Fred A. Bernstein

Architects' View: Nice Furniture, Not-So-Nice Buildings

Ikea's plans for Westchester draw ire

Published in The New York Times, January 21, 2001

Architects' View: Nice Furniture, Not-So-Nice Buildings

WHEN Ronnette Riley, a Manhattan architect, was looking for kitchen cabinets for a client recently, she visited the Ikea store in Elizabeth, N.J. The cabinets she found ''were about a quarter the price of custom,'' she said. ''They're not my favorite color or style, but I couldn't beat the price.''

Ms. Riley is one of many architects who speak highly of Ikea products. But their affection for the company doesn't extend to its store design.

An informal survey of architects found them dismissive of the chain's ''big box'' approach. Many suggested alternatives to the monolith proposed for New Rochelle, but doubted their ideas would be adopted.

The trouble, the architects said, is the building's size.

''It's about 100 times as big as some of the stores I do,'' said Ms. Riley, whose projects have included Restoration Hardware outlets and the Coca-Cola Store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Ikea's business model requires a vast selling space. And the easiest way to contain that space is in a big box, said Martha Schwartz, a Cambridge, Mass., landscape architect who has been involved in many commercial projects. ''It's all about money,'' she said. ''The goal is to create the lowest-cost container.''

In that sense, the big box isn't very different from the company's kitchen cabinets -- writ large. Under the preliminary plan for New Rochelle, the 309,000-square-foot store -- as big as 100 suburban houses -- would be in the plainest possible enclosure.

But Tim Miller, whose firm -- Tim Miller Associates -- is planning the project, said the early designs are being re-evaluated in light of comments from the public.

''The look of the building could change,'' he said, particularly the facade that faces Fifth Avenue, to make it more in tune with the character of the neighborhood.

Ms. Riley said she hopes Ikea breaks out of the box. ''There could be some relief,'' she said, ''some plays of scale, some setbacks.''

The restaurant could be an opportunity, said Ms. Riley, who has become a fan of the company's Swedish meatballs. ''They could introduce some transparency there. And maybe an outdoor terrace.''

Given the store's boxiness, it's no surprise that in the rendering provided by Ikea, another ubiquitous big box, a sport utility vehicle, is shown driving toward the store.

Eventually, the driver of the S.U.V. -- and hundreds like it -- will need to park, and so the ''landscaping'' around the store will be a collection of small boxes gathered, as if paying homage, around the big box.

When the cars aren't there, the store will be ringed by asphalt. ''More than the store, I object to the parking lot,'' Ms. Riley said. ''I'd like it to be a field of green. Instead, it will be a field of gray.''

There are alternatives. Parking could be in an above-ground structure, leaving more of the property for trees. Better yet, the parking -- or the store, or both -- could be underground. Imagine if the only evidence of the store were a park -- green much of the year -- with an entry pavilion in one corner. (The pavilion would include elevators and escalators.) Sound fanciful? Some of the most successful shopping centers in the world, including Rockefeller Center's, are below-grade.

But Ms. Schwartz said an underground store would be far more expensive than a big box.

And then there would be the lack of visibility. Walter Chatham, a New York architect, said the store is meant to be a giant four-sided billboard.

''Camouflaging the store,'' Mr. Chatham said, ''is the last thing Ikea wants to do.'' He said the notion that buildings should proclaim their intentions honestly -- part of the philosophy of such architectural theorists as Robert Venturi -- gives the designers of big-box stores ''intellectual cover.''

But to the public, knowing that the store illustrates postmodern architectural ideas doesn't make it any more appealing. Ikea prides itself on good design. Shouldn't an Ikea store fit its neighborhood as well as an Ikea bookcase fits its room?

The company's online catalog says environmentalism is a big part of its ethos. Specifically, Ikea's Web site proclaims: ''It is not enough to be friendly to the environment, we must adapt to it.'' And yet the store, at least in its initial design, makes little effort to adapt to its environment.

Why shouldn't the Westchester store, in a homey residential neighborhood, be styled differently from the Elizabeth store, which sits between an airport and a container terminal, or the Long Island store, which is in an existing shopping center?

James Biber, a prominent Manhattan architect who grew up in New Rochelle, said, ''All good design relates to its context.

''To impose something that works in an industrial area on a residential community isn't good design.''

Among his suggestions for New Rochelle: the company should take over several smaller spaces. ''One location could be housewares,'' he said. ''One could be kids. They could create a village of Ikeas.

''They'd get the same square footage, but in a way that helped the town. There are a lot of old buildings in downtown New Rochelle that could be enlivened by Ikea.''

And if that doesn't work, Mr. Biber mused: ''Why not build it over the highway? The highway is already a blight. It would be easy-on, easy-off. And you could park on top.'' The store could be a bridge, rather than an obstruction, Mr. Biber added.

In the end, it may just be that people like Ikea products because they're inexpensive. And keeping prices down means keeping costs down. As kitchen cabinets go, so goes the building.

But the Ikea store is a lot more visible than anyone's cabinets. Which is why it ought to be more than the cheapest box in town.