Monday, April 07, 2008

Whole Foods and Sustainable Architecture

I've not yet visited the gigantic, new, two-storey Whole Foods Market in Pasadena, but the place already has generated a lot of discussion in the LA area. In fact, the discussion has prompted a feature article by Christopher Hawthorne in Sunday's LA Times. Hawthorne, the Times' architecture critic, ponders the conflict between the massive structure in which organic/fair-traded/crunchy-healthy foods are sold and the concept of green architecture in which a smaller footprint on the land is a primary focus. Not surprisingly, the conclusion isn't favorable for the market:

". . . the first rule of sustainable architecture is to keep new buildings as small and efficient as possible. With its soaring 30-foot ceilings and endless aisles, 280 subterranean parking spots and . . . TVs flickering day and night, this place is neither. It's more like the grocery store version of a hybrid SUV made by Lexus or a 12,000-square-foot 'green' house with a swimming pool and six-car garage accompanying its solar panels and sustainably harvested decking."

Sounds like a far cry from the tiny old neighborhood Aunt Tilley's health food store of some thirty years ago in Hollywood, with its too-small aisles and little bins of bulk brown rice and lentils. The selection of items wasn't great, but the counter-culture vibe (sadly dated words!) was palpable.

So how much of a trade-off are we willing to accept today for the multiple brands of a dazzling variety of soy products, the rows upon rows of snack bars, the imported (yet "sustainable") designer bamboo tableware?

Clearly, there's a dichotomy between Whole Foods' ostensibly good intentions to provide easy access to a variety of healthy food (okay, and they want to expand their business), and the manifestation of those intentions which Hawthorne suggests has resulted in "Vegas with organic, gluten-free scones."

Have the organic products/health food industries been totally co-opted by big business?

It's true that the mammoth Whole Foods store seems to be an anachronism, but, oh, what we would have given if Aunt Tilley's had stocked a gluten-free scone!

© 2008 Cynthia Friedlob

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