My own interest in the Beverly Center began when I saw it begin to rise up over the ghosts of former swampland and a kiddie park along Beverly and Third. It was the dearest possible expression of squeezing money out of a site. It was so big, so brown, and so bare of any real articulation or any relationship to the street (day-glo Beauborg Center escalators not withstanding) that I thought of it as building rather than architecture. It is this absence that is so shocking – the Beverly Center remains one of all the virtues a building can have in an urban setting because it is so bereft of them. One of the purposes of the Forum’s 33D6E6 Project is to discover how a lumpen mass like this could conceivably be reconnected to the larger city.
This is the competition that asks: what does it mean to shop and to die in Los Angeles? Here we have all these big heaps of single-use stuff hunkered down next to each other. Is there a meaningful way in which the Beverly Center can say to Cedars Sinai: “Give me your sick and your dying and I will heal them with a one-time designer’s close-out sale, this weekend only”? Is it possible for the Beverly Connection and Ma Maison Sofitel to be integrated into a larger urban whole?
The Beverly Center neighborhood is a reflection of the American Way of suburban development, big single-use complexes. America is the land of the college campus, the industrial park, and the shopping center. We break experience into categories, we isolate our needs and satisfy them one at a time. It is like a la carte. You eat all of the steak before going on to the mashed potatoes. It creates a peculiarly American sort of culture. Our daily missions are accomplished one by one, but never integrated. Americans compose their individual character piece by piece from a kind of de facto catalog. One doesn’t absorb culture in the U.S., one doesn’t apprentice. Instead, identity is selected item by item. Recipes are learned from Julia Child rather than from Granny, conceptions of sexual well-adjustment from Dr. Ruth rather than through values handed from generation to generation.
So we must ask the question: is it possible and is it even desirable to try and violate some of the rules by which we live, such as the primacy of the automobile? After all, perhaps only kitsch and phoniness can result from attempts to create places where people and activities come together to make a form of urban culture. While the models of the piazza, the square and the pedestrian street seem appropriate in other cultures, it is difficult to imagine how they would ever function as anything other than artificial tourist traps in auto-oriented Sunbelt cities. But despite the vast gulf between the brisk single-mindedness of American culture and the more integrated urbanism of other cultures, architects and planners will continue to seek changes in the existing character of development. The alienation that single-use land development produces in single-use clusters isolated from each other by wide swaths of road parking and landscaping is patently apparent.
What we are really asking is how the city can use the excitement, the potential of the different activities that go on within the Beverly Center to make people’s lives richer? How does a city create overall relationships that are deeper than any one single activity could be?
Let’s focus on just one of those activities briefly in order to see its potential as a source of activity-shopping. Everyone knows that shopping can be, in its highest and most fully developed form, a religious experience. After all, shopping is a way of consuming objects in a purely devotional sense. It is often a way of consuming substitute identities or acting out hidden parts of one’s self. Furthermore, it is a public and commercial act in which one joins with others to participate in a communal ritual. In short, is a way of transcending self in order to submit to a greater world view provided by television, advertising, and magazines.
While the power of shopping as a compulsion, an escape, a submission to larger forces of media and marketing, is undeniable, it is certainly not an entirely benign phenomenon. It encourages the quantification of an ideal world in superficial and materialistic terms. It teaches us to value people for surface qualities and to judge them by the cost and association of their clothes and possessions. But I wonder: is it the role of the architect to tell you that you don’t really need another new pair of shoes? Perhaps the most architects can do is try and harness the energy of the Beverly Center in the service of creating public places that both are spaces that people really want to use and that relate shopping back to a large public and civic identity.