Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shopping Maul

I write this while sitting in the Student Union building at McMaster Universtiy in Hamilton, watching throngs of students pass by or eat their lunches together. The Student Union building, liks so many places designed for the public at present, was built on the model of an atrium: high open spaces with a glass-windowed roof to let in light and a lower level of storefronts. Music plays constantly and student groups vie for space with local vendors. They've actually removed much of the seating since I was here last, encouraging students to keep moving through and boosting sales. Foucault is upended- it's not the factory but the mall that our architecture emulates. He might have been right in France, where schoolyards often do resemble prison yards; but in North America, our universities look like shopping plazas. It's a sort of kitsch architecture: the bourgeois attempt at self-representation in its most deluded, and self-deluding, form; architecture as con.

Who designs these places? Who wants university buildings to be more like malls? The students have no say in any of this, of course, but it's hard to imagine that they object very much. For the hyper-bourgeois, the experience of shopping has become almost a stage of perception, a way of mastering the object of perception: the internal self mastering the external world. Maybe people first percieve by looking at the world through a digital screen, and then relate to the world as shoppers. Only later in life would other modes of perception become developed, and then only rarely. That's, of course, entirely too cynical, but one wonders if, in the gnosticism appropriate to the children of Coca-Cola and Steven Spielburg, education isn't akin to shopping. ''I can learn as much, or as little, as I want, and nobody can call me 'uneducated'''. The self is in no way threatened by perception, as it always had been in a humanist education. Education no longer contextualizes us.

And not even our architecture contextualizes us anymore. It is ''timeless'' and anodyne and reflects our lonely narcissism. We design places around demography, not history.

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