Sunday, August 4, 2013

The iconic building of our times

In the Middle Ages, the characteristic building in Europe was the cathedral and in Southeast Asia the stupa. In the decades either side of 1900, it was the railway terminal.

This year, I have been flying into many unfamiliar airports, but looking out the window, something seems the same at all of them. The giant, flat-topped warehouse, the characteristic building of the 21st century.

Everywhere. While putting up a snarky post for Kamaaina Loan about the largest building in the world, I was surprised to learn what the largest buildings are. I still think of "largest building" and "Pentagon" together, but the Pentagon is only 13th ranked among those with the largest floor space.

I was vaguely aware that the biggest building (which can be variously defined) is a Boeing assembly plant in Washington but was startled to learn (if Wikipedia can be trusted) that the second-largest is also in Washington, a warehouse for Target to redistribute imports.

There is even a grocery warehouse in Ireland, for pete's sake, that ranks eighth.

Not all big buildings are warehouses. There is even a giant parliament in (unlikely as it seems to me) Bucharest. But while there is only one Aalsmeer flower market, everyplace has giant warehouses, and plenty of them.

It is now easy to understand why Warren Buffet paid $45,000,000,000 for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (which is paying off nicely for him, thank you). On my trip to Arizona last month, I was struck by the endless BN trains, each a mile long and separated only by a few miles as they chugged across the desert. I counted more than 200 cars on a short one, pulled by four engines. Most of the trains had five.

Crap from China.

Not only are giant warehouses everywhere. All across America (and presumably elsewhere), U-Store places proliferate. As a long-time buyer of abandoned property, I know that most of these are used to store crap -- often broken crap -- from China. Stuff people buy but never (or seldom) use.

(The expansion of the U-Store businesses is also due, I think, to the migration of Americans from houses to apartments. What used to molder in garages and  basements, now slowly decays in commercial storage.)

 The way warehouses used to be. In Gainesville, Florida.

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