In the exhibition Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, which I co-curated last winter, the big box store figured prominently—a newer form of suburban retail that is undergoing change. While installing the exhibition, Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, I happened to learn that Target had been planning a new specially designed store near Bloomfield Hills, a suburb of Detroit that is home to the famed Cranbrook campus, designed by Eero Saarinen’s equally famous architect father, Eilel, and the place where Eero grew up and established his world famous practice. I sat down with Jim Miller and Rich Varda to discuss this new store and its context of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Andrew Blauvelt: Tell us about the design of your new Target store in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which is home to Cranbrook, the educational community designed by Eliel Saarinen and where his son Eero lived and worked.
Jim Miller: When we first decided to bring Target to Bloomfield Hills and engaged the township, they had some very preconceived notions about what a retail store should look like. They referenced some upscale retail centers in their community, which we visited, but it was basically a lot of garden-variety retail design with upgraded materials. Given the location of this new store, we felt there was an opportunity to influence the direction of its design by going back and looking at Saarinen’s work. He was always mindful of this tension between community and the individual—how one influences the other. Given that Cranbrook is in their backyard, we felt it was natural to explore that context. If you look at Saarinen, especially with Eero, you see this tension between expressing the individual and expressing the community, for instance, at Yale with the Morse and Stiles dormitories. Yale just wanted institutional buildings, but he wanted individual housing to emerge, so that is what came out of that.
AB: At Yale, Saarinen also had a difficult preexisting context to deal with and a very irregular shaped site.
JM: Our site for the Bloomfield Hills store was also a difficult site—being a triangle, very tight and restrictive, affronting residents on two sides, and a major street on the third side—a transition of this really hard edge retail thoroughfare into this very upscale residential area.
AB: You’re also dealing with a broader kind of imaginary context in which everybody in the township knows the Cranbrook campus, its materials and its formal language—the way Eliel Saarinen played with the brickwork. At first glance it doesn’t look like the usual Target store at all. It almost looks like a civic building, perhaps a new library.
Rich Varda: Well, the large glass lobby is the most visible element in front of the building, which makes it look civic but it is entered from the other side from the parking field that is below the building.
JM: If you are familiar with Detroit, they have what is called the Michigan Left, which means you can’t just can’t turn in, you have to drive past the building and then return back to turn into the site. On an extremely busy road it gives the opportunity to help orient yourself to a single point of entry into this entire site, which we normally don’t like.
AB: Obviously, this is not the typical Target store. How about the larger context? Are these kinds of Target stores part of a general trend?
RV: We call them “unique stores.” And we have a unique store team, but most stores are modified in some way to better fit the community they are in, or to fit the retail center they are part of. Most stores are developed as part of a complex of buildings that is going to be a town center for the community or the neighborhood, and often the developer will develop a stylistic or material tone working with the community, and we work within that tone, or sometimes we help set that tone with the developer. Occasionally, we meet with the community directly, like Jim did on this store, and learn more about what they are about and what they are expecting and try to develop a statement that reflects those expectations.
AB: I imagine the reaction to this store is very favorable.
JM: It has been very favorable. It took nearly 18 months just to get to the point where the township was comfortable enough to allow us to go through the formal approval process, but once we got to that point they were very pleased. About two weeks ago I did get a call from the township supervisor who is the equivalent of a mayor and they had just got the signage up inside and the lights were coming on. He was just blown away.
It is a difficult thing to try to convey what the real building will look like through sketches and try to accurately represent the architecture and the materials. I think most people still don’t quite visually understand it in their minds. As much as we went through excruciating detail and explanation he said, “It still does not come across as the building comes across.”
RV: I think part of that is the because of the materials that Jim used on this design. The texture of materials, the contrast between the wood panels and the glass as compared to the rustic and substantive materials of the stone and how all of that affects the form of the building.
JM: Of course, Saarinen experimented with materials with the General Motors Tech Center and even with the IBM buildings in Rochester, Minnesota. We aren’t so much creating new materials, but we were applying materials much differently than normally would be found in retail.
RV: I think most people expect, because of their everyday experience, that retail architecture is the least expensive box you can have with some kind of pasted-on façade. It is very visible, but not a building of substance—a building of temporary qualities. It is certainly our objective at Target that not only are regular stores, but also modified and unique stores are buildings of substance—that the materiality, the form, and the function have been thought about and they all work together. It is not the least expensive possible box with a façade tacked onto it. I suppose to make a grandiose leap; Saarinen comes from that Finnish background that design should infuse every aspect of life. It is practically a national sport in Finland. It is fabulous to experience when you are there. Cranbrook represents that too. I think Target in a way has that same kind of spirit. The “Design for All” attitude asks why can’t good design infuse every aspect of life—from a Michael Graves toilet brush to utensils to furniture to buildings. That is what is expected as our brand, and our CEO supports that.
JM: Many times design is created and but too often it has absolutely nothing to do with people and their community. Eero Saarinen was really of his parent’s culture—of the Arts and Crafts, where design infused every aspect of the entire community.
AB: The Saarinens’ roots were in a culture where design was completely integrated.
JM: He totally integrated it. He naturally came out of that and knew how to bring that together. It is the same thing here. It is for the community and of the community.
AB: I think that is a really great point that when design and architecture is fully integrated into the largest context, which is the community, you do read it as substantive. Coming into town and setting up shop like an old Western storefront or using materials that break down in 20 years, or as long as it takes the plywood to rot. Then it is gone.
Your use of landscaping in this project also looks substantive. I recall Saarinen’s work on corporate campuses and how he basically started with a blank slate in most of these suburban locations and thus created his own context—designing not just the building, but natural environment.
JM: The landscaping requirements were extensive. Over-storied deciduous trees had to be significant. We normally use an inch and a half or two inch, but it was 4 inch. Evergreens specimens had to be a minimum of 14 feet tall. When they brought the landscape in and stockpiled it on the lot, it looked like a nursery. The shrubbery was already taller than myself.
RV: It is also laid out as an extension of the geometries and rhythms of the building similar to what Saarinen did with his corporate campuses—at least in the immediate vicinity of the buildings.
AB: When you are working on these unique stores, given that the context is going to vary tremendously across the country, what are the aspects that you end up taking away that go into the library or the memory banks for the next project? Or do you feel like you find yourself starting from zero each time?
RV: We have definitely made an effort to document them, creating a kind of nomenclature of past examples. We have design guidelines handbook that we use that not only picks out the best examples, but also tries to understand if we are looking at a stylistic or regional vernacular. By doing so, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but we can improve upon it each time. Having that kind of vocabulary available helps when we go into discussions to negotiate our design with city staffs and neighborhood groups. We have a lot of material we can bring for discussion, and we have already gone through and we understand that we can afford that achieves our goals and their goals.
JM: Good design is a lot more complicated than it appears. In negotiating, when we go into communities, when we talk to design review boards, when we talk to planning commissions and trustees, the common ground is that they all shop. They all have some preconceived idea of what good design is in retail. It really is not that easy. We really have a way in which our guests have responded how we merchandise our store, and this was all truly the effect of the store plan. The store plan is kind of sacred because we really understand how that works, we really understand what our guests need, and how they shop. So when they come in and they ask us to put windows in here and there, it doesn’t quite work.
AB: And to clarify, this is the idea that if I go to the Target in Edina versus St. Louis Park, that I can find the laundry detergent because I know the basic store plan.
RV: Saarinen had a very careful understanding of the program, the functions, and the behavior of people in public buildings. We have studied the actions of people in our store environment extensively, and we understand shopping as well as other behaviors, including guest service, food service, checkout, and approaching the store from the parking lot. We try not to reinvent it all every time.
I will make another extreme comparison to Saarinen’s airports. When you are in an airport there are a lot of people moving through and toting their luggage around with them. But in our stores, everyone is pushing a shopping cart around with them, or pulling one—maybe with kids in it. That cart effects vertical circulation, whether parking garages can slope, and everything that the cart can bump into has to be thought through.
AB: The turning radius of the cart.
RV: The width of the carts crossing each other in an aisle is very important.
JM: One of our typical guests is a mom with children and to facilitate her needs and a two year old while negotiating the store. The signage, the way you find things, how the space is relayed so that it is easy so that it is almost intuitive we try to make it as intuitive for them to navigate through the store as possible. We are adding a complicated layer when we have a store on grade: it isn’t as easy as she gets out of the car and sees the entry. The condition in Bloomfield Hills is not quite the same, but the response has been favorable.
AB: It is interesting because at the Target in downtown Minneapolis the store is two stories. You have a similar situation where you are trying to brand something from the inside to the outside through a glass atrium. You have got the underground parking structure to deal with. How does the tight urban footprint fit into the Target store approach? Or do you generally just try to avoid it all together?
RV: We even have one now that is three levels of sales floors that replaced a department store that departed a very successful mall in Los Angeles and we wanted to make it work, but when you are taking shopping carts between floors you have to do it just right so that your guests will be happy to do it, so that they can travel all parts of the store.
AB: Right, it’s elevators or “Vermalators,” a kind of escalator for shopping carts.
RV: If you do anything wrong—all the way from getting into the parking, getting from your car into the store, and then getting back out with the cart to your car— it will affect your overall sales. That is a lot of dollars. So our attention to doing it correctly is one of our biggest research focuses. It is applied to every new store design.
AB: With the former department store example, does it become more of a department store, where the first floor is clothing, the second furniture, and so on?
RV: Actually, our three-level store was actually done like that. In that the first floor which is the main floor of the mall that it connects to is all apparel and soft lines. And it really looks like a department store when you come in. Then the middle floor is everyday products, like the market, the pharmacy, health and beauty and then the top floor are destination items, such as electronics and entertainment, which really pull people up there.
AB: Saarinen is extremely prolific in that he only practiced on his own for only 11 years. Although he practiced in so many typologies of architecture—college and corporate campuses, churches, airports—he did not as far as I know build any retail structures. It would be interesting to imagine how he would have handled a store design.
RV: Right, it is tragic what was missed because he did die at a relatively young age for architects. He could have easily had another 25 years in his practice.
JM: They used to say that architecture is an old man’s career. By the time you assimilate all of this knowledge and experience, when you reach the zenith of your career, is the age when he passed away—at age 51. But he had an amazing number of projects.
AB: Saarinen’s approach to the idea of branding was, I think, really a head of his time in terms of doing major corporate buildings from John Deere, to IBM, to General Motors to TWA. There is a famous photograph we have in the exhibition of “Black Rock,” the CBS headquarters in New York and on the top of it he puts the famous CBS logo. He certainly never shied away from the corporate embrace.
RV: It is interesting that his in terms of branding, he really cared about the idea that how does this building solution emerge out of everything in relationship to it. Not just the nature of the community or the program itself, but rather the idea of what the activity is, for example, the TWA terminal and the expression of flight and the glamour of air travel. And then his corporate headquarters are about the business and the activities of a headquarters and how should architecture reflect that kind of disciplined thinking. What a contrast to the iconic names of architecture today. I think they have allowed too much success to happen simply by creating architectural signatures, which can be repeated from place to place with minor modification. Without really thinking through how this solution is correct and admitting the fact that if you do each solution based on the nature of its location and you might not have a visible signature for yourself, which makes it harder for you to create your own brand as an architect. Saarinen reflects a very interesting testament about values as an architect.
JM: This particular store is a result of the dialogue with the township and was not so much about branding this building for Target. Because at the same time I was also working with a store outside of Boston, the same concept raised up, but it is truly a building branded for Target. The aesthetic is 180 degrees, it is metal panel and precast panel and a very clean very simple, very straight forward but in its own right, a very compelling design. This was a store about branding the community. It was personifying that aspect of community.
RV: At Target everyone understands what we call our Best Company Ever goals and objectives and they are really four things we always think about: how to be best in our community, how to be best for our guests, how to be best for our team members, and how to be best for our shareholders. So they are all balanced together and that means a lot about the people in the buildings and the people living around the buildings.
AB: It seems like this particular store is a win-win. A big win for the community to get the kind of store architecture that they desire at the same time.
JM: We hope so.
RV: We are counting on that.
AB: How do you innovate within the same retail typology and with an in-house team? Because it is different when you are moving from one type of building to another, one day it is hospitals and the next day it is an airport.
RV: One of our areas of innovation, that is the least visible, are circulation issues for stores that are not on grade or are multileveled and within larger complexes. Vertical transportation issues of materials as well as people are extremely complicated. We have a store that recently opened in Brooklyn that is on the second and third level of a three-story retail center that we built and developed. The loading dock is on grade, part of the stock room is below grade, part of the stock room is above the store, part of the stock room is at store level. There is also a 500-car parking garage. It gets incredibly complex and if you don’t have the right innovative solution, it isn’t going to succeed financially in the long run.
JM: One of the things that are different then say private practice is that with Target stores the rules are very rigorous and fairly rigid because we know what works. But on the other hand, because we know those so well, we can explore other areas. We can be much more efficient by really expanding design innovation by knowing the constraints.
RV: I am the Senior Vice President for store design. Store design in-house at Target is almost 300 people. They are equally divided between architecture, engineering, and store planning. I don’t think any of our competitors have a group of that size. They rely upon outside consultants almost exclusively.
We just got an award an hour go from Xcel Energy for being energy partners on five different stores. We will receive large rebates for what was achieved on those stores, and that is different, I think. The Design for All philosophy can then be part of our culture as an internal team and every team member understands it and applies it as Jim has to this store.
JM: It brings a real clarity when you have 299 other people that are speaking the same language.
AB: There must be such incredible efficiency here. I have an in house design team and there is shorthand that happens and it is not like you’re constantly re-interpreting everything.
RV: On our corporate website there is an area for Target acronyms that is 32 pages long.
JM: Don’t test us on that.
AB: Don’t worry, I won’t. What would be your ideal test store if you could have a test store? It sounds like you are more of a learning culture – learning from every project.
RV: We do tests all the time.
JM: I’ve always tried to see the store as a non-building, you come in and you feel like you are part of an exterior environment. I would love to see glass where we typically put stock, and store where we put stock—with everything open to this glass box on the outside. So it really blurs that line between inside and outside, but I think I just broke every rule, so that it would probably NEVER happen.
RV: You are free to sketch it all you want too.
AB: What makes Target’s support of the Walker and MIA’s joint presentation of the Saarinen exhibition so meaningful?
JM: There is certainly a design-for-all attitude in Saarinen’s work that we support. Everyone deserves good design. It can be accessible; it doesn’t need to be this kind of upper echelon, out-of-reach thing. I always refer back to my freshman year in college; in architecture school we had to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book talks about how you can put all these parts together, which are meaningless, but if you put them together in a fashion that makes sense, they do have meaning. I think people can understand that.
RV: There was an old department store system of merchandising called “Good, Better, Best,” where department stores would relegate good design to the best. Meaning, you would pay more to get good design. Our attitude at Target is not to divide items. Design can go anywhere. The good, the better, and the best may all be in a number of options and in the quality of the overall product. Design should be there at all levels.
AB: I think that is what Saarinen was trying to get at as well, in trying to impart the experience of good design to the public. The United States is a vast and diverse country. When you go to Finland or Japan, these countries are smaller and the culture more homogenous and it is easier to transmit those values. So it is really important to have that conversation coming from a major retailer.