Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Texture in Life and Art Part 2: The Apple Store

In my last column I discussed the texture of John Cheever's art in prose. Now we shall proceed from art to life and deal with texture in architecture.

When we deal with matters in real life aesthetically, we shall deal with them in the same sense that we would when dealing with non-real representations in prose, poetry or images in art.

The first impression of the Apple store is that it might appear to lack texture since the entire point of it is to embody the disembodied, sometimes fanatical spiritualism of the Internet age. Since it lacks all depth and color, since it is all airy and light, and above all transparent, the Apple store has the texture of a society that wants to be finally done with texture.

 In the neoPlatonist view, recently reinvigorated by the late great James Hillman, spirit, body and soul, are the three parts of human life that each have specific and separable needs. Soul is always in the middle and is meant to prevent the extremes of bodily grossness at the bottom and spiritual purity at the top.

I know the Apple store is beloved but it is a textbook case of an environment that lacks soul. I don't mean this in the vernacular sense that the word "soul" is usually used. I don't mean that it cold or ugly, for example. Indeed I will concede that there is a certain beauty to the Apple store. Yet something is missing, and not as an oversight but willfully missing. I mean something technically specific.

Hillman noticed that there is a tendency in cultures at certain times to get overtly spiritual and lose a sense of soul. This usually happens when a society or a culture gets the idea of banishing certain human habits and traits, especially those that are comforting and dense or rich, all such refusal being in the interest of a kind of excess purification.

Is the Apple store an expression similar to the tendency Hillman noted? It sure feels like it. For example, I don't recommend that anybody with vertigo climb the design genius that is that glass staircase. You really do feel weightless, as if walking in midair. Initially, the most dogmatic of Modernists were worried about the sin of ornamentation. The Apple store has not only dispensed with comfort and coziness and the appearance and pretense of design but has also dispensed with any affection or conviviality for our physical selves. Like the computer itself, the store is a dream, a grand dream of a world without tensions, without genders, without limits: ageless and free from all burdens of a physical and human world.

This fact about the Apple store was made most apparent when I watched a celebrity interview with the great R&B supergroup Earth Wind and Fire that was held at Apple. Against such an environment the three musicians stood in great relief. Verdine White, the bass player, wore exotic, custom made embroidered denim trousers. Their whole career has been an expression of color - of soul in the vernacular and musical sense. The band's way of speaking and presence seemed to call out for another kind of architecture entirely: something that would be highly textured, with patterns and color. They looked as if they had the (mis)fortune to play a gig in an airline terminal.

The reason why the Apple store was designed the way it was was that it appeals to the anxieties and desires of the current moment. Ever since the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, there has been for the following forty-plus years a craving for transparency and a paranoid suspicion of privacy. Designs are expressions of beliefs and world views as all styles are. Any design that appears too solid or too colorful, that implies separation or privacy, or that seems too much like an object is a design that is implicitly guilty. We have learned to associate heavy with stodgy and hierarchy. The Apple store feels as it does because a part of us longs to leave Earth and body behind and evolve to something that is thought to be higher. There is no other way to account for the almost parodic fidelity with which it embraces a certain Modernism that one would have thought now to have been less strict in its hold upon us.

One of the dogmas of the current moment is that no behavior should seem unnatural or inauthentic. What could be less pernicious, many feel, than a design that hides nothing. In its way, however commercial the Apple company may be it is an expression of a certain spirituality as strict and austere as any traditional monastic religion. Of course, what people look at on the Internet are representations of all of the confused and diverse human mess of the previous century. The Apple store stand as a reminder that people would rather have none of that challenge in their actual, real life, however.

The first photo shows the starkest contrast between two very different buildings and the two very different worlds that created them. Note the soulful and heavy solidity of the stone in the building across the street, especially the elegance of the front doors with the arched tops. That building was an expression of certain human drives of its time. Then you can look at the Apple store and note its airy lightness and see some of the drives of our time.

Of course there are many ways to look at buildings and my comments are not meant to ignore issues of economy and budget, changing aesthetic taste, and so on. One would have to be very blind indeed to not see some of what I suggest here. For a building, like a piece of prose, or anything humans make, makes meaning and is not only for utility alone.

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