The Shops Around the Corner

Harvard's Shopping Guide; Prada; Century 21

If retailers were classified as countries, Home Depot's gross domestic product would be greater than Morocco's. Wal-Mart is more prosperous than Hong Kong; Ikea trumps Ghana. Shopping used to be one thing you did when you visited a city; now it's the only thing. So how come our universities don't have graduate departments of retail philosophy? Why aren't our libraries full of academic tomes on the rise and fall of boutiques?

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.")

Shopping in a war zone: a Century 21 customer at the memorial in front of St. Paul's Chapel
photo: Pak Fung Wong
Shopping in a war zone: a Century 21 customer at the memorial in front of St. Paul's Chapel

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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