STUDIO: thesis
YEAR: five (5)
DATE: september, 2011

TOPIC: parametric retail urbanism
LOCATION: los angeles, california

And Then There Was Shopping: The last remaining form of public life
by Sze Tsung Leong, edited by Rem Koolhaas
(The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, 2002)
How has shopping, an exclusively 'privatized' institution, become the last defining activity of 'public' life? Isn't shopping inherently non-public and if not does this mark the end of 'public space' as we know it today in the context of the contemporary city? Sze Tsung Leong in [And then there was Shopping: The last remaining form of public life] describes shopping as melting into everything, and everything melting into shopping, where the museum, church, airport, education, military, the government, the suburb and even the city all = shopping. While I would agree with such an assertion - having witnessed firsthand cross-programmed hybrid buildings like the Kyoto Train Station, Qianmen Avenue in Beijing, or the HK International Airport that all infuse shopping alongside their primary programs - I would question the notion that shopping really is the last bastion of public activity. According to Hans Ibeling's text [Supermodernism], "the world is increasingly made up of non-places which are particularly common in the sphere of mobility and consumption. Airports, hotels, supermarkets, shopping malls, motorway stops…are all places where people occasionally spend varying lengths of time, but the functions of these spaces are quite different from say, the village square which is the social centre of a community." Has shopping evolved to the point where it has replaced the traditional notion of public space? If all activity is centered in the private and controlled environment of shopping, where do people congregate when privatized malls close at night, doesn't public activity still take place in the last bastion of public form, the plaza, beach, or park?

How does the next stage of 'evolution' in shopping affect our abilities as designers to control the built environment; i.e. how can we as urbanists and architects who deal with the tangible, exert influence over intangibles like information technologies and the internet? I would argue that the new trends in online technology like internet shopping and social networking is in many ways the new 'form' of public activity in the 21st century. Just like Leong describes that while shopping is constantly facing crisis and decline as it is inherently tied to the unstable shifting desires of the market, it is also being constantly and artificially reinvented, reborn, and repackaged. Like the 'runaway feedback loop' system discussed by Donella Meadows in [Thinking in Systems], it seems as if retail as a performative system evolves based on the current trend of society today regarding wireless technology, while its survival is premised on sustaining public attention rather than programmatic need. How can architecture adapt its physical space to digital trends? If the next wave of retail exists virtually, on the internet, is it possible for architecture to evolve in that same realm? For example, I would say that locations like Starbucks are widely used as a place of public gathering and social interaction partly because those spaces offer free Wi-Fi. Yet, there must also be something about their physical built environment that encourages people to collect.

Anthony Vidler in [Toward a Theory of the Architectural Program] states that the "public role of architecture has been gradually reduced to the symbolic and emblematic, no longer closely tied back to the urban issues and physical planning questions." If this is true, how can the reintroduction of the contemporary sense of 'program' today inject a "radical interrogation of the ethical and environmental conditions of specific sites" into contemporary architecture and the city? Michael Hays' essay [The Crisis of Humanity, The Dissolution of the Object], exemplifies Mies' skyscraper proposal as examples of "humanist conceptions of formal rationality and self-creating subjectivity" that cannot cope with the irrationality of actual experience. He goes further by saying that the current trend of anti-humanist thought, in architecture, has relegated society into a "crisis" in which the critical separations between the architectural form and context is constantly being blurred and erased.

Chaos, if you will, is the collection of various fragments of true reality. In essence, the struggle is between the subject and the object. Whereas before, the subject, in many ways, dictated how the object came to be, now we see the object as becoming its own referent: a sign and signal. However, from a holistic point of view, isn't that how cities are formed? Urban metropolises are no more than a giant man-made object out of a field of objects itself. Aldo Rossi in [Architecture of the City] argues that, through the process of time, the city is comprised of individual and collective 'artifacts'. The existence and perpetuation of a city evolves from the very essence of monumental designs. City Halls, convention centers, transportation hubs, urban parks, etc. are all singular elements that have their own experiential and temporal-physical quality that makes a city so great. Inherently all architecture has the potential to have some impact within the urban, but whereas some spaces/form become isolated over time, Rossi argues some monuments have the capacity to become major catalysts of city growth. It's not just the social, economic, or political forces that constitute a city, but also a set of systems that are overlaid to create the complexities that make up the contemporary metropolis.

// Evan Shieh

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