One and Two: A Project for Art Forum: Rem Koolhaas and the Harvard Design School Project on the City

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AT THE HARVARD DESIGN SCHOOL, HI-LO [C] ARCHITECT AND INTER-disciplinary smarty-pants Rem Koolhaas has a fiefdom where he and his Harvard [C] research elves crank out obese tomes mingling pedagogy and snazzy graphics. In a series studying "new, unknown, under-theorized, 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 [C] 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 [C] "humiliate[s]" urbanity with predictability and control; Military Strategy [C} mobilizes inventory; Psychogramming [C] "predicts the consumer"; Brand Zones [C] get 'em like cults; Ecology [C] becomes Shopping (harnessing "green" purchasing power to save the planet). The life cycle of the mall and that of the City are intertwined (in on e 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 [C] "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. …


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