First, two anecdotes.
At the beginning of last week, I visited The Poet’s House in Battery Park City to make some videos with pals from Complexly. Having some moments to spare, I went on a little wander around this once familiar, now somewhat transformed neighborhood.
I passed by a Shake Shack with which I was acquainted, and the entryway to a once-frequented movie theater, now shared with an up-market hotel featuring a lobby dotted with non-euclidean couches. Most of this was expected. But around a corner, I was confronted by a massive glass cube, speckled with colorful decals and large, lighted sans-serif letters reading “Brookfield Place“: a luxury mall constructed in the last 5 or so years, and on the site of the World Financial Center, which was partially destroyed on 9/11.
Hoping to find a coffee, I found also the usual suspects: Lululemon, Tumi, a Peloton kiosk. Grey marble-ish floors, spiky plants and tall advertisements for watches, the godlike human figures displaying the time pieces inexplicably across their gathered fingers scrutinizing me from prime placement. The wide corridor lined with bright, monotonous shops lead to the Winter Garden, one of New York’s many high-ceiling’d and sparsely landscapéd indoor seating areas. There I found “LE DISTRICT”: a vaguely French food marketplace with a coffee kiosk.
Later at the Poet’s House I mentioned my astonishment at Brookfield Place, its abruptness in my day, and New York. Someone asked if I had meant “The Oculus”, another luxury mall just across the West Side Highway, built on the site of the fallen Twin Towers. Someone else asked if I had meant “Hudson Yards”, a third luxury mall recently opened at the northern terminus of the High Line.
No, I assured them, I did in fact mean “Brookfield Place”.
At the end of last week my father-in-law was in town, visiting from London. Having visited New York often enough, he expressed disinterest in any ~sights~. He was adamant my wife Molly and I just have our weekend. Whatever we would normally do, he was happy to tag along.
And we were happy to have him. But this, of course, creates a kind of psychological hall of mirrors: viewing the self making decisions in a simulacra of the situation in which they are normally made, and so questioning if this in fact is the decision one would make in this-situation-but-not.
Navigating the city, having a totally normal one tossing around endless ideas for things to do that might feel suitably quotidienne but not performatively so, a theme developed: Molly or I would recommend a bar, or restaurant, or shop only to hesitate “Wait no … I think that closed.” This expanded to an ongoing history of haunts lost. A punk rock dive bar turned bank. A dingy but singular music venue turned condo-adjacent art gallery. A beloved restaurant turned … nothing. Empty. Familiar decor still visible through wilting brown paper taped to the inside of its windows.
This all came to a head on Paul’s final full day when, in the village, I recommended my favorite city bar, a dive-y but cozy German spot in the basement of a townhouse, only to find it had closed permanently 5 days previous. The reason posted on their website is a familiar one: the landlord (*spits on the ground*) had raised their rent well above what they could afford as modest purveyors of Köstrizter and currywurst.
The churn of commercial real estate is a familiar pain for city residents. The sudden proliferation of luxury malls, in New York specifically… that feels new. And given the much discussed state of retail in America: unexpected.
These two things may seem like distinct concerns – emptying local businesses replaced with anodyne chains and the proliferation of shiny stone megastructures housing in-demand Brands™. But they are two sides of the same coin. I want to examine that coin, and along the way try to get some partial sense of what it means to build a luxury mall, in a city, in 2019.
The loss of local businesses smacks of gentrification. It is not uncommon for landlords to catch wind of, or bet on, an “up and coming” (*infinite groan*) neighborhood and price out current, locally owned businesses with rents more suited to upscale boutiques or national chains. Storefronts sit empty – tax breaks for the landlords who keep them unrented – awaiting a designer clothing shop, a hip Swedish café, or an Apple Store (one of which currently occupies the site of a former favorite, family owned bagel place).
The Luxury Mall is a similar game, but at scale. It provides an opportunity for developers and landlords to court dozens of up scale brands, and therefore upscale rents, in an enclosed, condensed space which preys on consumers’ superstition-like dedication to convenience. The Luxury Mall is an enclosed, air conditioned safari with a quarry of mass produced, brand name goods. But how does one secure such gargantuan, continuous space? In the case of Hudson Yards, one might avoid the difficulties of finding an “””economically depressed“”” neighborhood in need of “””revitalization””” by instead simply… creating one.
In the case of The Oculus, or Brookfield Place, well…
There is something bleak about the fact that two sites of horrific destruction – buildings toppled in the name of violence against the perceived profligacy of the American way of life, among other things – were rebuilt at base (literally) as luxury malls. It is, perhaps, a performative Fuck You, but also a striking self own. To memorialize a great loss and apparently ongoing threat to our ostensible freedom, developers and city planners built a testament to, and literally upon, the commercial actors that so often contravene said freedom. Never forget the violence beget by hatred, but then immediately hit up One World Plaza’s Chik-fil-a.
When given the opportunity to build any set of things on that apparently hallowed ground, and in celebration of The United States’ purportedly strong character and singular set of values, in its most diverse large city, a huge tract of space was given to a Westfield Mall: an Australian conglomerate with “one of the world’s largest shopping centre portfolios”.
My assumption is that these architectural developments are not calculated, but ideological. Which is not, I suppose, so strict a dichotomy. What I mean is: those involved were simply doing what “must” or “is always” done. The choices were seen as natural, inevitable or required. And perhaps they were, but only within a very specific framework of what “the city” is, and is for.
French Philosopher Mark Auge has called various commercial and public spaces “non-places”. For Auge, non-places are locations of transit, and impermanence. They are areas one may move through and which are always in flux themselves. The non-place never feels complete, always partially un- or under-constructed. It is made in your movement through it, never before. A place is a spot, a locale. A non-place is … somewhere. ”The distinction between places and non-place,” he writes, “derives from the opposition between place and space.” [Non-Places, 79] Airport lounges, motorways, hotel chains, supermarkets, and commercial centers are all, for Auge, non-places. These are spots through which things and people move, and which are defined more by a speed, or quality, of living than by their material or structural characteristics.
It is tempting to regard Brookfield Place, The Oculus, Hudson Yards, and luxury malls in general as “non-places”. They may be seen as utilitarian non-destinations which act as a means towards an end: the movement of a designer handbag into the hands of the designer conscious consumer, the movement of a traveler toward their destination.
This has not been my experience of the luxury mall, though. They have countless cafés and upmarket restaurants, with atria of dense seating and various weekly diversions (Table tennis games on Wednesdays! Concerts on Thursday evening! &c) designed to entice consumers to spend time, and then money. The luxury mall increasingly seeks to provide the complete experience of “going out”, not just one aspect of it (this is to say nothing of the luxury malls with their own real estate developments). Even in my brief stay at Brookfield Place, I was privy to business meetings, a tour group lunch, a chess game, etc. It is a space which is used and not simply traversed.
Perhaps luxury malls are what architect Rem Koolhaas has described as “junkspace”: large yet culturally and architecturally meaningless structures. Koolhaas calls Junkspace “the product of an encounter between escalator and air-conditioning” [Junkspace, 175]. Junkspace is more continuous than it is useful, or communicative. The motorway in traffic is Junkspace. The hospital is junkspace. Airports, hotels, and so on. Junkspace is bland, yet non-conforming. It’s unexciting, and yet not quite boring. “Junkspace is space as vacation,” Koolhaas writes. It is a “never-ending casual Friday”. [Ibid., 185]
Much of what is non-place, is also Junkspace, it would seem – but they are distinct. Auge argued non-place is defined by its text: the signs and guides, guidelines and tips which must explain its use, because that use is not otherwise clear. Koolhaas says junkspace is defined by its smell: universal air conditioning. Junkspaces are not principally about transition or travel, but are thoughtlessly built hulls around spaces masquerading as necessary. Junkspace is the overabundance of enclosure. According to Koolhaas, it is a testament to the commercial architect’s endeavor to conquer space, not shape or communicate with it.
Missing from these ideas of space – ostensible descriptions of the kind of environment we encounter at the luxury mall – is the facet demonstrated by my conversation at the Poet’s House. Describing one luxury mall, those present were sure I had meant not one but two other buildings. These places are not non-places, and perhaps they are Junkspaces, but they are also collapsed spaces. They are samespaces: in the mind, three luxury malls may as well be one luxury mall, and all three of those malls may as well be the duty free area at the airport, the shop-filled lobby of a new high-rise condo development and so on. It’s not that they are interchangeable, but that they are indistinguishable. They are hyperreal franchises: copies with no model, no ideal ur-space.
Contrast this with what we might call quaintspaces: locations which could not be reproduced, and would unlikely be confused with one another because they are so intimately tied to their surroundings or environment, the people who use and pass through them, and in some cases who work at, design, and build them. Your home is a quaintspace, as might be your local library. The local coffee and barbershops are likely quaintspaces. The community center, mechanic’s lot or bar down the street are all perhaps quaintspaces. These places are the opposite of non-places and Junkspaces, in that they are confidently rooted in some locale, some spot. They have history. They do not stretch on, they are dense with significance. They are often air conditioner, and almost always escalator, free.
Quaintspaces are everywhere, but play a particular role in the operation of a city.
Author and urban-renewal skeptic Jane Jacobs wrote that the city produces a fundamental strangeness, thanks to its diversity of people, and uses. This, she argues, is the point of a city, or part of it. “That this should happen is in keeping with one of the missions of cities.” The city is “by definition, full of strangers” [Death and Life of Great American Cities, 30] – people who don’t know one another, and who may be unalike, but who nonetheless share an environment and intense proximity; their interactions are mediated by the urban landscape, and are different in different parts of it. Living in a city is like living in many places, not just one place. ”By its nature,” writes Paul J.Tillich, quoted by Jacobs “the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” [Ibid., 138]
Quaintspaces are, following this line of thought, one of many factors that produce said strangeness. They are strange (even when familiar), and operated by strangers (even when friendly). They are a destination for travel (even when close by).
Austrian architect Victor Gruen invented the mall to bring something this metropolitan strangeness to the suburbs. His vision for the mall was of an arcology, of sorts: a megastructure which might pull all that made the city great together, under one roof – a diversity of people, markets, uses, and contexts. But the mall was stolen – “bastardized”, to use Gruen’s term – and it became a symbol of all that is stereotypically American and suburban. It became a symbol of a car and profit centered culture, of commercial idolatry, designed innocuousness, fearful homogeneity and samespace sprawl. The mall became metropolis-like only insofar as it reproduces a very particular idea about what a city is: “the suburbs, only denser”. [Ibid., 30]
A misunderstanding of the city holds that it is (or is ideally) a place that is both familiar, and crowded. Novel, and meaningful, because it is convenient and not because it is peculiar. This concept forgets about, or is hostile towards, strangers and strangeness. Parts of the city designed and redesigned (“renewed”, perhaps) in the image of Samespace Sprawl provide no quarter for the strange. This is true not just of luxury mall developments, but the neighborhood shopping streets which, after they’ve attained a certain composure – a hip, earnest commercialism – tick over to empty storefronts and then soap shops, “ateliers” and national chains. Strange quaintspace is replaced or claustrophobically encroached upon by uncannily familiar samespace. The bagel place sells iPhones now.
A city is defined by its mystery, and lack of familiarity – it’s strangeness – even for those who have lived in one their whole life. When the metropolitan ecology no longer supports the strange, it becomes something else. Perhaps this is an active goal of luxury development, with a megastructure or at street level: to configure the city to something not-strange, and therefore more attractive to a broader audience. But likely it is not so calculated – quaintspace is not a target, but collateral damage in the commercial real estate developer’s apparent manifest destiny. [Junkspace, 187]
Does it all mean the complete destruction of the city as we know it? There will always be fringes and edges, often literal undergrounds to which we might escape the same, for the quaint. Buried bastions of strange. But those should not be the exception to the city, they should be the rule, its mission. En masse, those strange spaces are what make a city, and in solidarity they allow each other and those who use them to thrive. To lose them is to lose a city and find, in its place, a dense town.