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2024 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition winner: the death of the kiosk, by Emilia Chegini

Words:
Emilia Chegini

Emilia Chegini, a Part 2 student at the University of Dundee, makes a heartfelt and engaging case for preserving small-scale retail outlets that can be key to communities

Emilia Chegini in her family’s kiosk in Sweden.
Emilia Chegini in her family’s kiosk in Sweden. Credit: Emilia Chegini

Growing up, I served my first customer at the age of six in our family-run kiosk – a charming haven perfectly nestled in the railway station waiting hall in a modest Swedish town. While my father would occasionally hurry through the streets to replenish our daily menu with baguettes and other essentials, I was perched on a high-chair behind the counter, handing out tobacco and freshly brewed coffee to commuting customers who hardly batted an eye at receiving their change from a child.

Those were simpler times, indeed. I’m referring to the early 2000s when the cost of the daily newspaper matched that of a bus fare, and the demands placed on our humble kiosk were equally modest. I’ve essentially grown up behind the till and witnessed the mundanities of my commuter town for a quarter of a century. But here is the deal. Once glorified and stocked with last-minute necessities, the kiosk now stands neglected and relegated to a stereotyped side piece of our built environment. The kiosk is dying, and I am on a quest to finalise its last words.

Now, you might wonder where my personal view on this story – which the critic Owen Hatherley perfectly describes as a battle between the desperate and the corporate – originates. The kiosk, in many ways, represents the epitome of the nuclear immigrant family, no matter where in the world. It must have been most natural for my father to invest the last of his cents into a run-down beacon of hope, given his background in the Middle East. There, the street vendor not only provides convenience but is also serves as the equivalent of the neighbourhood auntie, the ultimate distributor of the latest block gossip. The kiosk was a familiar domain, and my father believed it would play an equally important role in joining the local community. What better way to integrate into a new culture?

While the golden years of frequent filter coffee drinkers and loyal newspaper readers did exist, the current consensus is driving a shift away from the kiosk’s offerings. Unless the mighty urban planner steps in, the death of the kiosk will go down as a battle of David versus Goliath – except that David forgot his slingshot, and Goliath brought an army of Starbucks franchises.

  • Kiosks such as this on in Portugal offer more than just convenience to shoppers.
    Kiosks such as this on in Portugal offer more than just convenience to shoppers. Credit: Nicholas Nova, reproduced under Creative Commons license
  • A disused kiosk in Sweden reflects the struggles faced by small retailers.
    A disused kiosk in Sweden reflects the struggles faced by small retailers. Credit: Erica Fischer, reproduced under Creative Commons license
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Our kiosk, with its organised chaos of an interior and not an inch of wall space left to breathe, has weathered more storms than one can count, from inflation and armed robbery to Covid 19. Although it is as versatile as a Swiss Army knife, the kiosk now stands on the verge of extinction. The community that grew old with ours, showing up like clockwork every day for 25 years, is sadly declining. Values have shifted in today’s consumerist culture. There is now a lack of successors to appreciate the charms of a local vendor or be enticed by the allure of filter coffee and the convenience of over-the-counter necessities.

That’s why we’ve ended up with gated communities which require, instead of a two-minute walk to the supermarket, a whopping 15-minute drive out of the enclosed enclave of affluence because the urban planner didn’t deem the pedestrian shortcut necessary. With every superstore comes an even greater dead zone of parking lots. All hail the car, right? The kiosk is on its deathbed, and the sole concern of my apartment neighbour is how to turn his Tesco points into a lifetime supply of canned beans.

To compensate for these absurdities, and in opposition to car-centric ‘corporate’ urban planning, the ideal urban neighbourhood should, by default, feature a corner kiosk at 15-minute intervals, anchoring the entire block like Doric columns of the 20th century hood.

As architects and aspirants, we’ve unintentionally vowed to eliminate the ‘ugly’ from our picture-perfect built landscapes, and in this discourse, the kiosk stands out as an eyesore. Yet, where community senses are strong, so is the little man. This is what I’ve gleaned from my overseas experiences. I’ve witnessed the presence of the kiosk, the convenient and accommodating street vendor, in the most urban of environments, whether that be along a dirt road on a remote island in the Philippines or as a standalone structure along the bustling streets of Budapest. The contrast between the increasingly stark, sterile West and the lively environments where the kiosk thrives as an essential aspect of a healthy urban fabric, highlights the importance of recognising its neglect – and its potential. The kiosk carries the remedy against individualism often prevalent in modern societies, offering a blueprint for a virtuous circle of prosperity.

It’s quite simple: as the kiosk thrives, it becomes a focal point for social interaction, strengthening community bonds and fostering a sense of belonging. It’s not just about preserving a nostalgic relic; it’s about revitalising our neighbourhoods, fostering genuine connections, and creating spaces where everyone feels a sense of belonging while nurturing small-scale entrepreneurship. So, let’s consider the fate of the kiosk as a metric of cohesion, reflecting not only economic trends but also our collective investment in community fabric. After all, we only invest in what we value, so let’s start at the corner.

Emilia Chegini is a Part 2 student at the University of Dundee

See the 2024 RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition shortlist and results here and all prize-winning entries here

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