Fwd: Harvard's Shopping Guide

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Wed Mar 13 2002 - 03:31:14 GMT

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    Elements of Style
    by Lynn Yaeger

    Harvard's Shopping Guide


    The newly published Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping argues that
    shopping‹so vital a force in the world economy, so powerful an agent in
    our collective dreams‹has been getting short shrift from scholars for
    centuries. In 800 pages of photo spreads and manifestos, its authors,
    architect Rem Koolhaas and a team of Harvard design school graduates,
    attempt to rectify this inequity, and the results are half stunning, half
    really annoying. Though the book offers plenty of great
    moments‹19th-century department stores provided the first public
    bathrooms for women; some people go to church in malls‹it somehow misses
    what even a four-year-old knows: Buying stuff is fun.

    The fun aspect of shopping is frequently buried alive in the Harvard
    guide, whose authors' idea of a good time is to subject you to sentences
    like "To understand limit as spatial and excess, the transgression of the
    bounds of limit, as action, it would seem that these two logics should
    collapse neatly into the already established distinctions of shopping's
    two modes of typological definition; the logic of limit belonging to the
    typology of form or shape and the logic of excess belonging to the
    typology of program or use." Best skip over that sort of thing and treat
    the book like a rainy afternoon in a department store‹meander through the
    aisles, stopping every few minutes to read about the glory of Parisian
    arcades or the wretchedness of the Paramus Mall or a guy called Jon
    Jerde, the architect responsible for Minnesota's Mall of America. (Of his
    masterpiece he said, "What they wanted was four malls bolted end to end,
    so it was a piece of shit. [But] I went in opening day, and I went, wait
    a minute, this isn't so bad. . . . This isn't a shopping mall anymore. .
    ... . This is a strange new animal here that, if you learn to do it right,
    could be off-the-wall, I mean really fucking great.")

    Readers who aren't in the mood to trudge through Koolhaas's own essay,
    which is about something he calls "Junkspace" and has a first sentence
    that reads, "Rabbit is the new beef," can go see his theories in action
    at his latest creation, the $40 million Prada store at the site of the
    former Guggenheim Museum at Broadway and Prince Street in Soho. Here all
    the ideas the Harvard book is so taken with‹the store as town square and
    theme park, the ascendance of shopping over every other form of social
    interaction‹are front and center, alongside Prada's merchandise, which
    this season includes $950 pleated skirts made of silk based on men's
    pajama patterns.

    This Prada store has been in the works since March 1999, a time of
    economic prosperity, and opened last December in a rather different
    climate. (On September 11, work on its distinctive features‹the
    monumental staircase and skateboard-ready mountain, both made of
    endangered zebrawood‹came to a halt as construction workers rushed to the
    Trade Center site.) The shop is anything but a traditional luxury venue:
    There isn't a chandelier or plush carpet in sight. Instead, a gigantic
    knitted stocking holding stereo equipment hangs from the ceiling and
    disco cages on casters serve as display cabinets.

    It's meant to be wild and wacky‹in a word, fun, but just in case not
    everybody with $900 to spend on a skirt relishes rubbing shoulders with
    the hoi polloi, there's a V.I.P. entrance on Mercer Street, where pills
    with fat purses can be ushered into supersize dressing rooms and avoid
    the milling entirely. Everybody else can gaze out the big windows
    overlooking Prince Street, where really excellent fake Prada bags are
    being sold not 20 feet from the store, by guys indulging in the most
    ancient form of retail activity: setting up a blanket on the street and
    haggling over prices.

    Shoppers who don't want fakes but would rather not hand over a week's
    income at Prada now have a third option. What would the authors of the
    Harvard guide, with all their erudition, make of the fierce joy that
    welcomed the reopening of Century 21 in Lower Manhattan?

    Though the resurrection of a favorite store is a happy thing, a recent
    visit left a visitor unprepared for a rush of conflicting sentiments.
    Getting off the R train at City Hall‹the Cortlandt Street stop, directly
    in front of the store, is still closed‹you pass St. Paul's Chapel, where
    the fence is covered with flags and faded portraits of the dead. It still
    smells a little funny in this part of town, and there are cops everywhere
    and a perpetual line of people holding tickets for the viewing
    platform‹an oddly exuberant bunch, like people waiting on line for a
    really good horror movie. It feels funny to think about the treasures
    awaiting at Century in this atmosphere, and yet the impulse to linger
    only briefly over the memorials and then rush off to the store has a
    weirdly liberating feeling. Well, maybe bobbing along in a sea of
    contradictions‹our fabulous wealth compared to the rest of the world; the
    alternating currents of shame and desire that inform bargain hunting when
    it takes place directly across from ground zero‹is just part of the
    landscape of the way we live now. Coming up the subway stairs, a woman
    with a European accent and the determined expression of the international
    shopper stopped a well-dressed fellow traveler and asked, with unintended
    irony, "Do you know the way to the 21st Century?"

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