Dream Worlds and Malls

Imagine, if you will, that you have been given the chance to design your own shopping mall. How would you think about the space? What services would you make available to the consumers you wanted to attract? Which stores would you highlight? How would you give the mall a character of its own? Would you make it like a long hallway or give it the qualities of a large and spacious hall? Are you looking for intimacy or anonymity? Do you want people to be able to see each other as they shop? Or would you prefer the kind of space which, similar to a shopping street, keeps consumers on the move and therefore less likely to interact with each other? Would you look for ways of encouraging if not creating a public space, somewhat like a square in the grand European tradition, where large numbers of people could congregate? How would you manage an environment in which public space might take on more importance than the shops or restaurants within the mall? Should there be parks inside malls? Are malls any different from early twentieth century music halls, places of entertainment and pleasure and voyeurism?

All of these questions circle around another and perhaps a more primary one. What analytical tools will serve us best in trying to understand the mall as fundamental part of twenty-first century life and as a representation of the way in which our culture, our society, thinks about itself?

The author, Susan Buck-Morss wrote a book in 1991 entitled, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press) which is about arcades in Europe during the late eighteenth century. She begins with a quote from from Benjamin: “We have, so says the illustrated guide to Paris from the year 1852, a complete picture of the city of the Seine and its environs, but we have repeatedly thought of the arcades as interior boulevards, like those they open onto. These passages, a new discovery of industrial luxury, are glass-covered, marble-walled walkways through entire blocks of buildings, the owners of which have joined together to engage in such a venture. Lining both sides of these walkways which receive their light from above are the most elegant of commodity shops, so that such an arcade is a city, a world in miniature.”

Buck-Morss talks about Benjamin's desire to examine historical phenomena and make them talk — to bring to life the ‘everyday’ not as text, but as subject for conversation and exchange. It is, so to speak, the objects of modern day consumerism which need to be given life, not to overvalue them or even confer upon them a status which they don't deserve, but to uncover in their very existence the way in which mass culture and human desire engage to produce consumerism.

Benjamin thought of cities as intensely transient places, where spatial and temporal relations undergo non-stop change. The city becomes an environment of traces and memories. No sooner have you moved from one sphere of experience than you encounter another. People are in motion as are cars and trains and buses. Destinations are merely short-term stopovers in the constant flow. This sense of movement transforms reality into a dreamscape. Yet it is a reality which nonetheless services the people who use it. It is this relationship between the functional and the imaginary which I will explore.

Though he may not have used the term, Benjamin was in fact approaching the analysis of malls and cities as an ethnography. He saw the covered shopping arcades of the nineteenth century as replicas of an internal consciousness, a collective dream dependent on ‘commodity fetishism’. At the same time the malls represented all that was utopian in the projections of a culture oriented towards commodities and consumerism but also towards fantasy and desire.

It was in this context, sensitized by Benjamin’s poetic description, I spent some time at Place Montreal Trust in downtown Montreal a few years ago. The following notes reflect what I saw and experienced.

When it was first built, Abercrombie and Fitch was the prestige store of Place Montreal Trust. The store sits astride a series of escalators which open onto a cavity in the centre of the building. This large open space has a gallery at every floor which allows for and encourages viewing, watching and gazing.

There are two elevators with glass windows in the centre of the mall to reinforce the sense that this is an environment where consumers should be able to watch each other. Skylights bring in natural light at a variety of different angles. The cavity is reminiscent of large exhibition halls and many of the stores are designed around the idea of theatrical display, with some storefronts recessed differently from others and with different intensities of artificial light.

Artificial versus natural. A common theme across most of the stores are mannequins. They are meant to stand in for the spectator/consumer. They are dressed in every possible type of clothing and assume many different physical positions. It is their gaze, the stasis in their eyes which interests me most. They simulate the potential look of “everyperson  — a desire to be perfect, to be shaped and formed in a perfect manner which is offset by the consumer’s knowledge that perfection cannot ever really be achieved.

Jess Cartner-Morley, of The Guardian traces the history of mannequins. "In Manhattan in 1936, Cynthia was something of a celebrity. On the arm of the sculptor Lester Gaba, she attended the opera in the best box, and was seen at every upscale, uptown soiree. She was showered with invitations to all the chicest parties. Couturiers sent her clothes, Cartier and Tiffany loaned jewellery. But Cynthia was not your average It girl. She was a plaster mannequin, and Gaba, her creator, had fallen in love with her. As the tale of Cynthia shows, society has had a strange relationship with the mannequin, or shop dummy, ever since it first appeared a century ago in the then new department stores of Paris. Suzanne Plumb, the organiser of a new exhibition in Brighton which explores the meaning and history of dolls, traces the root of our unease to the fact that "any representation of the human form is unnerving and strange". With mannequins - life-size, fashionably-dressed women - there is another layer of unease, which stems from notions about the perfect woman as mute, beautiful and obliging. These ideas are ancient: they can be traced back to Greek myth and Pygmalion, a sculptor with an aversion to real women, who created a life like ivory woman whom he had brought to life, and married."

The window display must capture the eye before thought — engage that curiosity which comes with watching an image, which perhaps explains why more and more windows make use of television monitors and mise-en-scène. The window as screen can bring you face to face with the images you desire. The store simply becomes a quick stopover, a functional experience designed around service but not around persuasion. Of course that means less and less employees and more merchandise, racks of goods which continue from the monitor into the store, which suggests that as you try on a pair of jeans, for example, you are attempting to wear the image.

The continuity between image and consumption is not as direct however, as the above argument might suggest. Window displays are part of a continuum. Images of consumption begin in the home. The presence of television monitors slips into that continuum. It might be better to say, and following Benjamin, that we are wearing the television set having not so much internalized its values, because we can remain as resistant as we wish, as we have become dependent on it as a source of information for what is available. This electronic clothing is a sign system which we use to explain the choices we make both to others and to ourselves. These processes, images interacting with identity — simultaneous resistance to being shaped by external forces — all are part of the experience. And it would be foolish for the architect involved in the creation of a mall or the marketer selling his or her goods not to be aware of them. “This overexposure attracts our attention inasmuch as it portrays the image of a world without antipodes, without hidden sides, a world in which opacity is no longer anything but a momentary ‘interlude’. It must be noted however, that the illusion of proximity does not last very long. Where the polis once inaugurated a political theatre ,with the agora and the forum, today there remains nothing but a cathode-ray screen, with its shadows and spectators of a community in the process of disappearing. This ‘cinematism’ conveys the last appearance of urbanism, the last image of an urbanism without urbanity, where tact and contact yield to televisual impact. . .” (Paul Virilio, The Overexposed City, in Zone 1/2, page 23)

The Abercrombie and Fitch store is very conscious of the need to theatricalize and to create a visually rich environment for its products. Its windows are like a tableau vivant. In the window I happened upon there was a hammock with Teddy Bears on it surrounded by an artificial tree. There was a large picture of two wolves with the suggestion of a hunt. Then of course there was Spring clothing, what you might need to relax and be comfortable during the coming vacation. There was also a wooden croquet set along with other adult games. All of this centred on the notion that the consumer can be like the child — that play is as good as work and both are necessary for each other. The store looks as if it is trying to open its doors to the wilderness which beckons beyond the shopping centre which may explain the Teddy Bears, but not the manner in which they are depicted. The window does have a lot of hunting gear in the back but that seems to be more symbolic than real, which is in fact precisely what the window display is promoting. (The fact that Abercrombie and Fitch has now changed into a young adult fashion outlet makes the above description all the more ironic.)

Opposite Abercrombie and Fitch there used to a restaurant, Café Les Palmes which took this notion of the outside to the extreme. The kitchen was visible as were the many palm trees which sat in close proximity to a large number of false columns designed around an Egyptian motif. Thus you could sit and eat and watch the fountain in the centre of the mall as it shot water into the air. You could listen to the sound of that water and smell the trees and watch a chef prepare your meal. You could experience all the elements of an environment from which you were completely detached and if that bothered you, you could go into Abercrombie and Fitch and buy something to bring you closer to the outside.

I have been discussing the rather attractive way in which stores like Abercrombie and Fitch link the outside world to the consumer goods that they sell. Their display windows bring nature into the mall and connect the mall to nature. Now, I don't want to focus too heavily on the motif of inside/outside but as I have mentioned there is a tremendous skylight and it dominates the entire centre of Place Montreal Trust. Given the intensity and length of Montreal winters, the trees, water and natural light in the mall contribute to a feeling of well-being, which perhaps explains why the mall is designed as a series of galleries. You have to walk around the galleries to enter and exit to heighten the effect of the separation from the cold outside.

The galleries slow down the usual downtown rush and there are strategically placed seats to reinforce the idea that this is also a place of rest. Make this your second home, a place to vacation, even a place to eat. The familiar is mixed with the exotic. This explains why the kitchen of Café Les Palmes is so to speak at street level. We are at the edge of a beach. We can listen to the rush of waves even as a snowstorm batters the outside. We can, so to speak, almost make our own food as we picnic. This is also part of the mentality in the self-serve basement food emporium. Everything is fast and everything is prepared, but you still pick up your own food and can if you're lucky find a table with an umbrella to sustain the fantasy.

“The covered shopping arcades of the nineteenth century were Benjamin's central image because they were the precise material replica of the internal consciousness, or rather, the unconscious of the dreaming collective. All of the errors of bourgeois consciousness could be found there (commodity fetishism, reification, the world as ‘inwardness’), as well as (in fashion, prostitution, gambling) all of its utopian dreams. Moreover, the arcades were the first international style of modern architecture, hence part of the lived experience of a worldwide, metropolitan generation.” (Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project , p. 39)

For Benjamin the new material world of the arcade led to a re-enchantment of all that was dreary about everyday life. This is perhaps one of Benjamin's most important insights. As city centres have become depopulated, the mall in the city centre has become a new public space of eating and consuming. This all takes place within the context of the televisual, within the context of images. It is not so much that the images satisfy a fantasy, as they fit into a pre-existent set of dreams about money and material wealth. Images transform architectural design into a play with surfaces where stores allow viewers to enter and experience the advertisements which they have seen elsewhere. Malls are like a forest of symbols and signs with direction markers pointing every which way. This in fact may be at the heart of their attractiveness. For as the urban landscape becomes denaturalized our culture will have to find a new way to bring back the natural configurations which it has eliminated. But this new nature will imitate not reproduce, simulate not reenact.

There is a need to see malls not as reflections of some low cultural activity that is not worthy of comment, but as the very essence of how our culture is defining itself. They are a symptomatic map, as much of conscious as unconscious needs and activities. Thus the palm trees at Montreal Trust and the ones in San Diego effectively join together. A picture is assembled which confirms a continuity between the home and the market-place, between various levels of artifice and nature and between divergent and often distinct geographic locations. “The arcades, as houses without exteriors were themselves, just like dreams. All collective architecture of the nineteenth century provides housing for the dreaming collective: arcades, winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax-figure cabinets, casinos, railroad stations, — as well as museums, apartment interiors, department stores and public spas.” Susan Buck-Morss, p. 41

The architectural becomes a scaffolding onto which the body maps itself. And this body of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century inhabits a space which is so close to a dream world that as Benjamin suggested the fantasy needs to be recounted otherwise we will never understand its effects.