S(MALL)

Written by Joshua Comaroff


I

Big buildings are all about small. Or, to put this another way: largeness has turned out to be—perhaps surprisingly—an unhelpful rubric for thinking about the contemporary megastructure.

Scenography of Luxury Items

Contrary to prediction, the XL building has not developed an aesthetic language of sublime vastness. Nor has it, as Rem Koolhaas foretold, evolved into a post-formal euphoria of programmatic hybridization. Its rapid metastasis ushered in not a dominance of the very large, but a bifurcation: a new condition of architecture in which the scales of infrastructure and detail are abruptly juxtaposed, without the mediation of a middle. At the large end, “design” has become a realm of purely technical coordination: the acrobatic management of structure and services, GFA allocation, cost and performance criteria, and contractual responsibilities. At the same moment, however, the big building ushers in a renewed attention to the diminutive. It provides the framework for a micro-cosmos of interior worlds. As such, it has propelled the formalization of micro-design disciplines, from the engineering of intimacy and interiority, detail, programming, and “spatial branding,” as well as smell, scenography, and media. This is where the aesthetic experience—the meaningful “architecture”—of the (capital-b) Big building lies.

This is not the apocalypse we were promised.

The dogma of “Bigness” assumed a straightforward victory of large over small. Likewise, popular XL-phobia predicted our collective free-fall into the vortex of post-human dimensions, a future spent in the nonplaces of late-stage capitalism. Everything, it seemed, was becoming a mall. The doomsayers of scale were not entirely wrong; the Big building remains a kind of technical pudding. The coordination of its malleable substance—a connective tissue of structure and services, accessible routes and support spaces—is only “architecture” in the most literal, professional sense. And Koolhaas was absolutely correct in his assertion that Big structures are not subject to the design strategies of smaller ones. Without question, this has forced architects to renounce their reliable techniques of composition, hierarchy, and order.

But as buildings have become expansive numerical landscapes, there has emerged a countervailing—and equally dangerous—romanticism: an emphasis on the room as the container of heightened aesthetic and affective experience. The creation of emotive atmospheres falls largely on interior designers, who inject the experiential charge that is necessary to sell, to brand, and to compete. Any trip to a cutting-edge mall (or airport, convention centre, or mixed-use development) confirms this. The XL may be post-architectural, but it still wants the trappings of architecture. What was surrendered in hierarchy, scale, and proportion, is re-introduced in cornices, railings, stonework, and pattern. The mall doesn’t want catastrophe; it wants Post-Industrial Chic.

II.

The large building exists both above and below the scale of traditional architecture. As such, XL cannot be understood as a scalar category—only as a scalar relationship. This makes it a particularly elusive problem for the discipline to theorize or address. Even worse, we have chosen to understand the megastructure through polemics such as Koolhaas’, which distort its real design problematic.[1]

Koolhaas believed that the Big building’s promise lay precisely in its inability to be architecture, by its internal dynamic ushering in a new era of archi-urbanism led by program. But this failure failed; Bigness simply proceeded in its own banal way, unimpeded by the talents of architects. The promised programmatic promiscuity never got underway. “Anything” could have happened; not much did. Partly due to this non-appearance, developers—who share Rem’s fetishism of the social—have begun hiring programming consultants to provide activities and events to engage the public. This is necessary because even huge buildings are programmatically limited, and because programs do not easily blend. Shoppers face largely the same range of options in 2018 as they did in 1994: shops, food outlets, offices, and (at the fringes) services such as weight loss or yoga.

What was most dangerous about the mall was not its own inherent parameters and constraints. Far more obstructive was the tautological assumption that it was the end of architecture—a lost cause.[2] In fact, there exist many strategies to inject architectural interest into the type. The most obvious is to fragment the large building into a cluster of smaller ones. In fact, shopping centres already lend themselves to devolution into medium-scaled parts; they have weak architectural hierarchy, but are not illogical objects. A brutal commercial logic creates rules. For example, there is typically a vertical gradient of quality, an anti-Baroque order in which the shops become less luxurious as one moves up. The mall still has its poor quarters, odd shops and dodgy end-corridors, for example, where masseuses seem a bit too enthusiastic to ply their trade. Women’s fashion, watches and pens still dominate the lower floors, with men and children exiled to the upper levels. All of these provide viable opportunities to break the existing monoculture into more diverse, heterotopic spatial juxtapositions.

The failure of the architect to develop (or devolve) the typology leads to our present condition. The tendency toward consolidation in the urban real estate market creates demand for buildings that the architect understands to be outside the range of conventional design techniques. The results typically prove this assumption: an inarticulate environment created through extrusion and repetition. While the large building must support an endless range of potential contents, its own dullness dramatizes a social desire for intimacy, and for charm. As such, it sits at the forefront of an economy of experience and attention—a desire for experiences that architects have largely surrendered.

III.

The loss of the middle scale is, perhaps, even more terrifying than the future that Koolhaas and his fellow-travellers predicted. Not least because the middle—as uninspiring a concept as it may be—is where most consequential architecture exists. It includes anything from a large house to what was (until recently) considered very large: museums, libraries, hotels. The XL emerges with the early modern architecture of the 20th century, and leaps into epic proportions with the great malls, expo centres, and multi-use complexes of the turn of the millennium. By the time we reach the scale of, say, Ngee Ann City, we encounter something that is actually a sizable fragment of the city constructed at one go.

More worryingly, perhaps, the loss of a middle scale mirrors the erosion of a social and economic middle class. It signals the arrival of a new global order of disparity between rich and poor, between realms of accumulation and value. This holds potentially alarming consequences for architecture and cities alike. The terror of XL buildings has been largely focused on a highly visible architectural typology, rather than the economic regime that has fuelled its development. The rise of inequality has also propelled a wild rise in prices, however, and now makes competing channels (such as online shopping) more attractive or more necessary. The same modern forces that have fuelled the rise of malls now promote their destruction. When shoppers do not demand proximity to physical merchandise, the mall is simply everywhere. The public returns to the retail sphere—not to buy, but in search of “experiences” that architects cannot supply.

Singapore may be particularly at risk, here. It is a confined area where many people live in small spaces, and a tiny minority live in very large ones. It is also a context in which public space has been built around elephantine retail agglomerations, to provide for a population that is famously price-sensitive. This spells trouble for the commercial megastructure, which lacks the organic ability to scale up and down. The next apocalypse likely exists even farther from the sphere of architectural influence, in the “fulfilment centres” of Amazon and other e-retailers, in which robots creep about in rooms that do not even need light.

Here is where one is tempted to agree with Koolhaas: the redemptive potential of the XL still lies in its failure. However, the important factor is not the inability of large buildings to be domesticated by the conventional rules of architecture. Rather, the large building is itself incapable of coping with the new reality of commercial spaces, which exist partly in brick-and-mortar and partly in decentralized systems of distribution that do not need an urban address. The absence of the middle scale means precisely that the XL building cannot easily be subdivided, informalized, or partially sold—it is hamstrung between large and small. As such, the new retail paradigm will require a reckoning; some form of typological transformation will inevitably occur. Singapore’s current glut of retail space highlights the contradictions of the XL structure, many of which cannot be sustainably resolved through strategies of program or place-making, nor via the fleeting attentions of social media. An age of division is near, in which a new middle—the dialectical product of scalar extremes—will assert itself once again.

[1] This is understandable, perhaps, because the large building—and most visibly, the mall—was born an apocalyptic object: a lightning rod of fears about the monopolism of late-stage capitalism. In the 1980s and 90s, we feared its ascendance. In 2017, we fear its failure. The mall is for architects what the state is for social theorists. As Woody Allen might have put it: “so overbearing, and retreating all the time.” [2] This was simply untrue. Jon Jerde beat the mall. Tay Kheng Soon also beat it. Gehry helped Victor Gruen to invent it, so it is not surprising that he was able to use fragmentation as a strategy to redeem it. Koolhaas himself designed the Kunsthal, Educatorium, and IIT—all being, in effect, malls (albeit without the problem of tenants). Hong Kong has a multitude of interesting malls, in part because of a necessity to place them in existing, compromised urban sites.

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