If you’ve never been to Niketown in Chicago, let me tell you – it’s a magical place. A mystical, even-transcendent center for clean designs and sweat-wicking fabrics. The ambient white light showcasing footwear of pure gold could make a person feel positively religious.

Jessica Boullion

It took a bronze plaque in the lobby to tell me precisely how religious I should feel. It declared that, in reference to the church that used to occupy that same spot, the Nike mega-store was designed to recall a religious space. Its stories-high ceilings, walls of red brick and white plaster, and interiors filled with natural light are supposed to trigger actual feelings of devotion – to the god of athleticism.

I kid you not. It was there in print. Nike dropped the G word.

After hastily crossing myself, I recovered my composure, remembering that I worship only Caffeine-and-Frequent-Naps, the patron saint of midterms week.

I took one final look around, trying to experience the remarkable store with detachment rather than worshipfulness – and headed to the Apple store across the street.

The glowing oculus of the Apple symbol beckons passersby to enter a space that seems made entirely of shell, sea glass and clouds. We’ve obviously entered a realm of otherworldly purity. Everything is reduced to its sparest form – the whole thing is simply a cube with a kind of shelf creating a second level, with a sweeping staircase leading upward. Giving each part its own material further separates them by function – the long display tables are of the same soft plastic as the gadgets, the stairs are translucent glass. Everything is plain and understandable, except for the inscrutable beauty of the place.

You gaze back toward the street, realizing you are now inside the Mac mastermind – you look out through the now inverted Apple symbol, having achieved oneness with a power greater than yourself.

It gently dispels the fear of the unenlightened masses – the Mac-illiterate and even, in its boundless benevolence, the PC-worshiping infidels. Like me. God, I felt like I was coming home at last!

What does this have to do with selling things? Historical precedents in this vein were made in the mass-culture boom that came with turn-of-the-century immigration, urbanization and industry. Some architects at the time wrote philosophical treatises and manifestos about how contemporary architecture needed to respond to a changing society, a new and sometimes chaotic way of life where capitalism was a driving force.

There were new needs to fill, especially for the working stiff – clerks needed tall office buildings and industry workers needed big factories. But some architects also decided they needed dignity – or a sense of higher purpose to ameliorate a rat-race feel.

To temper the potentially baffling quality of new building types, architects often drew on tried-and-true designs. The standard reference has long been the Greek temple, whose geometric simplicity lends any building authority (e.g. Angell Hall).

There’s no mistaking humankind’s iron grip on transcendence, or the recurring need for a feeling of elevation. It’s hard to say whether it’s by force of habit or if it truly pushes our pleasure buttons. But when governments and corporations want to give the commonplace meaning, they use the design language of transcendence.

Maybe all they really want from me is my cash or eight hours of my life. But hey – if it’s good enough for Mike Hart’s god, it’s good enough for me.

– Colodner can be reached at abigabor@umich.edu.

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