Build no new retail--at all
Whatever “postmodern commercial retail architecture” was, it has failed, and its failure is widely acknowledged by critics of every hue. But it hasn't prevented our civic leaders from hoping beyond hope that it will still prevail--if only they're allowed to build still more.
This would be a grave mistake. After the atrocities of Hollywood & Highland and LA Live, we should build nothing retail at all.
Postmodern commercial retail architecture was generally too overstimulating and generally too disorganized and generally too cheaply done to be put to any kind of acceptable human use. It was generally too out of human scale and generally too programmatic and generally too far away from true communities and generally too overtly devoted to consumption to be good for anyone but those intellectually depraved enough to wish to combine shopping with amusement park rides.
The earlier manifestations of modern commercial retail architecture, of course, was devoted to consumerism, and "consuming" itself is a word which until about 1962 the dictionary defined as “destroying by fire." But they barely combined entertainment with retail culture at all, save for stitching in a few theaters to a complex.
The earlier consumerism and its air conditioned devotional malls also severely wounded nearly every variety of the kinds of human experience upon which civilization itself had been built. Worship, for example, was supplemented by the lifestyle brands of retail space, while the perpetual movement of escalators displaced all public forum civitas; even the ancient idea of breaking bread with someone over a genuine leisurely meal was subsumed by the fast food court.
This has all more or less happened in our lifetimes: we used to go to parks and town squares and fora; now we go to malls and other kinds of retail zones. And we have enough of these to last us in perpetuity.
For all its noxious and failed traits, it must also be said that in the recent past, purely modern (i.e., 1950’s-1970’s) commercial retail architecture never threatened to subsume and subordinate our lives, which our current postmodern commercial architecture achieves without difficulty. You can now look to horrific 1970’s edifices such as the Del Amo Fashion Square (cheerily subtitled in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown) with feelings near nostalgia, for they are nothing like commercial retail architecture of the past twenty years. Our complete immolation by trauma-tecture like LA Live is the threat that commercial retail architecture today poses.
The statistics alone are so frightening as to be exciting, in the way that Independence Day or any other wanton disaster flick is exciting. According to the Harvard Graphic Design Project, retail space in the US takes up a total area 33 times the size of Manhattan (by contrast, retail space takes up only three Manhattans in Europe, where there are more people, and which is perceived to be overcrowded). Wal-Mart alone, if a country, would be the world’s 25th largest by sales receipts, right before Denmark.
The success of retail architecture in becoming the dominant spatial paradigm in our American lives has paralleled our psychic immolation by retail culture. If a guy wants to describe how a woman looks when she leaves the house, and the guy can’t mention brand names, he's often completely stifled. The fact that those brand names may be remote and may not even be found at any of the nearest mall’s four anchor stores is irrelevant.
So what to do? Not even the greatest malcontents, not even anarchists, not even poets directly assail retail spaces—they assail advertising, or government, or poverty, or whaling boats, but the pomo mall in all its glitz rests in its spot as securely as the roads that lead to them. At this point, one can’t not shop. One can’t not commodify.
A modestly rash proposal is to declare that we no longer need any more retail space in America--and certainly not in this city--at all. By sq.ft, we don’t. It’s true, we really don’t. If we can admit to ourselves that in possessing 10x what Europe possesses we must certainly have enough retail space already, and provide that all new space can only be permitted when an equal amount of old space is knocked down. Improve retail space, but don’t add new retail space. Renew retail space, but don’t add new retail space. Rehab retail space, but don’t add new retail space. Reinforce retail space, but don’t add new retail space. Add no new retail space. Build nothing, without knocking something down.
Build nothing new that retails. A planning moratorium on retail space! This is a sensible reaction to big boxes and LA Live. It’s not going to become the catchphrase of a political party. But grassroots can easily insist on this much if they wish, at the local level, and even, as we so joyously exasperatingly do, at the global one. It sounds like the language of manifesto, but certainly makes as much sense as, say, “Buy only what you know”, the compass of so many investors in need of a sextant. Such an outlook by a homeowner or middle manager or energetic professor or franchise operator may enable a local cultural flowering of some sort. Even if failed, it would certainly avail a nice break from shopping.