In praise of the architecture of shopping centers

Mark Kingwell’s article on architecture in Shanghai in the most recent Harper’s started me thinking about how commercial imperatives under capitalism suppress individual creativity even as individualism is promoted everywhere as the central value, the ultimate good, the essence of freedom in the power to choose for yourself and no one else. In reality, people don’t consume to be unique, they consume to conform, but they like to think they are somehow unique in the process. And conformity is perhaps more essential in “free” societies because there are no explicit laws requiring it. Without a caste system manifest in the law or in dress or what have you, one has to be much more alert to signifying social position, if only to be sure one hasn’t somehow lost it while not paying attention. Anyway, a conforming populace want conformist goods, and commercial suppliers, if they want to make money, need to amke things that are not only bland enough to appeal (or not repulse) the greatest number of paying customers but that also appeal to their desire to fit in and not really stand out in any unsanctioned way. They have to negotiate these social tensions by making things generic enough to avoid evoking conflict between social groups. Products are subject to a kind of metaphysical zoning.

I say that becase Shanghai architecture is not. And as a consequence, anything goes. Kingwell remarks, “Ironically, the utopian visions of the West, the soaring towers and radiant cities of the high-modern imagination, are rarely possible in the grand cities of the free world. They are realized instead in the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes of Asia, where life and steel are cheap. Europe’s dream of heroic architecture has found its material realization in the People’s Republic.” Unconstrained by the need to earn assent via the marketplace, the products of Chinese economy can take any shape, can be the whim of a single person, as long as he or she wields enough clout.

With no responsibility to embody the social order, such as it is, Shanghai architecture becomes unruly and disorienting: “At the asymptotic edge of design freedom lies a sparkling, overgrown, hyperscaled city of bright nightmares, sometimes beautiful, often strange, always oppressive. Shanghai is modern urbanization on a speed high, rambling and incoherent, with a lump of shopaholic empitness at its center.” Individualism, discouraged the individual level, is pushed up the scale to be expressed at the level of buidlings, as if to reinforce at the level of public space the disregard for personal individuality, personal comfort. Bland generic public space affords the space for individuals to appear in society and imagine themselves individuals — their uniqueness is not upstaged by the buildings, and their tastes are not affronted on a mammoth scale, showing the insignificance of their personal preferences. They need not reckon with a vision they reject or fail to comprehend. This is the beauty of the shopping mall; it keeps the indvidual psyche of the shopper center stage, it flatters that with its architectural drabness. People are oppressed by architecture presumably intended to exalt them (Kingwell writes, “Architecture will not set us free, no matter how hard — how high and fast — it tries”), because they are more exalted by not being distracted from the drama of their own identity, the self they are proceeding to construct on their own imagined design. This might seem to contradict what I said above about conformity, and perhaps it does — I think the resolution of the contradiction lies in the fact that the identity construction plays out in fantasy simultaneously with the acquisition of conformist camoflauge, rewriting that mundane bit of everyday life as its happening.

Kingwell’s description of Shanghai, its “shopholic emptiness,” sounds a lot like Las Vegas to me, dezoned and insane and bizarrely shallow despite the manifold layers of stimuli. Is there then something authoritarian and dictatorial lurking in the heart of Las Vegas?

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