Thursday, January 7, 2010

The cathedral of all stores

There has been a lot written about how department stores often emulated church architecture. At least as early as 1922, the store's "new" buildings were referred to as the "Cathedral of all Stores."

But what does this really mean? Just that they were really big and impressive?

Well, yes, that's part of it. Department stores certainly wanted to claim for themselves many of the characteristics that made churches so dominant in society.

Consider, for example, the nave - the long wide aisle that served as a cathedral's principal architectural detail.

Interior of the Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze, Florence, looking towards the high altar. Photo taken by Necrothesp, 20 May 2004.

The nave serves a number of functions in a cathedral, but for our purposes, a key feature is to emphasize the building's length. The impressive pillars add to the illusion, drawng your eye down the long expanse.

Now compare the photo above to this: Hmm? Look slightly familiar. Granted, here we're not being urged to look towards anything -- certainly nothing as spectacular as a sanctuary. At the end of this particular aisle is the door exiting onto Washington St.

But whether we realize it or not, as shoppers the architecture is doing to us the same thing it does for a cathdral -- emphasizing for us a sweeping, dramatic expanse of space. Giving us a sense of awe and wonder. Creating an emotional reaction that identifies this space as a special space set aside from the tawdry, everyday world.

OK, perhaps I'm getting carried away. We could go on to some silly lengths (ever notice that the main entrance to Field's was placed on the west -- just as it is in cathedrals? Well, ok, so that's where State St. just happens to be, but stil ...)

Still, it's worth noting the common desire among cathedral and department store architects to design spaces with a feeling of awe, splendor, and ritual.

And perhaps therefore not a coincidence at all that just as cathedrals had spurred on and used some of the most impressive technological and artistic achievements of their day, department stores pushed for and made extensive use of amazing new technological achivements innovations.

All you have to do is look at the large expanses of plate glass in a department store display windows dating from the early 20 century to see that.