Downsizing is the new black?

Racked.com reports that Banana Republic’s women’s store at 550 Broadway in SoHo Manhattan is shutting down. It will be consolidated with the men’s store just down the block at 528 Broadway, closed currently for “touch-ups” and reopening May 1, 2009. With the recession and on this expensive stretch of the district, it’s no surprise more of this will occur. “Could this also be the first stage in the – gasp – degentrification of SoHo?”



Non-places: An Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity
Marc Auge

A Literature Review

Marc Augé posits that non-places, rampant in supermodernity, are a late capitalist phenomenon. He claims that it is due to an excess of three things in society today: time, space, and ego.

First, an excess of time is a symptom of an extended life expectancy. Now, there can be four generations in co-existence rather than three. This expands the collective memory of society, thereby increasing the times that an individual’s own history coincides with history at large.

Next, the excess of space comes from the change in scale. The entire planet becomes more accessible due to technology and the perception of contraction actually becomes an overabundance of space now within reach of all.

And finally, the excess of ego speaks to the rise of the self-obsessed man and the fall of the public man. It is due to the previous two conditions and the increase of the advertising infrastructure based on tapping into individual freedoms.

To distinguish between a place and a non-place, Augé uses the term “organically social” for a place and “solitary contractuality” for a non-place. By postulating that a place is a more anthropological paradigm, it is concerned with identity, the rational and the historical. Whereas for a non-place, there is no integration to an earlier precedent. It only looks at history as a specific spectacle at a distance, and enhances anonymity and alienation. Yet, there is still an illusion of being part of a global network, linking back to the city-world. These gauges for definition fall short of consistency if one looks at the permutation of perspective. For the British Raj period, many buildings erected were a concoction of Victorian, neo-gothic and vernacular Indian styles. The attempt of the British government to assimilate itself into the land and culture of the place generated a building that would be considered a non-place by the definition of Augé. Yet, by its very existence, it bears witness to the struggle in relation to the historical times of the British occupation of India. Similarly, taking the case of Las Vegas, it exemplifies that perhaps a non-place can become a place. The random references of the exotic or the metropolitan is exactly the place that people by the millions flock to in order to obtain an “identity” and be “organically social”. Augé speaks of the paradoxes without the possibility of metamorphosis.

Further along the book, he presents an in-depth narrative of the modern day experience of driving down a highway or walking through an airport terminal. It is very timely that I write this at the start of my travels to Xiamen, China, with the airport lounges and superhighways fresh in my memory. The promised space for a world-wide network, the airport is a no man’s land where people of many walks of life are thrown together for one purpose. The only allusion to individual identity is in the little booklet everyone clutches tightly in their free hand, while the other pulls a trolley. With stopovers in Newark and Shanghai, the memory of each terminal lasted only several hours, as I came and went. Upon arriving to Xiamen, the infrastructure that connects the airport to the city becomes a blur of abstract signs and names. The temporary and detached nature of zooming past indicated locations of hundreds of kilometres away dehumanizes the process of travel and observation. In this sense, Augé was very acute in noting that these non-places result in the profound alteration of our awareness of the world.

Not mentioned in Augé’s Non-places is the common progression of anthropological places to be imitated into non-places commodified for easy consumption by the masses. For example, SoHo as a concept has become a brand. It is even copyrighted as a name of new developments around the world, in particular, the SoHo condominiums located at the centre of the CBD in Beijing. (http://www.sohochina.com/en/about/index.asp)

Yet not all non-places should be regarded as a negative phenomenon. It has its own aesthetic and sends a message to society. Perhaps it is just a reflection of the times; with our times being just slightly nauseating.


what i saw today

Richard Haines, designer and illustrator, observes and records on whatever he has at the time. The streets of New York is his "endless runway."




Napoleon visiting the Plague House of Jaffa. Antoine-Jean Gros.

Dolce & Gabbana Fall Winter 2007. Photographed by Steven Meisel.

Ad campaigns rampage and rip a random assortment of time periods with no remorse.


"In August [2007] Mr Gorbachev became the unlikely face of Louis Vuitton, following in the rather more elegant footsteps of Uma Thurman. In one advert he is photographed by Annie Liebovitz sitting in the back of a car as it drives past what remains of the Berlin wall - a reminder, no doubt, of his historic role in dismantling it. On the seat beside him is a classic brown LV bag. But wait, what is that tucked into the top of the bag? It's a magazine, and if you blow it up it shows a headline on the front cover that reads: "Litvinenko's murder: They wanted to give up the suspect for $7,000."

What coded message was Mr Gorbachev seeking to send around the world through that well-known underground messaging system of glossy fashion magazines? The magazine turns out to be the May 28 edition of New Times, a liberal Russian weekly that regularly criticises Vladimir Putin's Kremlin. In this article New Times contentiously alleged that its reporters were approached by Russian secret agents offering to tell them in exchange for $7,000 the whereabouts of Andrei Lugovoi. He is the chief suspect in the radiation poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, and the British government wants to extradite Mr Lugovoi to stand trial.

Mr Gorbachev has generally been quite supportive of Mr Putin. But it would be hard not to conclude that by posing for Vuitton, the final Soviet leader wanted not only to make money for his family and his foundation, but also to give his successor a bloody nose."(www.guardian.co.uk)

Fashion advertising meddling in politics. Sex sells. But Gorbechev packs a punch.

It was a good idea at the time...

The evolution of logos to match the times.

(from http://best-ad.blogspot.com)

The Television Guide

In conjuction with growing urban populations and improved forms of transportation, widened boulevards and metros, we began to see the rise of department stores, gallerias, and arcades. This was the origins of consumerism and lifestyles based on elegance of consumption. By the 1920s a mass mediated popular culture was emergent that would become highly intertwined with marketing advertising and consumerism. While the growth of consumption-based lifestyles was slowed by the Depression and then by WWII, the postwar decades would witness the proliferation of consumerism exhalted by the rise of television. Advertising and marketing began to denounce the problems of “civilization” and promised that with the purchase of certain products, the person would attain health, riches, beauty, love -- in short, a better life. But, the current culture of constraint at the time was unlikely to encourage consumption. Thus advertising, in the guise of movie plots, began to manifest glamorized identities based on consumption. The corollary of this privatized hedonism is a greater indifference to adverse social, political and environmental conditions.

Urban economics has traditionally viewed cities as having advantages in production and disadvantages in consumption. The role of urban density in facilitating consumption is extremely important. As firms become more mobile, the success of cities hinges more and more on cities’ role as centres of consumption. Empirically, high amenity cities have grown faster than low amenity cities. Urban rents have gone up faster than urban wages, suggesting that the demand for living in cities has risen for reasons beyond rising wages. The rise of reverse commuting suggests the same consumer city phenomena.

Coffee Time

Susan Stockwell. Pattern of the World. 2000

The world is reimagined as tea and coffee stains on fragile dressmaking patterns. Speaking to Britain's legacy of colony and empire-making, it manifests the idea of commodity trading taking the role of shaping the economic and political circumstances of the world -- from tea, coffee, textiles to manual labour. It also alludes to the debate between Mercator's and Peters' projection of the world map, as a portion of southern Africa has the instructions "Shorten or lengthen here."

(V&A Exhibit)

"In the factory, we make cosmetics. In the drugstore, we sell hope."

-Charles Revson, CEO & founder of Revlon

"My juicer is not meant to squeeze lemons, it is meant to start conversations."

-Philippe Starck, on his Juicy Salif

"Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves."

-Frank Lloyd Wright

Inventory is the New Inheritance

Certain objects have redemptive values unseen in common exchange of other material goods
  • Hierophany – manifestation of the sacred
  • Kratophany – fascination and fear of certain objects
  • Opposition to the profane – mandates to exclude
  • Contamination – separation or else will lose value
  • Sacrifice – willing to submit to irrational
  • Commitment – attachment of identity to object/logo
  • Ritual – rules of conduct, how to….
  • Myth – stories surrounding object (celebrity, affiliation..)
  • Mystery – ineffable meaning
  • Community – holders are linked to group
  • Pilgrimage – journey to these holy spaces
  • Ecstasy – sensation of joy, epiphany, shifted consciousness (“as advertised”)
  • Metonymic consumption – having part of a whole
  • Quintessence – top of the line beyond which there is nothing else
  • Collection – sacralization through collection

The similar effects of the glossy pages of a high-end fashion magazine as a trip through a Renaissance church...
But patina is now shine.

(Living It Up: America's Love Affair with Luxury, James B. Twitchell)


Prey or Junkie?

The spectacle versus the spectator dynamic is ever-present, inflated by the paparazzi prey or junkie mentalities – the odious by-products of our consumerist culture. People’s insatiable appetite for the absorption of these images is a measure of society’s investments. And on the scale of the city, it mythologizes people, histories, & geographies into inexhaustible but valueless brands.


The Running List...

Up for literature review:

01. The Fall of Public Man (Richard Sennett)
02. Non-places (Marc Auge)
03. The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)
04. Breakfast at Tiffany's (Truman Capote)
05. Objectified (Gary Hustwit)
06. The Modern Cult of Monuments (Riegl)
07. Material Culture & Mass Consumption (Daniel Miller)
08. The Favored Circle (Gary Stevens)
09. Living It Up (James Twitchell)
10. Essence of Style (Joan DeJean)

House as Thesis

On the catwalk

The Threshold

The Display Case

The Paparazzi Hut

Sectional Narrative

Front Elevation of 102 Greene Street, SoHo, Manhattan

The House as Thesis manifests and amplifies the entire instinctual and manufactured process of consumption and transformation:

First there is the threshold. The entrance is welcoming and open, its walls angled towards a focal point and completely mirrored, reflecting back one’s image at increasingly magnified scales the further one journeys inward.

Next, there is a catalogue of possibility. Motifs of myth and the ineffable are scattered throughout. The studio is the creative centre of genesis. It mediates between what can and cannot be realized.

Then there is the ascent to the aspiration. Whether in a church up the aisle between the row of pews or up the catwalk ramps, the physical act of moving upwards enacts the desire of reaching something beyond. The ritual of choosing items to adorn the self in defines notions of taste and understanding. And as any ritual, the rules of engagement are well known to all who participate.

After that, there is the moment of transformation. In the narrow darkness of the change rooms, the fusing of the self with the new image occurs. This is where the crossing of boundaries occurs, the transcendence almost complete, towards a higher purpose, ecstasy…

Finally, there is the revelation and reveal. Inevitably, this is judged by another body of arbitration. In fashion it is by the mass media and the paparazzi, where it is disseminated and very publicly assessed. Because a trend is not successful unless there are imitators it also creates a sense of community and sense of belonging. The projection of one’s identity throughout the rest of the space sends signals, electronically and perceptually, to all who participate.

The basement area is for the storage of the rejected, the aged. But even as the space for the abandoned, the items will undoubtedly resurface, emphasizing the cyclical pattern of fashion. Almost like an echo chamber of materialism, a finite quantum of the corporeal.

The spaces are all metaphors of the various scales of fashion: the designer house, the runway, the closet, the drawer. And the continuous narrative of the ceremonial experience renders it a temple of fashion.

Amalgamating the Civic and the Retail

By applying and manipulating the logo of each brand, a new map emerges: a network of projected lifestyle stories and promises. It corresponds with the same area of Soho as the orthographic map, but conveys the more unconscious messages by the symbols, fonts, voids, and colours. Whether hinting at modernity, historical acknowledgement, youth, prestige, grunge… the store speaks through its merchandise, its interior (and sometimes exterior) architecture, and its marketing. The landscape of the site affects the participant at all levels of needs and desires.

As cities are the artifice of man, interpretations of them create myths that propel their growth, energy and complexity. History and reinvention layer remnants upon memories. New York City has reinvented itself through mosaics of episodes ever since its urban grid of streets was laid in 1811. Indifferent to topography, the grid claims superiority of the intellectual programme over realities of geography. In particular, SoHo is an anomaly to this grid as its edges are defined by an earlier grid of 1790, when the irregular river edges made SoHo’s grid parallel to Broadway, an old Native American trail, the Weckquaesgeck. Through a series of transformations, the area has been a suburban residential field, a bustling industrial cluster, Manhattan’s first red-light district, the worst commercial slum of its time, a haven for avante-gardists, until the mecca of retail and real estate it is known as today. Its tension and intensity are all due to its evolution and re-appropriation. And since the consumerist culture has already folded into the architectural realm at this site, the synthesis of a new urban stage is ready to germinate here.

In one of the few precincts in the world that can support this potency, and with the social stage heightened, the tension between the intimate and the public blurs into a precarious and shifty assemblage. The nodes of tensions pulling at the core of this cultural phenomenon are the sale versus the display and singularity versus volume. The Mall of America sits comfortably at the sale and volume periphery, while the Metropolitan Museum is at the opposite end of the spectrum of singularity and display. Somewhere in between sits the Prada Epicentre of SoHo. The proposed design spans all four quadrants.

Luxury Item as New Ecclesiastical Relic

In pilgrimages to retail cathedrals and luxury galleries, one seems to expect to find secular salvation. Undoubtedly, much of this is due to the marketing and advertising of the brands. However, it can also be argued that the ecclesiastical relic actually set the groundwork for this materialism, though it is normally thought of as the opposing notion to spiritualism. The relic supposes that attributed values to an object trumps all original intrinsic values. In this sense, qualities of things deemed holy are of the same vein as things deemed luxurious. For example, the motifs of myth, sacrifice, ritual, ecstasy, and community all ring true for both. The sense of the ineffable must be present in order for a certain sacrifice to be of full worth. The rules of engagement are well known by those who participate. The sense of belonging and inclusion create a sense of identity. And the ultimate goal is to, even if only momentarily, transcend the here and now, to appreciate the incredible, to cross a boundary to able to associate the self with a higher purpose.