April 13th, 2006


Flushing junkspace

I spent Tuesday walking through Korean-Chinese junkspace at Flushing Mall and supermarket complex Assi Plaza. Take the 7 train to the end of the line, beyond Shea Stadium and LaGuardia Airport, and you'll find the biggest Asian community in New York, a mixture of Chinese, Koreans, Filippinos and South-East Asians. There's a superdense hub around Main Street and Kissena; somewhat neglected warehouse, mall, hotel and market complexes lie to the south, hemmed in by the highway and the railway line.

My trip to Flushing provided the ideal opportunity to re-read Rem Koolhaas' scathing, ambivalent prose-poem, Junkspace, an architect's mall-howl. For Koolhaas, junkspace is the Muzak of architecture, and like me yesterday (perhaps we're both following Cage, who complained that musicians couldn't hear actual notes, just the relationship between a sequence of them) he blames its proliferation on our lack of attention to space itself, to room itself:

"When we think about space, we have only looked at its containers. As if space itself is invisible, all theory for the production of space is based on an obsessive preoccupation with its opposite: substance and objects, i.e., architecture. Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications. OK, let's talk about space then. The beauty of airports, especially after each upgrade. The luster of renovations. The subtlety of the shopping center. Let's explore public space, discover casinos, spend time in theme parks..."

Well, that's what I did in Flushing. I schlepped through malls. But because they were Asian malls, their junkspace had been alienated, denatured, made strange. This was disorienteering, spatial and cultural ostranenie. Here, secreted precariously in a part of America, were Asian food courts, DVDs, groceries, hypermarkets, gift stores, hotels, Korean malls with their own specific conceptions of the organization of space, their own colour combinations, forms and materials, their own morale-boosting murals (a trailer generator in a field!), their own readings of the Christian theme (a Korean Christian bookshop!), their own peculiar fetishizations of the grandfather clock, the balloon or the Western toilet (here be washlets and massage chairs)...

But, as Koolhaas says, despite its titanic dimensions, its apparently universal characteristics, its demotic appeal, this junkspace is oddly vulnerable:

"Junkspace is a web without spider; although it is an architecture of the masses, each trajectory is strictly unique. Its anarchy is one of the last tangible ways in which we experience freedom. It is a space of collision, a container of atoms, busy, not dense... There is a special way of moving in Junkspace, at the same time aimless and purposeful. It is an acquired culture. Junkspace features the tyranny of the oblivious: sometimes an entire Junkspace comes unstuck through the non-conformity of one of its members; a single citizen of another culture - a refugee, a mother - can destabilize an entire Junkspace, hold it to a rustic's ransom, leaving an invisible swath of obstruction in his/her wake, a deregulation eventually communicated to its furthest extremities."

That's how I felt in Flushing's junkspace; the only pedestrian in the drive-in, the only Westerner in an empty Asian mall out by some airport, one weird anomaly threatening another.