We Shop, Therefore We Are


Project on the City 2

Edited by Chuihua Judy Chung, Jeffrey Inaba, Rem Koolhaas, Sze Tsung Leong

Taschen -- 800pp -- $50

Rem Koolhaas likes to think big. In 1995, the brilliant and unpredictable Dutch architect collaborated with graphic designer Bruce Mau to publish S,M,L,XL, a 1,345-page cinder block exploring the state of contemporary architecture. It was an intimidating yet seductive object, a publishing Niagara overflowing with essays, pictures, charts, maps, advertisements, and even its own dictionary.

Now comes Koolhaas' latest publishing prank, the Harvard Design School Guide To Shopping, which runs a mere 800 pages. Thankfully, the Guide is not another critique of the evils of consumerism or some kind of fin de siecle Whole Earth Catalog. Instead, its authors break new ground by donning anthropologists' hats to study retailing and its relationship to urban life. Koolhaas and his band of pranksters insightfully explore the global history of shopping, the technologies that have spurred its growth, and its relationship with politics, culture, and architecture.

The volume is based on the intriguing idea that "shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity" and "one of the principal...modes by which we experience the city." The Guide is the second installment of a hoity-toity Koolhaas-led Harvard Design School venture, The Project on the City, "an ongoing research effort that examines the effects of modernization on the urban condition." (The project's first volume considered China's Pearl River Delta region, and future efforts will explore Lagos, Nigeria, and the classical Roman city.) This Guide includes 42 essays written by 20-odd architects and architectural critics, a few of whom also helped edit the book. In typical Koolhaas fashion, it is a handsome thing marked by a kitchen-sink style. Beautiful photos and photo collages, quirky charts and graphs, and fascinating historical documents (such as a cover illustration taken from the 1949 Otis Elevator Co. brochure) fly off the page.

In an opening section/timeline called "Evolution," Koolhaas traces the origins of shopping to 7000 B.C., when the city of Catalhoyuk, in modern-day Turkey, was formed to trade commodities. Then the Guide frolics through 9,000 years, taking us all the way up to the advent of the Internet and e-commerce. There are lots of fascinating statistics: In a section entitled "Scope," we learn that the U.S. averages the most retail square feet per person, 31, compared with 10 in Britain, which is No. 2. The U.S. also devotes the most space to retailing--39% of the world's total, compared with 37% for Asia--and is home to most of the world's largest shopping conglomerates. If retailers were classified as countries, the Guide notes, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. would be the 24th most productive nation in the world.

Key to the evolution of retail were two technological developments: air conditioning and escalators. The latter, assert architects Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss and Sze Tsung Leong, has had a greater impact on shopping than any other invention. By enabling a seamless flow of people and commerce, they say, the escalator made possible the creation of the department store at the turn of the 20th century.

There are numerous other offbeat riffs. One essay, by Daniel Herman, explores the contempt that modern architects hold for retailing architecture. There's a poignant 12-page photo essay documenting "dead malls." And, in a sort of surprise homage tucked away between pages 593 and 617, Koolhaas interviews Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, authors of the classic architectural book Learning From Las Vegas.

Despite its wealth of worthy material, the Guide's inventory is missing a few key items. The book never considers why people today find shopping so important. Koolhaas is a top-notch polemicist whose first book, Delirious New York, was a fascinating "manifesto" for Manhattan. But his essay here, "Junkspace," is a snoozer that doesn't have much to do with the subject at hand. And the book barely touches on the future of retail. Still, the Guide to Shopping earns a place on the checkout line with its unique, energetic, and colorful perspective on an all-powerful yet strangely invisible force.

By Spencer E. Ante

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