Retail Apocalypse

The exhibition “Retail Apocalypse” at ETH Zurich (CH), from 26 February to 15 May 2020, deals with the history of retail architecture and examines the architectural form as part of an economic reality.

Friedrich Kiesler, study for the facade of a department store, New York, 1927, collage, b/w photography, pencil and ink on cardboard, 59.7 x 47 cm, © 2019, Österreichische Friedrich und Lillian Kiesler Privatstiftung, Vienna.

The exhibition Retail Apocalypse investigates the history of retail architecture. It takes theoretical recourse to Frederic Jameson’s thesis that postmodernism is nothing more than the cultural logic of late capitalism. It explores how the early 1970s marked a new era in which culture has become integrated into commodity production generally. The exhibition looks back to “Le Bon Marché” as depicted by Félix Vallotton in the late nineteenth century, Friedrich Kiesler’s publication Contemporary Art Applied to the Store and Its Display of 1930, Gae Aulenti’s oblique display for Fiat in Zurich, or SITE’s stores for Best, as examples of the postmodern era. Shopping has become, as Rem Koolhaas argued in Harvard Guide to Shopping, the last remaining form of public activity. This seminal study was published almost two decades ago and, in the meantime, shopping has undergone even more drastic change.

architecten de vylder vinck taillieu, la fille d’O lingerie, 2016, Photo by Filip Dujardin.

What role does shopping play in today’s cities?

In the twentieth century shopping was a major catalyst in city planning. But what role does shopping play in today’s cities? To be polemical, one might start with the “dead mall” (the failed shopping mall or big box store) on the one hand, and the “flagship store” on the other. What is the value of the brute material fact of the dead mall for contemporary architects? What potential does the condition of uselessness offer? The obsolescence of the shopping mall, ruthlessly defined by its program, offers degrees of freedom for architecture that resemble, or even constitute, a kind of autonomy. In contrast, “flagship stores” remain vital, although not necessarily for shopping per se. They serve as branding for luxury goods. Their semiotic function as signifiers feeds into ever increasing differentiation, even as they contribute to a kind of generic global wealth culture. Many of today’s most renowned architects have invested their architectural expertise in retail. Think of Herzog & de Meuron’s and Rem Koolhaas’s connection with Prada, David Chipperfield’s numerous luxury stores, Smiljan Radić’s catwalks for Celine or his recent design for Alexander McQueen, and David Adjaye’s luxury shopping mall in Beirut—to name but a very few.

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Lynn Hershman Leeson, 25 Windows: A Portrait of Bonwit Teller, 1976, courtesy of the artist and Bridget Donahue, New York.

“Architecture proves to be a motor of seduction that aims to drive consumption and further the logic of capital.”

The exhibition will reflect on the question of how the value of architectural surface or language is determined. Architectural form is part of an economic reality and it creates surplus value. The artistic expression—the surface essentially—is therefore most certainly not commercially innocent, as demonstrated by retail applications. Architecture proves to be a motor of seduction that aims to drive consumption and further the logic of capital. Several writers who have addressed the relationship between architecture and value form a literary counterpart in the exhibition: JG Ballard’s novel Kingdom Come on violence and consumerism; Natasha Stagg’s Surveys, in which the protagonist leaves her job at the mall to become a digital influencer; or Janina Gosseye’s and Tom Avermaete’s study of the shopping mall’s influence on both high and pop culture.


Retail Apocalypse
26 February – 15 May 2020
Opening: Tuesday, 25 February 2020, 6 pm
ETH Zurich, Hönggerberg

Curated by Fredi Fischli and Niels Olsen (ETH Zurich) in collaboration with Mark Lee (Harvard GSD)