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Text by Pollyanna Rhee

Whether they know it or not, visitors to Chicago are likely to pass through Rosemont, Illinois on the way in or out. On the Chicago Transit Authority’s Blue Line map, the penultimate stop before terminating at O’Hare International Airport signals this crossing with a rose logo, indicating that one is no longer within the city of Chicago. Founded in 1956 as Rosemont and run since then by a single family, the five-square-kilometre site contains 6,000 hotel rooms, a convention centre, a luxury outlet, an arena and the world’s largest public display of M.I. Hummel figurines. The only residential area for its 3,500 inhabitants sits behind security gates. But the roughly 10,000 employees, travellers, and shoppers who pass through each day provide Rosemont’s reason for existing.

Instead of a village, Rosemont might more aptly be understood as an enclave, one of a number of terms and phrases like “free-trade” or “enterprise zones” that designate spaces outside conventional legal jurisdictions and standard boundaries of geography. When you picture this global network of special economic nodes, Rosemont probably isn’t what you expect, in contrast to the Geneva Freeport, which maintains a secretive glamour due to the billions of dollars worth of art concealed within its warrens. But the village flourishes, in part, because it has the features of freeway-adjacent development seen throughout the United States; and being close to the world’s fourth busiest airport, the hotels are generally more upscale than those found off major interstate freeways.

Founded on land once seen as so unattractive that the city of Chicago failed to expand its borders to take possession of it, Rosemont profits enormously as a site that primarily exists to facilitate transactions and circulations, all day, every day.

“Immediacy itself is essentially mediated.” The epigraph of Anna Kornbluh’s Immediacy, or The Style of Too Late Capitalism, from Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion (1821), crystallises the book’s central message.  A culture of immediacy sees its inhabitants “drowning in  a deluge of images without context, words without meaning, information without distinction.” Immediacy envelops us “without staunch” with its “fluid, smooth, fast circulations” that produce things to be exchanged. Money is no longer primarily a mediator of exchange, but its endpoint: “the means of circulation becomes the end of circulation.”

The stakes of articulating what’s going on are high when so much of our cultural and intellectual production and apparatus seem dead set against looking deeper. This in itself is a novel condition. “Conventionally,” writes Kornbluh, “art takes up a discernible medium and takes creative distance from ordinary communication or banal functionality, making an appeal to the senses that reroutes common sense.” Inefficiencies or even the lack of obvious usefulness in a painting can stimulate thought and shake us out of conventional wisdom. But Kornbluh observes something disappointing in our contemporary art: a drive to renounce “its own project of mediation.” This “urge to cut out the middleman does not upraise art so much as merge it with a sweeping spate of other social and commercial activities from gig labour to self-publishing to e-brokerage.” Instead of art as opposition, we have art as enrichment, and abettor of the status quo. There’s no more selling out, just buying what’s being sold.

In part, Kornbluh’s project is an extension of Fredric Jameson’s rendering of postmodernism, which he saw as a way of connecting cultural products with shifts in social and economic order that came from the aftermath of industrial capitalism. But while Jameson focused in several texts on the ideology of space, architecture and urban form receive little attention in Immediacy, though it has been central to Kornbluh’s previous works. In The Order of Forms from 2017, Kornbluh argues for the fundamental importance of forms as a tool for social analysis and uses architecture’s forms as a metaphor for social space, like Jameson, who realised that smokestacks, turbines, or grain elevators had no real representational value in a world managed by the computing technologies of multi-national capitalism. The postmodern condition could be found instead in spaces such as John Portman’s Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles with its circular towers of reflective glass that signals a self-contained sufficiency and detachment from its urban context.  Yet in a time marked by immediacy, the Bonaventure as a “total space” or “complete world” might be too iconic and attached to one distinct place.

Part of architecture’s exclusion can be explained by Kornbluh’s conjecture that it “may be one of the mediums most resistant to immediacy.” Yet architecture can still, she cautions, mould itself to the pervasive style and be just as responsive to market imperatives as other types of culture. One aesthetic form of the built environment Kornbluh considers in Immediacy is the flexible, open-plan spaces, pop-ups and the like, similar to what the New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka has called “AirSpace,” the recognisable style of Airbnbs the world over. Pervasive, ostensibly tasteful and placeless, these designs aim to exhibit personality without disclosing anything personal.

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Rosemont provides a case study for the stultifyingly slippy architectural mode of immediacy. The freeways and chain hotels that dominate Rosemont reveal part of the village’s connections to the world beyond. Like hotels everywhere, Rosemont’s hotels clustered on River Road bear stylistic features which reveal the date of their last renovation. Sitting across the forest preserve separated by four lanes of traffic, the Loews Hotel features Chicago-centric art in its lobby and meeting rooms.
The guest rooms have crushed velvet accents in a shade of silver grey and slightly distressed wood surfaces appropriate to a hotel that experienced a “refresh” in 2019. The corridors of the Hilton are carpeted in red and black swirls likely dating from a 2010 renovation. A 1969 John Portman-designed Hyatt Regency down the street predates the Westin Bonaventure and has the recognisable features – atrium, mirror glass facade – that made the latter iconic. Together they create a unified display of the aesthetic preferences of market mandates over the recent past.

Rosemont’s urban fabric represents a stark distinction from archetypical images of the American Midwest such as the grain elevators and industrial complexes that once enthralled European modernist architects. The economic engine of Rosemont depends on newer technologies. One of the auxiliary consequences of digital technologies displacing industrial ones over the past several decades is the shift in aesthetic comprehension, not just in art, but in our surroundings. In 1984 Fredric Jameson concluded that our “faulty representations” of “immense communicational and computer networks” signalled a “distorted figuration” of the “whole world system of present-day multinational capitalism.” Instead of legible urban forms, Jameson found an “alarming disjunction point” between bodies and their surroundings due to an “incapacity … to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects.”

Part of the difficulty of reading these spaces is that they are so nondescript. Attempts to make sense of their urban forms often incorporate computing and communications technologies as a regulating influence. In the 1376-page tome S, M, L, XL the architect Rem Koolhaas and graphic designer Bruce Mau describe the “Generic City” as what happens when “large sections of urban life cross over to cyberspace” with the airport as one of its “most singular characteristic elements … its strongest vehicle of differentiation.” Nearly forty years after Jameson, the problems of cultural representation and comprehension of capitalism are, if anything, more acute. Our encounters with these spaces are intended to have us authenticate aesthetic decisions as cool, unique and modern rather than contemplate the market forces that shaped those traits. Part of articulating how these spaces get their look is by looking to the rationales behind the styles and their attractiveness to corporate powers.

In an oral history of boutique hotels by the journalist Deanna Ting, Steve Pinetti, a co-founder of the boutique Kimpton Hotel chain, recalled that at its inception Kimpton hotels were “all unique,” unlike those of their competitors. He explained, “You build a Hyatt, they all look alike. You build a Marriott, they all look alike. You build a whatever, they all look alike.” Their uniqueness makes a traveller to a Kimpton Hotel unlike anyone else. We are supposed to believe that the public of a boutique hotel or Airbnb is qualitatively different from the public that prefers the Marriott.

 

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In textbooks dedicated to designing interiors for hospitality spaces, it becomes clear that the public referenced is a public only insofar as they buy what’s being sold. The textbooks’ contents also present a foil against critical analysis. In the preface to Patricia Rodemann’s Patterns in Interior Environments: Perception, Psychology, and Practice (1999), the environmental psychologist Jack L. Nasar remarks that critics who question the rise of a consumer-based approach to design and remain in favour of avant-garde art eventually find their conclusions proved wrong. “In cases where consumer research and the designer view clashed,” Nasar asserts, “subsequent research showed that the findings for the public held over time.” There’s no acknowledgement of the forces that hold influence over our reigning tastes.

In addition to manoeuvers buttressing public opinion, these textbooks convey the idea that style represents personal aspirations, an alluring move toward the person we’d like to be or the apotheosis of ourselves through visually compelling environments. Michael Depatie, the former CEO of Kimpton Hotels, saw his hotels as a passage toward imagining yourself as someone who eats at great restaurants, loves art, and has a highly designed home, even when you don’t. “You live in a crappy apartment someplace. But when you’re on the road, you want to have this lifestyle that you aspire to have. That’s kind of the idea. It’s all kind of made up.”

The unquestioning validation of public taste encourages not just “user-centered” jargon, but a belief that our tastes are innate and primordial. Preferences for certain colour palettes and patterns are attributed to regional, national and ethnic sources. In Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (2009), Sally Augustin muses that the “long history humans spent living on the savanna” explains many of our sensory responses. An attraction to warm colours, cosy spaces and dappled light stem from that far-distant past, since this is the “kind of light we experience when sitting under a plane tree on a sunny day,” she writes, adding “plane trees are plentiful on the savanna”. In spite of the time spent rationalising aesthetic choices, commercial imperatives and functionality ultimately shape the look of Rosemont’s 6,000 hotel rooms. The village of Rosemont evinces no particular artfulness in urban design, but its components help structure the mediation process for the economic powers that shape our current cultural style. Most people who enter Rosemont are only temporary inhabitants; they have no reason to not accept that it is, simply, what it is.

Instead of validating individual preferences, shedding light on the construction of desirable aesthetic choices and their temporal contingencies offers the possibility of moving beyond the logics of personal choice and the pat assessments that come with them. Near Immediacy’s conclusion, Kornbluh cites the literary theorist Sianne Ngai’s observation (or hope) that “everyday, seemingly superficial appraisals” like “this is interesting” create a route to understanding the social temper of those remarks, paving the way toward recognition and solidarity. Looking closely at a mundane landscape consisting mainly of freeways and hotels can surprise us if we gain the tools to discern the global constellation of forces that make them possible. This is not just in the name of generative methods for approaching cultural production, but for the creation of new cultural forms untethered from the circulations that define immediacy. Rosemont and other formations of enclave urbanism then come into focus as the result of deliberate machinations. Putting into relief the risk-adverse design decisions and profit-maximising economic calculations behind interchangeable and familiar hotel interiors provides a space for turning social perceptions of “an extractive exploitative society” into new critical narratives of how we arrived here. Redefining aesthetic forms as transhistorical and innate might offer tidy just-so stories, but they also blunt our critical faculties and press us to accept “it is what it is” as a satisfactory conclusion. When quietism is the point, our imperative is to find alternatives for collective flourishing. ◉