Shopping with Rem
They’re being sold and discussed as two new books by Rem Koolhaas: parts one and two of the ‘Project on the City’. But Koolhaas is absent on most of the 1,600 pages. For the most part, he lets students from Harvard Design School have their say. That said, Koolhaas’s presence is still palpable – as editor, teacher and source of inspiration for a long line of faithful disciples tagging along in his wake. In the pieces by Koolhaas himself, Junkspace in particular, he is his customary radical, expressionist and very funny self.
The Shopping Guide feels exhaustive and objective, but of course it's nothing of the sort. All manner of Disney-style parks are featured, but the fact that the visitor is walking on what is effectively the roof of a service garage – all servicing takes place out of view of the tourist in underground spaces large enough for many trucks – is never mentioned. Though the consumer aspect of Shopping is well covered, the production aspect is often lacking.
What does pass the test is the copious quantity of fantastic images (70% of both books consists of images), loud sloganising, consumer symbolism, splendid graphics, all of it in lavish quantities. This ultimate overkill of pseudo-scientific analysis (200 pages would have been plenty for the Great Leap Forward) is not always successful, but it has resulted in two colourful tomes to leaf through. In that sense, Koolhaas's own great leap forward – from most-quoted critic on the alternative circuit to fully fledged player in a consumer society driven by the laws of spectacle – has been accomplished with full marks. And that's a welcome thought. For I'm not immune to anything human. I too shop, fly, consume and allow myself to be swayed entirely voluntarily and consciously by 'real' brands, ad campaigns, big numbers and special offers. You know how it works, yet you still play along. Even while reading, I can hear an imaginary radio DJ crowing about the latest Koolhaas – 'better, faster and thicker than all his previous work, available everywhere now'. And never before has a book had that effect on me.
The star system that applies in the world of architecture (come to Bilbao for a real Gehry) is apparently as effective in pop music, where qualifications like 'better', 'worse' or 'as good as' only acquire meaning when related to the likes of Madonna or U2. Most of the articles that have appeared to date on the first two books in the 'Project on the City' series (two more will follow) deal more with Koolhaas than his contribution to either book merits. That's how the stardom mechanism works, and apt it is too, for it's also one of the subjects in book two, the Harvard Design School Guide To Shopping. But that's not all. Koolhaas probably does deserve full credit for the fact that both books have been published by Taschen ('making beautiful books available to everyone'). Books from this publisher are normally consigned to the reduced-price and remaindered sections of bookstores. And that's a considerable achievement: never before has urban design research been so accessible to the public. Expansion in the world of books: from the specialised architecture bookstore to the kiosk on the corner.
One book therefore deals with the large-scale variety of shopping, or bulk shopping; the other deals in detail with, by Western standards, is the ridiculously rapid growth of the Pearl River Delta, a subject that Koolhaas previously raised in his contribution to Documenta X in Kassel. Here, too, the key words are bigness and radical.
I Shop, Therefore I Am
While reading the Shopping Guide, something like a mail-order catalogue for shopping centres, the reader becomes aware of the workings of today's society. But that is nothing new. Anyone who has seen the film The Truman Show is just as aware of what modern man is a capable of.
The surprise tactics deployed by the Koolhaas students – with all their titbits of information and data on escalators and air-conditioning – is mildly amusing, but no more than that. For who can really get exited about the fact that Las Vegas has more escalators than the Netherlands has? What's the point of all this infotainment? Is it bad? Or good? Most of the information in the Shopping Guide is given no significance. It does not support any model, nobody has a view on it, never mind a moral view. That's what makes such data so trivial: if you don't do anything with it, why bother to mention it, except – analogous to the law of big numbers – to impress?
(translation: Billy Nolan)