PRINT February 2002


AT THE HARVARD DESIGN SCHOOL, HI-LO © ARCHITECT and interdisciplinary smarty-pants Rem Koolhaas has a fiefdom where he and his Harvard © research elves crank out obese tomes mingling pedagogy and snazzy graphics. In a series studying “new, unknown, undertheorized, yet pervasive effects of modernization on the contemporary city,” the Harvard Design School Project on the City has just brought out two new volumes, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping and Great Leap Forward.

The Guide to Shopping addresses the great stealth campaign of our day—no, not bioterrorism! but the makeover of all human intercourse into Shopping. The privatization of realms that once maintained some posture of autonomy from the marketplace has recast schools, hospitals, churches—even Art museums!—into retail-or-bust operations, using mall-like ambience and marketing to 'control“ fickle consumers and keep 'em coming. And while we ”shop" for health, government, God, even Art, we've become students, patients, and citizens of... Prada, Nike, or whatever fill-in-the-blank global brand image-looking to retail for, like, everything.

The Harvard study is founded on this reversal. Before: “Shopping (as an activity) took place in the city (as a place).” After: “The city (as an idea) is taking place within shopping (as a place).” Shopping is a Blob smoothing “incommensurate aspects of the city into a connected and fluid urban experience”—collapsing public and private, exterior and interior, “reality” and branded fantasy space. Yet Shopping makes architecture squeamish: “Due in part to its historical preoccupation with form and composition,” we learn, “architecture has been largely unable to accept the excessive and formless nature of shopping.”

Like an interdisciplinary food court, Koolhaas's info-rich buffet makes the Blob available to us in bite-size portions by showing how market economy and statistical analysis have “molded our surroundings.” With canny hindsight, the Guide to Shopping Retrofits © Shopping history to pave the way for the advent of IT (information technology) and branding—manifest destinies of the giddy New Economy fantasy that, like Borges's map, seem to have encompassed the entire world. And while the IT cultural revolution has hit snags, the City has indeed been “mapped” into a Shopping Destination: Crystal Palace, Air-Conditioning, and Escalator enable interiority and flow; Control Space © “humiliate[s]” urbanity with predictability and control; Military Strategy © mobilizes inventory; Psychogramming © “predicts the consumer”; Brand Zones © get 'em like cults; Ecology © becomes Shopping (harnessing “green” purchasing power to save the planet). The life cycle of the mall and that of the City are intertwined (in one case a new “town center” is styled from the carcass of the dead mall that had vampirized the original). Life apes theme parks in epidemic Disney Space © “where real Main streets tart themselves up to look like fake ones.” Interiority and flow reach their peak in airports, aka “ideally controlled shopping labs,” where demographically choice, disoriented “captive shoppers” yield startling statistics, like the sales per square foot at Heathrow ($2,500) as compared to those of the average American mall ($250).

The Guide to Shopping historicizes our (ever more homogenized) no-brow brandscape as it channels its performative shtick. A droll “Separated at Birth” double portrait of ultra-Hi-end builder Frank Gehry and megamall auteur Jon Jerde is a rigorous gesture of Hi-Lo irreverence: Through the designer lens of Shopping only the vapors of “branding” distinguish high-culture product and low. Koolhaas himself differentiates his own brand image in an interview with Hi-Lo rabbis Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. While equally Pop-obsessed, Koolhaas's content-and statistics driven approach points up the latent formalism, even aestheticism of his Vegas-maven precursors, who observed: “Sign is more important than mass ...building, sign, art—they're all one.”

In Great Leap Forward, the Koolhaas team swooshes past the old-school modern architecture of Sculptural Ducks even faster than the Venturis. The exhaustive Leap looks at “the types of cities produced by excessive speeds and quantities,” in this case the Pearl River Delta Region of the People's Republic of China, where “a maelstrom of modernization is destroying everywhere existing Asian conditions and creating everywhere a completely new urban substance.” The Pearl River Delta is “a Cultural Desert © where the conflicting goals of communism and the market can meet. . . . Conceptually blank, a Zone © . . . purges historical contents from territories where they have been imposed and replaces them with the dynamics of global economy.”

The Harvard team devises “new, copyrighted” concepts worthy of this urban petri dish, in which “ideological manipulations” thrive with the same brazen expediency as Shopping: Infrared © ideology“ uses the market—and with it the image of the Metropolis in the service of Marxism”; like socialist realism, Market Realism © “idealizes the present interval between market promise and market delivery ”; even Systematic Disadvantage © is recuperated as a strategy in which “successive forms of Neglect ©—natural, political, economic, cultural—create an explosive mixture of resentment and recklessness that can be harnessed for sudden bursts of drastic change.” The result is a Bastard Metropolis © where planners “harness their Communist strivings to the successes of the (socialist) market economy, offering development without urbanity. . . roads without traffic, pleasantness without freedom, a culture of leisure without culture . . . an ancient Chinese garden without the burdens of history.”

I ASKED JEFFREY INABA, HEAD RESEARCH ELF ON THE HARVARD TEAM, whether these projects may now come off like accidentally 1997-ish period pieces—or more concisely: “This convergence of all human disciplines (aesthetic, economic, sociological, etc.) onto the point of purchase makes sense from the POV of the unprecedented boom period and dotcom exuberance we just came out of. Now that the frenzied ‘go-go’ period of consumerism has been punctured, do you see your vision of urban Shopping affected by recent changes in mood/resources?”

His reply should reassure retail worrywarts: "Shopping seems to constantly go through cycles—even overlapping states—of ebb and flow. For example, at the time of our study, 1997–98, Shopping was supposedly at its apotheosis. We discovered that it was also undergoing a fundamental crisis (a massive sell-off of retail developments in anticipation of the mall's obsolescence, new modes of browsing/purchasing, unsustainable expansion, etc.). So for us, the supreme attribute of Shopping was not its dominance, but its ability to adapt and mutate.

“One thing is certain: Shopping is here to stay. Thus, like you, what we want others to be aware of is that Shopping will undergo future mutations: We want people to take notice of these as they happen. Just how synonymous Shopping has become with the city, its evolution, and its collective imagination can be seen in New York after September 11. The main measure of the city getting back to normal has been the presence of people returning to their previous Shopping habits.”

AS CULTURE GETS RETROFITTED © FOR THE MARKET, KOOLHAAS chronicles their mutual seduction—or shotgun marriage?—and is himself their love child and/or symptom. Heaving with research, snappy graphics, and manifesto-like lingo, his books evoke the rad “theory-speak” fashionable in the '80s to “demystify” the marketplace. Yet while smarty-pants of yore “busted” the market's self-serving spiel by unmasking it, similar insights have landed Koolhaas gigs for clients such as Prada, demonstrating that content, as he amply documents, is infinitely repurposeable for a market that digests Hi with Lo, critique with strategy, and turns it all into product. It's unsettling as it is ingenious that Koolhaas has become a case study of the dynamic he's describing, yet another cog in the machinery of branded Blobs bundling commerce together with culture. Packaging architecture, statistical analysis, and cultural studies into one cool Brand, Koolhaas was recently hired as “shopping consultant” by top Condé Nast fashion Bible salesman (editorial director) James Truman. (I asked Inaba what Koolhaas © is telling, say, Lucky, about merchandising fashion, but he demurred from making certain Hi-Lo © connections in these pages: “We want the Artforum project to focus on the research we have done at Harvard with the Project on the City, not about AMO [Koolhaas's media research and design firm].” Alright.)

In another weird but inevitable Hi-Lo © alliance, Koolhaas has taken Learning from Las Vegas literally, going Vegas with modern art on the Strip. Who but the one-man Hi-Lo © Blob would spawn the Guggenheim Las Vegas Gallery (a joint venture between the Venetian Resort Hotel Chain and the nonprofit Guggenheim that opened last October) as an outlet for shows from the museum's NYC flagship? Its concrete and steel “container” tastefully contrasts with the hotel buildings, adding a classy minimalist, um, theme to the strip. I only hope for some Lee Krasner slot machines in the lobby. Whaddaya think?

And back in New York's SoHo, Koolhaas's just-opened Prada “epicenter” has literally supplanted the old downtown Guggenheim—and the lavish contemplative space formerly branded as “Art”—in a chic slippage between culture and stuff. The Prada hydra serves devotional, penitentiary, clinical, and theatrical needs, with mini-Chapels to ponder Prada prison-style phones for those confined in dressing rooms, Prada Pee Shows for “behind the scenes” product peeks, Prada screenings. . . In the name of “individualized service,” the customer is tracked and controlled by gizmos like a super-Hi-end lab rat—not least impressively, turning blah stuff like RFlD (Radio Frequency ID tags) into fashion fetishes that recall Courrèges's wacky love affair with the Space Age. Tricked out for Jetsons-esque “wireless” shopping from your own handy “WebCloset” at home, the Prada panopticon extracts information and money as you commune with the aura of the commodity in a scenario that would send Walter Benjamin running in shock—to the Prada Pharmacy.

Like a crazy performance-piece application of Shopping 101, the Prada concept scores a rainbow of genres into one sleek, schizo Gesamtbrandwerk to put the famously plain Prada thing at the “epicenter” of culture. But it's totally serious. The Guide to Shopping describes the Japanese depato where cultural and social services cohabitate with the department store. Where Western museums “become shopping to survive,” it asks, will “the epitome of commercialism” become a “respected cultural institution”?

Koolhaas suggests introducing “noncommercial”, typologies—you know, activities other than Shopping, into the Prada fetish-palace “after store hours.” I'm relieved to hear they will have their place. . . as brand vehicles in a Magic Kingdom-like Control Space. Time to strap on my Prada jet pack for a meeting with the Prada IT team . . . .

“Does branding squelch revolutionary consciousness?” I asked Inaba as I whizzed by. He responded, “Wow, what an interesting question! Don't know. What kind of rev consciousness? At some point, it would be fun to discuss—you and I over the phone!—the current research project Rem and I are conducting at Harvard. It's called the History of Communism. We are examining political, social, and urban models of planning. The theme of the research should be considered in light of and as an alternative urbanizing model to Shopping and to the Global Corporation.” Let's bring it to Vegas, baby! The M-G-M Gulag (and Everything Red mini-mall)? It'll be huge.