10/17/2012 04:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dizzy Days and Delirious Nights: Paris Shops for the Century


"They make me dizzy. I get overwhelmed. I just wanta get out of there."

That's what my friend Gail of San Francisco says about department stores. I can only add that after 20 minutes inside most department stores I begin to feel suffocated.

Even so, I'm heading straight to Galeries Lafayette, the grande dame of Parisian department stores, right after I get back to Paris. You might suppose it's because G-L -- almost alone as a family-owned store in this world of crooked tax dodging conglomerates -- remains as fine an example of Art Nouveau urban architecture as exists. But that alone still isn't enough to overcome my suffocation impulses. What has turned Galeries Lafayette into a de rigeur destination is master architect Rem Koolhaas's OMA studio and its urban architectural history department.

Galeries Lafayette celebrates its one hundredth anniversary this week. Koolhaas's team has assembled a remarkably detailed visual history of G-L's building history from foundation to dome. The show stands as one of the finest documents of 20th century urban design as you'll find anywhere.

Were that not enough to quell my shopping mall phobia, there is also the contemporary art design, Chrysalide, mounted outside the store by Yann Kersalé in collaboration with the architecture-design team, Djuric-Tardio, who have built an international reputation for ecological, wood-based affordable housing. Kersale's street-side suspended pieces are set to change as autumn chills to winter, winter to spring and on for the coming year.


G-L, of course is hardly alone among high end shopping emporia at installing contemporary art. No less than the S & H Kress dimestore chain sought out the best modernist architects of the early 20th century to house their cheap chochkas, thereby enabling the splendid buildings to survive the Kress company's bankruptcy. From Cleveland to Phoenix, serious painters and sculptors have cut deals for the last quarter with -- usually -- high high end stores to display their work, not to mention scores of installations in regional French cities from Nantes to Marseille.

The deeply cranky strain of my psyche looks at this trend with deep suspicion. Do we really want to see Calder's mobiles, Stella's pastel monuments, Serra's claustrophobic walls reduced to come-ons for marketing skimpy briefs and embroidered silk bras? On the other hand must moving, transcendent art be restricted only to those with the schooling and the income to buy tickets to the MOMA and the Pompidou Center? Normally I'd rather sit quietly in those public temples designated to house "art." But then, I have a press pass. I get in free -- and most of you reading this don't.