Facade Shopping

August 11, 2011

Though often written off as simply ‘window dressing’, architecture’s role in retail design can also serve an important civic function for our cities.

In October 1998, then Detroit Mayor, Dennis Archer, launched an urban ‘renaissance’ for the city by pressing a button. Amid television crews, cheering crowds and more than a few uneasy onlookers, Archer’s deceptively simple task sent a spark to nearly 12 hundred kilos of explosives fixed inside the historic Hudson’s department store building, a retail institution in Detroit for over a century. Founded in 1881 out of a small shop in the Detroit Opera House, J.L. Hudson commissioned Detroit architects Smith, Hinchman and Grylls (now Smith-Group, the oldest continually practicing architecture firm in the United States) to design his flagship store in 1928. The building would become for Detroit what Macy’s was for New York, a cultural icon, with its impact reaching far beyond the economies of shopping.

The second half of the story is also of interest: J.L. Hudson’s business endeavours continued to expand, with the construction of a second department store 30 years later at Victor Gruen’s famous Northland Center, the first open-air mall and what would become a significant (if challenging) prototype for so many future suburban and urban shopping developments. Hudson also went on to found the Hudson Motor Company, which provided the cars that allowed people to get to Northland – and eventually stay there, the beginning of that all too familiar tale about urban exodus to the suburbs. Hudson’s original downtown store closed 30 years later, drained of its original customer base. In an irony so familiar to Detroit, which was simultaneously founded on, and a casualty of automobile manufacturing, Hudson’s downtown store was a victim of its own success. The irony was greater still when the downtown store’s demolition became a celebratory symbol of urban rebirth.

The story of Hudson’s in Detroit raises many important issues concerning the relationship between shopping and the city. We could consider the development of formal types – from the arcade, to the department store, to the mall – and how these types have oscillated across urban and suburban sites over the past 50 years. We could also speak about the impact of Gruen’s work and contemporary incarnations and mutations of his design ideologies. We could consider the social aspirations of shopping space – such as the historic urban department store, Myer in Melbourne on Bourke Street Mall, and its role in urban culture and architecture being a prime example. Questions concerning the boundaries between public and private realms are also raised, especially as shopping becomes increasingly dispersed and integrated with consumer technologies.

Amid all of these issues, one thing is for certain, indicated by the use of words like ‘oscillate’, ‘incarnation’, ‘complex’ and ‘shifting’, which is that unlike many programs, in the context of the city proper, shopping is a moving target. It adapts, changes, mutates and attaches itself to the more fixed, enduring structures of the city. It pops up in train stations, museums, libraries, universities and public squares. It scales up or down, relocates or evaporates to accommodate economic or political fluctuations. It can be located almost anywhere and exist for any duration; it can look like anything or nothing. More akin to an ecosystem than an economic system (or an architecture), shopping space is best described in terms of lifecycles – it is seeded, it grows, it feeds off its surroundings, it shrinks and dies, reborn into something else, somewhere else. The only constant is change. Unlike the suburban mall, which is discrete and autonomous, shopping in the city is not a destination unto itself, but something that happens along the way. In this regard, it operates as something more akin to public space.

This adaptability yields a quality of architectural ephemerality, and suggests that the most important ‘site’ for shopping in the city isn’t defined by geographical location, primary streets or prominent buildings, but rather by the mechanisms through which it is distributed. These are urban surfaces – the facades of shopping in all sorts of forms and places. Storefronts, signage, awnings, building surfaces, window displays and even more transient (but familiar) vendors and buskers are the sites of urban shopping – the material system of the perpetually adapting program. The term facade does, after all, connote words like mask, veil and disguise; it allows alterable identities and mutating meanings. Urban shopping is sited here, in the urban facades, the appearances of the city which change so dramatically from season to season, year to year – and which can scale up to a multi-storey building or down to a doorway, stretch across a city block or extend through its depth, thick as a room or thin as a piece of paper.

Public Shopping: Passeggiata

There may be no better example of the public role that shopping facades play in the city than window shopping. Whether in Milan or Melbourne, strolling the Corso or the Civic Spine [01], shopfronts are the architectural magnet that draw people out into the urban realm to meander about. This event is not about shopping at all really, but rather just an excuse to experience the city with others, informally. Locals and visitors alike merge to generate a public event around nothing in particular.

Department stores like Myer in Melbourne, Macy’s in New York, Wako in Ginza or (formerly) Hudson’s in Detroit offer a similar role in the public space of the city. Their meticulously designed and ritually unveiled seasonal storefront displays offer a free, public event in-and-of themselves. Even the average cafe? or retail chain curates their storefront methodically, however, whether in the interest of brand identity, ‘conversion’ rates, predictability (i.e. convenience stores) or information (i.e. cultural and educational institutions). The rigorous if unstated agenda to creatively populate and perpetually renew one’s storefront creates a live, collective public face for the city. And irrespective of urban scale, from Melbourne to Mildura to Merbein, one need only to stroll along the shopfronts to glean a sense of the social, economic and cultural landscape of the place.

At the other end of the spectrum of urban scale are the shopping facades of Tokyo, where the economies of retail are spread like ‘programmatic wallpaper’[02] across any and all types of urban space – building facades, subway interiors, trains, taxis, backstreet districts and, of course, shops, department stores and restaurants. And they do so through a broad spectrum of technology and media – physical, digital, mobile, audio-visual. A clear example of the adjustable shopping facade is the new generation of ’boutique’ jewel boxes lining Omotesando in Tokyo and the backstreet vendors along the in-filled Uru Harajuku canals. Despite vastly distinct targets of clientele and content, together they’ve produced an economic and social reciprocity, each feeding from and reproducing the other. The opulent flagship stores for Prada, Dior, Tod’s or Louis Vuitton couldn’t be further, economically and architecturally, from the micro-shops selling mobile phone trinkets just behind them, but both demonstrate some of the most innovative advances in facade design and construction anywhere. Although what the facades produce socially, is perhaps more significant – that is, a public event in a city where other forms of public space are so challenging to locate (or at least recognise).

The adaptability of these facade spaces – spatially, architecturally, in terms of merchandising and content – is in many ways obvious. Like clothing, building skins are relatively easy to change. But what’s more interesting is the variety of public spaces they produce – and how they track developments in other areas, such as technology, communication, social interaction, cultural or political shifts. Shopping spaces in the city indicate a much broader set of local and global conditions; they mark a collective, often public territory where so many urban issues and patterns intersect. The economic imperative for shopping in the city, from a strategic planning standpoint, may be the primary motivator in developing these spaces, and we can argue endlessly the merits and shortcomings in terms of how they are regulated (such as operating hours – an interesting window into broader cultural and political trends), or their impact on education, culture, even architecture. But the by-products of this realm yield some undeniably public experiences, spaces and venues for design and innovation in any city – whether you buy it or not.

Postscript: Keeping Up Appearances

The demolition of Detroit’s Hudson building did in fact trigger an urban ‘renaissance’ of sorts, as two massive sports facilities opened not far from the original site a few years later, for football and baseball. The new Ford Field prompted Detroit’s bid for the 2006 Superbowl, appropriately numbered ‘XL’. In anticipation of the onslaught of tourists, and in particular to combat the popular imagery of Detroit as nothing but dangerous and abandoned, the city sponsored a series of facade projects to make the city look like, well, a city. Short of actually opening new businesses in the vacant storefronts, a series of projects by artists, students and architects worked to collectively ‘populate’ the empty shopfronts – to create a facade of a facade. Ranging in scale and cost from more elaborate installations to a mosaic of coloured post-it notes, the facade projects effectively manufactured an appearance of economic and social viability, where it was lacking. And for the purposes of this event, appearances were reality.

[01] Leon van Schaik, Design City Melbourne, Wiley, London, 2006
[02] Hiromi Hosoya and Markus Schaefer, ‘Tokyo Metabolism’, Project on the City 2: Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, C.J. Chung, J. Inaba, R. Koolhaas, S.T. Leong eds., Taschen, Koln, 2001, p.753

Gretchen Wilkins is a senior lecturer in architecture at RMIT University. She is the editor of Distributed Urbanism: Cities After Google Earth (Routledge 2010) and previously taught at the University of Michigan.

Illustration by Ryu Itadani. www.ryuitadani.com

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