Cathedral with bowling alley

Rem Koolhaas’ research group on the exoskeletons that capitalism leaves behind as it migrates across the earth’s crust

Nature will take back this empty thing. Wide parking lots, all empty. In the middle of it all, a wind-swept building, angular, like a Quake level sculpted to the sky. Many shopping centers are in crisis, at least in the USA. The Harvard Project on the City, led by Rem Koolhaas, tells why. Since the mid-90s, this research group has been trying to track down the reconfigurations of our urban landscapes.

It was started in China. Hong Kong. Pearl River Delta. Shenzhen Special Economic Zone. Volume 1 of the project documentation published by Taschen Verlag tells the success story of the South Chinese boom region. Title: "Great Leap Forward", alluding to Mao’s failed plans of micro-industrialization of the People’s Republic (1958-1960).

Cathedral with bowling alley

While Mao, in the communist tradition, relied on slavish reproduction of centrally planned programs and failed utterly, his successor Deng Ziaoping loved his subjects to calculate for themselves within certain geographic and ideological limits and thus in effect implemented capitalism. Great Leap Forward documents the consequences, the architecture, the corruption, the madness.

Cities eat their way into the countryside and reach out to the sea. Gigantic bridges are planned and abandoned at some point during construction because there is not enough money, the remains stand quietly in the water like Japanese Shinto gates. Lovingly traces traditions and customs of local corruption variants. Golf courses can be seen there, carefully modeled into the landscape by top American players. Generic skyscrapers loom behind them. Production in Shenzhen quickly becomes too expensive, and people move to the hinterland, which soon ceases to be one. Colorful brochures with Captain Future buildings on them show that here the future is still really the future. Enrichissez-vous.

Appropriately, the authors of the volume operate with standardized keywords, to which a copyright sign is always attached. Examples: Virgin Cities(c), Reclamation(c), or Corruption(c). This may look funny at the beginning, but it quickly disrupts the flow of reading and seems mannered. Otherwise, the project reports on the individual cities and zones are extraordinarily readable, richly illustrated, and lined with data and graphics. The quality of the photographs often leaves a lot to be desired, too many of them are washed out, probably in order to give the book a feeling of "Reality" as a simulation of reality, neither soap nor Photoshop has been allowed to touch it. Too bad.

Also the graphics are not necessarily by Edward Tufte, but rather by Mr. Excel. Particularly in the last section, an overview of the various transport projects in the sector under review, the rasterized brochure photos have been blown up to such an extent that, with the best will in the world, it is no longer possible to make anything out of them, and the captions have also been placed on edge. But you don’t want to turn this bulky book block into reading position after each page turn. Because that is not enough, the designer has set the font Weib to black. The buyer asks himself: Should I now not pay attention to the picture or instead rather ignore the typography?? A contempt for all good and proper design conventions. Too bad. So one can quickly devalue an actually very good book. If you put so much effort into a project, the documentation should also be good. "Great Leap Forward" is important, but at times too uncharitably done.

Cathedral with bowling alley

The second book in the series is a different story "Harvard Guide to Shopping". This book is wonderful through and through. A must read. It is about the exoskeletons that the beast of capitalism leaves behind as it migrates across the earth’s crust… Excellent photographs of hollow shells, dead mega-malls… Fantastic annotated aerial analysis of Las Vegas, including transcript of an illuminating interview with Robert Venturi, author of the legendary text "Learning from Las Vegas". Comparison of mall architecture from ancient Rome to today.

There are extensive texts on department store technologies such as air conditioning and escalators, with a section on the use of escalators in the Moscow Metro to show how such achievements were handled in the Soviet Union. Timelines illustrate the evolution of shopping culture. It is about the future and its reversal. Monster malls are left empty by the mega-corporations and cheaply converted by Protestant sects into so-called mega-churches including after-school care, climbing wall and bowling alley. The cathedral of consumption becomes cathedral consumption. Religion reclaims the cult.

A look at Japan: the history of the Depatos, the department store giants there, is traced, interwoven with cultural, administrative and transport developments. The next incarnation of the department store is the ultra-lateral website, hermetically closed, avoiding links to the outside world. The more commerce virtualizes itself for cost reasons, dissolves branches, withdraws from the flat, the more intensively it has to stabilize its brands and symbols through marketing and advertising. The mall shoppers like Jon Jerde (Mall of America) also become icons. Their increasingly extensive projects are reminiscent of the fictional Parisian department store Au Bonheur des Dames described by Emile Zola in his novel of the same name.

With military precision, new sales machines are constantly being constructed. Not only is the military itself an operator of supermarkets, but there are also personnel entanglements such as the change of Lieut. Gene. William G. Pagonis, the chief logistician for U.S. forces in the Gulf War, into the executive suite of Sears Roebuck. To make sure that the shopping malls are not as rough as the desert of Iraq, resourceful companies are constantly coming up with new furnishings for the fully controlled shopping environments, such as the whirring AudioRocks or roaring syntho-palms. For brand-specific outlets, on the other hand, where only the sacred product itself counts for anything, there are the NikeTowns, whose development is also presented in the book.

The "Guide to Shopping" differs from its predecessor on the Pearl River Delta primarily in the quality of the content and its presentation. Not only the topics and texts fit and are logically well structured and documented, also graphic design, typesetting and photography play this time qualitatively in the upper league. This is a standard work on historical and current trends in the development of retail centers, which meets scientific quality standards and is also extremely entertaining to read. A real recommendation for anyone interested in architecture, urban planning, and the evolution of capitalism.

Two more volumes are to be expected from the Harvard Project on the City. If they could match the quality of the second volume, the finished series would truly be an opus magnum. A collective reference work on important aspects of life on Earth at the beginning of the 21st century. Century. The books are not cheap, but given the four-color printing and the quality and depth of information provided in the second volume, they can be described without hesitation as excellent value for money. Besides, there are still public libraries.

Chung, Chuihua Judy; Inaba, Jeffrey; Koolhaas, Rem; Tsung Leong, Sze (eds.): Harvard Project on the City 1: Great Leap Forward. Koln: Taschen Publishing House, 2001. 720 pages. Price: 45 Euro.

Chung, Chuihua Judy; Inaba, Jeffrey, Koolhaas, Rem; Tsung Leong, Sze (eds.).): Harvard Project on the City 2: Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping. Koln: Taschen Publishing House, 2002. 800 pages. Price: 45 Euro.