Sacred lair of the commodity, its mysteries veiled by plate glass: who can resist the lure of the shop?
Shopping never keeps its promises. The boutique-idler, bargain-hunter and crate-digger all know that the lust for acquisition, though titillated by browsing, returns afresh with every purchase. Forever within reach and forever vanishing from our grasp, the quarry escapes, like a will-o’-the-wisp, to lead us further on the hunt. The urge for conquest can never be sated: the commodity sits radiating undefiled sanctity on the shelf but, once possessed, it plummets from the realm of the ideal. The shop is the only temple in which its aura can be protected.
When Roman politicians left the centre of the city, voiding the forum of administrative activity to create a purified governmental sphere, the marketplace remained as a differently oriented pole of social activity. In the process of specialisation, these spatially separated functions lost their balance, and they would henceforth be driven on by their own relatively unhampered internal logics. In consequence, since the rise of the merchants in the Middle Ages, one sphere has almost entirely devoured the other. To begin with, this challenge to the feudal authorities was no bad thing but, today, politics struggles to reassert itself from the bottom up.
The dominance of commercial interests over supposedly inviolately pure politics was facilitated by this original separation, which was always fictional to a degree. It was this story – lulling, as it did, the listener into unsound easiness – that enabled the stealthy revenge of the jilted marketplace. This triumph also depended on another, equally fictional claim regarding the latter’s purity, which revealed the aspiration of the material world to the spirituality of the powers that it had conquered.
This purity could only be staged by enclosure: by the development, in other words, of the shop. Retail space depends – as sacred space – on the exclusion of the profane. In this instance, the fatal contaminant is any trace of the commodity’s origin in labour, so the shop must present its wares as parentless children, virginal and pure. Retail space fosters this phantasmagoria by marshalling all the senses; only sacred space is equally replete with sights, sounds, smells and textures. And the transparent facade – the shop window – is the paradoxically lucid veil for these mysteries.
Beyond the window of the individual unit, the congregation of shops beneath a unitary architectural carapace, in the form of the souk, arcade, department store or mall, expands this purified interior into the urban realm. The city as a whole is thereby annexed or replicated, with the aim of purging it of any elements injurious to the phantasmagoria. This was first perfected in Paris, where Bon Marché initiated the department store type with its fabulous central space. The transepts, naves and domes of grand shops are indebted to the tradition of ecclesiastical architecture; the gallerias of Milan and Naples are those cities’ equivalents of St Peter’s in terms of scale and sublimity.
Within such space – and particularly in its most recent manifestation, the mall – the circulation of bodies becomes as important an element of the display as the motionless mannequins in the windows. Stairs and, later, escalators criss-cross central voids, transforming the shopper into one of the products on offer. The escalator and the glass-walled lift disguise the consumer’s labour in the service of the phantasmagoria via mechanisation.
The beggar and the sex worker, on the other hand, are two of the most potent enemies of the phantasmagoria, since they merge labour with the ware in the most primitive and immediate way. Thanks to this return of the repressed, both trades proffer an unwanted mirror to both shopper and shopkeeper, and must consequently be banished (looters and shoplifters, liberators of the commodity, are even less welcome).
The quadrant colonnades of Nash’s Regent Street, the first purpose-built shopping centre in Britain, were demolished in 1848 in an attempt to prevent sex workers from gathering there. It did not succeed, and the association later erupted in the crisis of gender unleashed by industrial modernity. In the paintings of Kirchner, we see women in bright clothes and sombrely attired men loitering in Berlin, the act of window-shopping a metaphor for the purchase of intimacy, as well as being a pretext for its literal enactment.
The industrialisation of fashion was enmeshed with these developments. The lone, unchaperoned woman with disposable income from her own labour was, for some, troublingly indistinct from the sex worker. Her freedom provoked a fearful reaction from the male, who recognised in her seduction by the mannequins a re-enactment of his own submission before the commercial allures of the city. These latter were revealed by the increasing rapidity of their turnover to be far from what was traditionally regarded as culture. As men and women were both sucked into the vortex of industrial capital, their reflections in the shop window – captured most unnervingly by Eugène Atget – placed the viewer among the commodities, a fetish among fetishes. For many, this provoked an ill-aimed lashing out at public morality, which meant (as ever) the morality of the woman shopper and the whole feminised trade of fashion.
This problematic also leached into the realm of architecture. Shops were not among the traditionally prestigious building types, although no less a figure than Bramante incorporated them into the ground floor of his Palazzo Caprini. This arrangement had long been conventional; indeed, the cavernous shop-space partially blocked by the counter can still be observed in the streets of Pompeii. The full-spanning plate glass window was not common before 1860; until then smaller panes, of the sort preserved in London’s Woburn Walk, prevailed. Cast iron and plate glass allowed the elimination of the ground floor facade, causing, it seemed to contemporaneous observers, an unnerving impression of infirmity. All that is solid melts into air; the pilotis and the ribbon window would carry this shop-born weightlessness into the domestic sphere.
This association was long repressed; the fripperies of commercial architecture, especially in the service of the unseemly business of fashion, came too close to the bone for architects troubled by the feeling that the restless turnover of styles was somehow akin to fashion’s carousel. It took an American to broach this delicate topic without embarrassment. Sullivan’s Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co building, along with Loos’s slightly later shop for Goldman and Salatsch, are the parents of a tendency in shop design that moved via Mendelsohn to the glass boxes of Apple today. Absolute elimination of the facade, absolute recession of architecture, absolute equivalence with the street – although the sanctity of the threshold between the two is still absolutely enforced.
Fashion being – as Georg Simmel put it – the satisfaction of a drive to distinction within the most conventional parameters, there must also be utterly opaque facades, and these were quickly supplied by Sullivan’s successor, Wright. Hans Hollein followed in this tradition, with the sinister, sensual peekaboo games played by his Viennese stores. (The Viennese tradition of shop design continued with Victor Gruen, who emigrated to the US and, there, invented the mall.)
Kohlmarkt 8 10, vienna kerzenshop retti
Today, big architecture firms are more likely to work for high-fashion clients than for any other retailer, but whereas Vienna and Paris once offered the most fertile ground for such collaborations, today it is Tokyo. Here, the planned obsolescence of local architecture meshes perfectly with the rapid rotation of fashion, and the most up-to-the-minute stores can be erected and torn down within months, to be replaced by yet-more-cutting-edge structures. Punctuality is the central message of such architectural advertising, and this could not be achieved in the ossified centres of Paris or Milan.
Material presence has been more substantially undermined, of course, in the quest for minimal overheads embarked on by online retailers. The shop window shrinks to the size of a screen, through which we gaze from the beach, the lavatory and the bed. But just as the shop seemed ready to dissolve into ubiquity, the high street, decimated by the supermarket and the out-of-town big-box shopping centre, is about to be colonised again by Amazon, which seems set on monopolising the retail sector just as thoroughly as the Soviet state ever did. Though shoplifters won’t be put out of business.
MVRDV, Crystal Houses, Amsterdam, 2016
‘Over an old Flemish house there stands the mystical inscription: “there is more within me”.’ So wrote Georg Simmel in 1904, referring to the way that fashion allows us to simultaneously express and mask our individuality. He incidentally makes a connection between fashion and the facade, one which, though suppressed in architectural discourse, always lies very close to the surface, as Mark Wigley has shown. The facade hides the interior, but also expresses something about the building. When the purpose of the building is display, however, this relation should be more straightforward – unless of course you are in a conservation area, in which case historical facades are retained at all costs, even if the rest of the building is demolished. In their shop for Chanel in Amsterdam, MVRDV has proposed a radical alternative: why not remake a historical facade in an unprecedented material, glass for instance? In order to do so they had to develop new technologies of casting and bonding glass bricks, the transparency of which renders the Simmelian inscription redundant.
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Crystal house drawings
Kengo Kuma & Associates, Sunnyhills Cake Shop, Tokyo, 2013
Glass does not have a monopoly on transparency. Using the ancient and fiendishly complex Japanese joinery technique of jigoku-gumi, which literally means ‘interlocking hell’, Kengo Kuma enveloped this Tokyo bakery in a hectic cloud of wooden struts. The interior is not visible from the street, making display of the wares on sale impossible, but the building is instantly recognisable –from a distance, it is reminiscent of a wasp nest – making it a striking advertisement for the business. And while you may not be able to see inside, the facade is still transparent to a degree, seeming to dissolve at its fringes, and certainly translucent when lit from within at night. Kuma is no stranger to such attention-grabbing retail strategies, although their formal qualities may have changed since the Postmodernist excess of his M2 showroom.
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Sunnyhills cake shop drawings
OMA, Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Venice, 2016
The heart of Venice is filled with expensive boutiques, and has always been so. But the opportunity for remodelling these is limited due to the historical significance of the architecture, even when this historicity is not quite as it seems. The Fondaco dei Tedeschi is an ancient institution founded in 1228 to house German merchants in the city; its current building at the foot of the Rialto Bridge was erected in 1506, but it was gutted under Mussolini and the structure replaced with concrete. Nevertheless, it is protected as a monument. So when OMA was tasked with transforming the building into a department store, the practice chose a series of steroidally Scarpa-esque interventions to highlight this history of modifications, adding dramatic red escalators and suspending a glass and steel floor above the central courtyard. They opened the latter to the street, and, together with a new wooden roof terrace, this provides much-needed public space to the overcrowded locale.
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Fondaco dei tedeschi drawings
Architecten de Vylder Vinck Taillieu, Twiggy, Ghent, 2011
The accommodation of retail space within former domestic space presents several problems. The facade is one, another is circulation. Here, in an old house in Ghent, local architects de Vylder Vinck Taillieu had to deal with the quandary of a narrow original staircase that was unfit according to local fire regulations, and yet was to be retained for aesthetic reasons. Their solution was to construct an entirely new staircase on the back of the building, an irregular zigzagging volume camouflaged to mirror the facade against which it presses like a chameleon climbing up a wall. Interior spaces have also been remodelled and a floor removed, leaving period fireplaces dangling bizarrely in mid-air. The result of their modifications is uncanny in its literal, German sense: the home made ‘unheimlich’, unhomely, by commerce.