Designing Bare Essentials: ALDI and the architectures of cheapness

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)


    They’re cheap. They’re in every settlement of significance in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere. We all use them but perhaps do not always admit to it. Especially, if we are architects.
    Over the past decades Aldi/Lidl low cost supermarkets have escaped from middle Europe to take over large tracts of the English speaking world remaking them according to a formula of mass-produced sheds, buff-coloured cobble-lock car parks, logos in primary colours, bare-shelves and eclectic special offers. Response within architectural discourse to this phenomenon has been largely one of indifference and such places remain, perhaps reiterating Pevsner’s controversial insights into the bicycle shed, on the peripheries of what we might term architecture. This paper seeks to explore the spatial complexities of the discount supermarket and in doing so open up a discussion on the architecture of cheapness. As a road-map, it takes former managing director Dieter Brandes’ treatise on the Aldi formula, Bare Essentials: the Aldi Way to Retailing, and investigates the strategies through which economic exigencies manifest themselves in a series of spatial tactics which involve building. Central to this is the idea of architecture as system rather than form and, in Aldi/Lidl’s case, the result of a spatial network of flows. To understand the architecture of the supermarket, then, it is necessary to measure the times and spaces of supply across the scales of intersection between global and local.
    Evaluating the energy, economy and precision of such systems challenges the liminal position of the commercial, the placeless and especially the cheap within architectural discourse. As is well known, architectures of mass-production and prefabrication and their origins exercised modernist thinkers such as Sigfried Giedion and Walter Gropius in the early twentieth century and has undergone a resurgence in recent times. Meanwhile, the mapping of the hitherto overlooked forms and iconography of commerce in Learning from Las Vegas (1971) was extended by Rem Koolhaas et al into an investigation of the technologies, systems and precedents of retail in the Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, thirty years later in 2001. While obviously always a criteria for building, to find writings on architecture which explicitly celebrate cheapness as a design virtue or, indeed, even iterate the word cheap is more difficult. Walter Gropius’ essay ‘How can we build cheaper, better, more attractive houses?’ (1927), however, situates the cheap within the discussions – articulated, amongst others, by Karl Teige and Bruno Taut – surrounding the minimal dwelling and the moral benefits of absence of the 1920s and 30s.
    In our contemporary age of heightened consumption, it is perhaps fitting that an architecture of bare essentials is defined in retail rather than in housing, a commercial existenzminimum where the Miesian paradox of ‘less is more’ is resold as a paradigm of ‘more for less’ in the ubiquitous yet overlooked architectures of the discount supermarket.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationPeripheries
    Subtitle of host publicationEdge Conditions in Architecture
    EditorsRuth Morrow, Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem
    Place of PublicationLondon
    PublisherTaylor and Francis
    Number of pages13
    ISBN (Print)9780415640299
    Publication statusPublished - Nov 2012


    • supermarket
    • existenzminimum
    • modernist space
    • architecture
    • Bruno Taut
    • Venturi
    • Koolhaas
    • shopping
    • space
    • logistics
    • Schopenhauer
    • Theo Albrecht
    • ALDI
    • discount


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