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Connecting McLuhan and Michigan Avenue

North Michigan Avenue has always been more an idea than a street.

By JOSEPH VALERIO

North Michigan Avenue has always been more an idea than a street. When it was called Pine Street, the concept of creating a grand Parisian shopping avenue was formed in Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago. After World War I, Michigan Avenue was created as a memorial to the First Infantry Division. The Red Arrow Highway began at Belle Isle in Detroit and ran all the way across Michigan to Chicago's Lakefront. The redevelopment of Michigan Avenue's northern end began with the 1920 completion of the double level Michigan Avenue Bridge.

To understand the street as an idea, it is necessary to understand modern media.

The printed words you are reading at the moment are an extension of our ability to speak. Print "transforms the form, scale and speed of human activity," wrote Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, in which he suggested that any technology that became an extension of the human body should be considered a medium. Following this thought, clothing should be considered a medium because it can change the form, scale and speed of human activity.*

McLuhan went on to suggest that one medium most often contains another. This sets up a series of subordinate relationships. This magazine contains the printed word, which contains writing, which contains speech. In this McLuhanesque world, he concluded that the subordinate media and technology are transformed by the higher medium. The transformation leads to specialization and a greater appreciation for the subordinate media. Print fragments writing into a series of highly specialized vocations--the poet, the author, the reporter, and so on. And print allows us to more fully appreciate the art of writing.*

Paraphrasing the Understanding Media chapter on housing, McLuhan sets up another key series of interlocking media. The city as a medium contains streets, which contain buildings, which contain people in clothing. All of these media transform human activity, and each is transformed by its relationship to the other. Once we had invented shelter, clothing became more specialized. There were jeans and then there were Prada jeans. Once we had invented the street and the city, we could appreciate the beauty of shelter. Building became architecture, and the city and its streets allowed architecture to become far more specialized.

McLuhan's conclusion--"the medium is the message"--has been debated since the publication of Understanding Media. The recent history of Michigan Avenue seems to prove both his conclusion and his very broad definition of media, including his suggestion that architecture is a medium as important as print or video.

There are few ordinary stores left on Michigan Avenue. There are instead a series of architectural experiences that have been constructed as expressions of a company's brand.

The first of these "total marketing experiences" was Niketown, which opened in 1992. Nike's design director, Gordon Thompson, demonstrated that the visual style of this brand could change your life and that architecture could embody this new experience.

Appropriate to McLuhan's linkage of clothing and building, Niketown was followed by new stores for a number of other clothing brands: Giorgio Armani, Cole Haan, Gap, Ralph Lauren, Banana Republic and Escada. In each case, the architecture became an extension of the marketing department, freed from the balance sheet.

Whether it is the severe style of Armani, the craftsmanship of Cole Haan or the elemental quality of Gap, clothing is a medium for personal expression. For each of these brands, the design of the store must carry the message of the brand. Armani has a minimalist interior of stone, where bends and twists suggest the winding streets of a Tuscan hill town. Gap creates a completely different atmosphere--a three-story, light-filled open plan with no mystery, only value.

Technology companies have escalated this race. Most iconic is the Apple Store, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Here the Apple experience, based on accessibility, is in perfect harmony with the architectural medium--a store where the most important phenomenon is its accessibility. More recently, Nokia opened a store at 545 N. Michigan Avenue. Not to be outdone, Motorola temporarily opened a store in the extinct Terra Museum to launch their Q phone.

The most recent addition is the Garmin store, which opened in November. The company helped invent consumer applications of GPS (Global Positioning System). The 30'-high wood wall that runs around the entire perimeter of the space is meant to be ambiguous, possibly reminiscent of the walls of a canyon, the hull of a boat or the fender of a car. The store represents an underlying message about architecture, Michigan Avenue and Chicago and the transformed scale, speed and form of human activity.

Today's Michigan Avenue began as Burnham's idea, but his concept has been transformed to an entirely new idea. This street has become the medium where architecture expresses how a brand can alter the human experience. The idea: architecture asks the question and the brand provides the answer.

* From comments of W. Terrace Gordon, Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, the Critical Edition

Published: December 01, 2006
Issue: Holiday 2006