In my last post, I spoke of the new iPad and the retail environment that presaged its transparency as an object. Look carefully at the iPad and learn more details about the device and you will realize that it may be open in appearance, but is closed as a system. Only applications optimized for this kind of Apple will work on it, and if you want to use its Internet connectivity, you have to sign up with AT&T. No Flash, no eBooks that are not in the .pub standard can enter into your virtual loft. You have to pay for (most of) your tunes and your apps.
This is an Apple tradition, and stands in stark contrast to the modernist ideal that its form seems to represent. The objects may be minimalist, the desktop a sea of possibilities, and the aesthetics engendered by its screens as redolent of endless space as any Mondrian, but its commercial arena is closed. It is in this a perfect analogy to what has happened to modernism as a style: it is a high-priced alternative to the more traditional and fluid forms informed by past forms. The iPad is part of the same universe as the expensive interiors of John Pawson and Sir David Chipperfield, of the W Hotels and the Moss Store in New York. Openness and freedom are things you have to buy and buy into.
It is ironic that it turned out this way, as modernism had an egalitarian and democratic component, even, despite what Thom Wolfe claimed, in the United States (see: Frank Lloyd Wright). It might even be a vindication of classicism as a lingua franca that is easier to produce and to understand than the almost nothing whose refinements only refined minds can understand. Modernism’s open qualities are limited, reserved, and difficult to enter into, whether mentally or financially. I’ll never forget the realization, as a young architect, of how expensive it was not to use baseboards and other details to hide reveals.
The closed universe is not limited to modernism, however. Chains such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister’s have long realized that showing a closed façade can be an enticement to enter into a supposedly exclusive club. The back rooms and VIP mezzanines of clubs are only the latest version of the intimidating facades of gentlemen’s clubs, Masonic temples, and first-class sections of airplanes. Making and controlling a space is a mark of power and ability. The decision to be closed or open is separate from style, and we should realize that Adolf Loos’ modernist interiors, hiding behind their enigmatic facades, are as much part of the legacy of a style that wanted to break open the box as Wright’s open corners. Both are part of our hierarchical social and economic system.
Look carefully at Apple’s objects, and the strength of the border, rounded and containing, becomes clear, as does the separation Moss’ vitrines establish. The only moment of dissonance is between the Apple stores, with their illusions of no barriers, and the fact that you still have to pay for things, both in the store and once you buy the product. Ironically, by creating some of the most minimalist objects and spaces you can enter or buy, Apple has revealed the truth of capitalism. You have to afford it.