Viewpoint (September 01, 2003)

On a recent trip to the mall, I made some casual observations on the nature of shopping centres, the quality of their interiors, and the ways architecture is presented and renewed in the building type. Interior architecture can sometimes be discounted as ephemeral or overwrought in its use of materials, lighting or detailing. This month, we look at a variety of recent interior projects and their impact on context, users and aesthetics.

Shopping centres define themselves through their own global spaces while promoting a subset of mismatched interiors competing with one another–the individual stores. In a sense, the shopping centre is filled with hypocrisies: it presents itself as a public space, yet it isn’t one; it attempts to create dynamic streetscapes, but this is nullified when one stops to take note of the surrounding sea of parking lots and toxic car-laden landscapes. It even attempts to introduce the spontaneity of street life through kiosks, but the effect is broken down by dispassionate vendors leaning up against racks of sunglasses, keychains, or cellphones waiting to be purchased by repetitive consumers. And yet the shopping centre entails an important and evolving process, especially in the Canadian context. Our winters have forced us to refine the concept of not only the atrium, but all varieties of interior shopping spaces. At the same time, the mall is not usually a pure, formal composition but, rather, a series of accretions–the results of serial renovations. Often only commercial motivations are resolved.

What comes to mind is the concept of the “unintentional monument” first proposed in 1903 by the Viennese historian Alois Riegl. This ‘unintentional monument’ had three main values: an ‘historical value’, an ‘age-value’ and a ‘use-value’. Considering these, the renovations featured this month on the Carlu, the Pandora Wing in Victoria, and the Sandra Ainsley Gallery prove that ‘use-value’ is justified, that ‘age-values’ should be respected and that ‘historical-values’ have been studied and preserved where warranted. And we might also come to appreciate how the ephemeral interior of a shopping centre can bring with it the qualities of an ‘unintentional monument’. Over time, the aesthetics of the stores will change. Through the complex process of sifting through Riegl’s values associated with age, history, and use over time, ephemeral and seemingly overwrought interiors may be appreciated as meaningful spatial contributions.

Riegl’s unintentional monument is most clearly demonstrated by Oliver Lang’s installation at the VAG–namely, the fourth concept of unintentional monumentality: the ‘art-value’. The analysis of components, assemblies and what Lang calls Mass Customization comes into play as visitors confront, inhabit and occupy an architecture of evocation. The nature of this interactive interior is commensurate with Riegl’s unintended monument.

Readers will note one new department, ca houses, which has been added to Canadian Architect this month. It reflects a reality of our profession: that many of us will design a single-family house sometime in our careers. It will run alternatively with departments such as practice, technology or computers. Ian Chodikoff