, its internal publications, especially its annual shareholder reports, tell a story of a highly sophisticated and technology-driven company. By analyzing some of these images in greater detail, certain aspects of the corporation emerge more clearly. Likewise, by assembling a range of information into a graphic format, surprising patterns can appear. For example, by plotting Walmart’s growth by type and number of stores, it is clear that a rate change occurred when the company introduced its new format, the Supercenter. While the growth rate slows, the number of Supercenters increases. What in fact was happening was a rapid rollout of this new store type, often by quickly expanding and renovating existing stores, suggesting a process more like a software update than a building renovation.
The operations of Walmart produce an environment shaped by abstraction and privatization. The company uses its logistical expertise to support its growth, which in turn is increasingly automated. I hope that the book will contribute to a better understanding of these tendencies and their consequences.
Abstraction enables much of contemporary consumer society in the US. One-click purchasing allows us to consume on impulse, knowing that the thing we want could be delivered the next day, the same day, or even the same hour. These processes are carefully calculated to make sure that other thoughts or questions do not interfere. Thus, all of the infrastructure necessary to make this amazing world of near-instant gratification possible should be kept out of mind. I hope that the book will create some space to consider these developments. Such convenience and externalization also contribute to a naturalization of these processes of fulfillment. To keep up, logistical enterprises like Walmart increasingly rely on automated processes, including, for example, Amazon’s purchase of KIVA Systems for $775 million. I am earnestly curious about the political, social, cultural, spatial and aesthetic consequences of these transformations but I am also conflicted about them. As machines increasingly reorganize our environment, we are surrendering control in subtle but significant ways.
The processes of externalization defer costs to elsewhere along the line, both upstream and downstream, whether in destructive practices of resource extraction, exploitive labor conditions, waste burdens, or all of the above and more. At the same time, logistics presents an incredible realm of sensory and aesthetic fascination that helps generate new ideas of what is possible and the alternative worlds that could result. However, if these imaginations are guided only by the financial ambitions of corporations or by the political ambitions of populists, the possibilities are limited if not dangerous.
Walmart has its own satellite network, its own data centers, its own truck fleet, its own weather service, and increasingly even its own city. And yet, it depends fundamentally on the public interstate system. While it contributes to that system through tax revenue, the rewards it collects far outstrip its investment. This might challenge us to wonder to what extent can we renew our investment in sites of collectivity and to what extent we can create new kinds of affinities. An expanded infrastructural imagination would provoke a related increased demand of infrastructure to do more. In other words, while corporations present narratives of inevitability around their own growth and technological projects, it is important to remember that these stories are contestable, even if things that are relatively quick to initiate can be difficult to undo. With the celebration of privatization and its alleged advantages, certain dubious conclusions can be drawn. The idea, for example, that being good at business also means that one would be good at governance is one of the many dangerous ideas in circulation at the moment.
Jesse LeCavalier is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the New Jersey School of Architecture at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). He is the author ofThe Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment and a recipient of the 2015 New Faculty Teaching Award from the Association of the Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA). LeCavalier is also a co-author, with John Harwood and Guillaume Mojon, of This Will _ This. His recent work includes contributions to the Oslo Architecture Triennale catalog, After Belonging and the collection Smart City: New Utopia or False Dawn?. His research and design work has been supported by the Graham Foundation, the New York State Council for the Arts, the Swiss National Science Foundation, NJIT, and the ETH Zurich.