PRINT April 1990



BY CHANCE, Susan Buck-Morss’ book, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, an interpretive reconstruction of Walter Benjamin’s unfinished Passagen-Werk (Arcades project), arrived amidst all the news about the breaching of the Berlin Wall. For a moment, it felt like an energy transfer was taking place between two 20th-century monuments: the demolition of the touchstone of cold warriors, the rebuilding of a monument for left-wing academics, assembled by Buck-Morss from the rubble of Benjamin’s notes for his unfinished opus. But didn’t the smashing of the wall (not to mention the price tags soon affixed to its remains) undermine Benjamin’s foundations?

For Benjamin, the arrow of history pointed from Paris to Moscow. For many citizens of today’s Berlin, Benjamin’s native city, the arrow has spun around, pointing if not toward Paris at least toward the new car, the new apartment, and all the other products of bourgeois culture Paris symbolized to Benjamin. Of course, no one who reads the art magazines needs to be told that Benjamin’s arrow had spun around some time before last year. One of the pleasures of reading Buck-Morss’ book is to ponder the irony of the role his own work played in that spin of art-world values: how his critique of material culture, in tended to punch so many holes in the wall between high and popular culture, instead has provided the cement to repair them.

Buck-Morss’ book is unlikely to send the arrow flying back in the other direction. She’s aware that Benjamin is a highbrow taste. In her preface, she writes that she has rejected the “intellectual jargon that speaks only to those already initiated into the world of academic cults (among which the Benjamin ‘cult’ now plays a leading role).” But she’s not exactly aiming for the mass market, either.

Whoever she thinks she’s writing for, Buck-Morss has written a wonderful book. Although rigorously analytic, the book doesn’t sacrifice those qualities in Benjamin’s writing that are not reducible to method: his lyrical, hallucinatory evocation of the city as a place of dreams, myths, expectations. He imagines the city as the subconscious, and as a body—the body politic—with architectural organs: arcades, winter gardens, railroad stations, boulevards, museums, department stores, Art Nouveau interiors, offices, factories. It is a dream city; and though the goal of his project is to stir us from slumber, to force our emergence from the reenchantment of industrialization, his thoughts are those of a writer who relished every sleeping moment.

Buck-Morss concludes her book with a look at the present, but not a very illuminating one. She focuses on Philip Johnson’s AT&T building as a contemporary equivalent to the 19th-century arcade, a choice she justifies on the basis of the small, barrel-vaulted passage Johnson placed at the rear of the building. You can imagine how a media giant’s headquarters might have led Benjamin into speculation about the shift from mechanical (re)production to electronic information (think about AT&T’s transfer of its enormous statue, The Spirit of Communication—the so-called Golden Boy—from the pinnacle of its previous headquarters in a downtown tower to a reach-out-and-touch pedestal in Johnson’s lobby). But Buck-Morss merely uses the “Chippendale” skyscraper to belabor some points about post-Modernism, a movement that in architecture, at least, has run out of what little steam it had.

The most direct extension of Benjamin’s arcades into the present are “festival marketplaces,” key projects in efforts to revive older American cities and persuade the middle classes to return to them. These, as it happens, are the focus of another new arrival from MIT Press, Downtown, Inc.: How America Rebuilds Cities, by Bernard J. Frieden and Lynne B. Sagalyn. This is a book I have been waiting a long time for, a clear, factual history of the triad of building types that have replaced the skyscraper as symbols of contemporary urban identity: the sports stadium, the convention center, and, above all, the festival marketplace urban shopping mall. It is a book of economic rather than intellectual history, but not one lacking in ideas. My favorite chapter, “Popular Success and Critical Dismay,” deals with ideas—the response of critics to festival marketplaces—that could have formed the basis for the conclusion of Buck-Morss’ book.

Nobody’s quoting Benjamin here—most of the critics are either newspaper critics or writers from the architectural trade press. But they, too, are struggling with a “dialectic of seeing,” evident in the same kind of simultaneous resistance and attraction Benjamin felt toward his arcades. By and large, the critics hate these malls. They declare them too cute; they compare them to Disneyland; they say they belong in the suburbs, not the cities. Most of them try to square their reservations with the popular success of these places. Some wonder if they hate them because they are successful. And a few acknowledge that perhaps it might be best simply to overcome their resistance and enjoy.

The thrust of the criticism—that these environments are artificial—clues us to the possibility that at the root of the critics’ discomfort is some confusion between abstract and concrete notions of the real. For, of course, as Robert Campbell, a defender of the festival marketplaces, points out, these complexes are not only real, they have the glaring reality of public success.

The thing to remember about the festival marketplace is how solidly it is rooted in the Modern vision of urban life. The concept was the brainchild of Benjamin Thompson, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, architect who was an early acolyte of Walter Gropius and who never repudiated the Modern program. The formula for the pioneering festival marketplaces Thompson designed for the Rouse Company—Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore, South Street Seaport in New York—is a simple one: Modern design + food. Sometimes architectural preservation is thrown in as well, though the preserved buildings are usually factory and warehouse structures of established Modern kinship. Architecturally, these places are purest Modern: characterized by an exposed structure, open interiors, flexibility (the pushcarts), industrial fixtures, and the use of graphics and display as ornament. Modern, too, is the idea that design should provide a backdrop for social activity.

But festival marketplaces deviate from Modernism in one critical respect. They are not urban failures. The Modern Movement, which started as a mythology about the future, was perceived as a failure when its pioneering utopian projections of a transformed world were not attained on schedule, or produced such mythically monstrous mistakes as the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. What has the critics struggling is a wall between two incompatible pictures: the post-Modern myth of Modernism as a flop and the reality of the festival marketplace’s success.

In her afterword, Buck-Morss asks, “Can we view seriously, with reverence, the discarded material objects of mass culture as monuments to the utopian hopes of past generations, and to its betrayal?” The festival marketplace poses the question somewhat differently: can we recognize the shiny new products of mass culture not as a betrayal but as the fulfillment of the Modern utopia? Benjamin asks us to see the arcades as dreams. The challenge of the festival marketplaces is rather the reverse. We have always seen Modernism as a dream—or a nightmare. We tend to overlook it as a place to go for lunch.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.