Continuing in a surrealist vein: we house sat for some friends in Bath over the summer, and Giorgio de Chirico's "metaphysical town square" paintings of the 1910s kept springing to mind every time I wandered into the new SouthGate shopping centre (which replaces an earlier building by Owen Luder).
De Chirico's works are based on the sort of Italian archetypes that have been the basis of an architectural education since the Renaissance. You could apply the same argument to any instance of neo-classical town planning. But I think there's something profoundly uncanny in a peculiarly Chiricoan sense about the SouthGate's lobotomized brand of corporate pomo.
A very striking feeling of a lurking, shadowy absence persists here, a weird sense of artificiality and vacuity that I suppose is the case with lots of Poundbury-esque stuff. The SouthGate seems to reach new heights of sinister, hieratic eeriness though. It's a stark rebuttal to the notion that commercial post-New Urbanism is a warm, humanistic corrective to modernism's Sachlichkeit coldness.
Partly, I think this is due to the carpet-like smoothness of the walkways. The indoor/outdoor ambivalence of modern city centre shopping "malls" means that the basic act of walking is riven with uncertainty. What exactly are my feet connecting with? Is this a street or an aisle? What is this palpably synthetic space for? Who created it? Who owns it? These are narrow, privatized spaces, purged of both organic subtlety and artistic daring: a flat, undead, anti-terrain, and a pathological refusal of the notion of public space.
Of course, the other bizarre thing is the deafening lack of detail. Walking round the rest of Bath with me Pevsner, desperately trying to bone up on architectural vocab, I got into a neck-straining habit of looking upwards and looking closely. At John Wood's eccentric masonic-druidic entablature at the Circus, for instance:
Wander back down to the SouthGate though, and you're faced with a sickening absence of ornament, which would be fine if it wasn't also such a blatant, timid attempt to "fit in" with the Augustan effusiveness of Georgian Bath. Truly, this the unfamiliar at the heart of the familiar, the work of an alzheimers patient making ever-depreciating reiterations of a half-remembered past:
It's indescribably depressing to walk into these courtyards of erasure, where every surface is emphatically, sheerly devoid of any human consciousness whatsoever, a fact that commands you to keep your eyes fixed firmly downwards, gaze locked on the ground floor shops. This is town planning for five-minute tourists and weekend shoppers, an ersatz historicity that is imposing and intimidating for all its gloss of smiley blankness.
The Bath SouthGate is the atrophied, automaton-like unconscious of a blithely aggressive, elusively imperious consumerist autocracy, and it scares the hell out of me, very much like one of the looming disembodied black objects in a De Chirico painting.