Best Thing Going

The Best Products showrooms were Post-Modern icons, giving the suburbs their own landmark architecture. An admirer asks,

The other survivor, the Forest Building in suburban Richmond, was designed to look like an abandoned antebellum house overrun with trees and kudzu. In a reverse of the quaint clapboard-church-as-antiques-shop retrofit seen up and down the East Coast, here’s a retail site that’s been converted into a church, its cracked brick walls and “invading foliage” left intact.

“We thought the building would attract people who are not churchy types to our congregation,” says W. Edwards Bowman, chairman of the deacons of West End Presbyterian Church, which completed its reconfiguration in 2001. Bowman also says there were several architects in the 900-member congregation who were familiar with the building’s history. “We felt it was significant enough not to alter,” he says.

Wines says the Best series was meant to subvert what he calls the “sanctity” of formalist Modern design in the early 1970s. “They were meant to challenge people’s ideas about architecture,” he says. His former collaborator Joshua Weinstein, who now runs SITE II in Minneapolis, adds that the buildings were “architecture as a comment on architecture, about entry versus exit, inside versus out, building versus landscape.”

The patrons behind SITE’s work for Best Products were company founder Sidney Lewis and his wife, Frances, who were leading art collectors from the early 1960s until Sidney’s death in 1999. Wines’s work as a sculptor brought him into contact with the Richmond couple in the early 1970s, and they challenged SITE to come up with a thought-provoking facade for their flagship store “for $25,000 and not a penny more,” the artist relates. The Peeling Facade was so successful that the idea was replicated around the country. Wines remembers the Lewises’ risk-taking entrepreneurial and artistic spirit, traits not usually associated with retail magnates, let alone ones in conservative middle Virginia. “Sidney used to always say, ‘Never let your accountants take over the business,’” Wines says.

Edward Gunts, architecture critic for the Baltimore Sun, laments the demise of the showrooms, especially the Tilt Building, which he notes was the only structure in greater Baltimore with international recognition. “The Best showrooms reflected the uncertainty and precariousness of society and were definitely the early stirrings of Deconstructivism,” he says. But he thinks the works were doomed by their own visual audacity: “In the end SITE and Best had branded the idea so distinctly that it couldn’t be translated to another retailer when the company went bankrupt.”

For his part, Wines is proud that the showrooms prompted people to think about architecture, even in the most mundane contexts. “The shopping center was considered beneath contempt by many architects, but I was fascinated by where the people were,” he says. “I once had a woman tell me, ‘I never thought about a building before I saw this one.’ I thought that was poetic.”

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