Shopping & Sociology

St John’s Market in Liverpool represents a summary of recent episodes in architectural history, and -in demonstrating many of the associated theories of sociologist Prof Zygmunt Bauman– also offers us a critical insight into the current state of modern society, and important lessons for the future of humanity & design.


As with many UK cities, Liverpool’s city centre was a victim of 1960’s ‘civic vandalism’ in a post-war era of radical social and political change. The old market streets were demolished by developers, in the name of progress, to make way for a new modern shopping complex.

The new shopping centre was opened by the Queen in 1971, and was extremely popular at the time, with its clean white walls and pristine modern appearance. It was planned to be the fist part of a wider masterplan for the city centre, all in the same consistent new modernist style.

However by the 1980’s the clean white lines had become dirty. Modernism had fallen out of fashion. As a result, it was decided to disguise the building with various attributes of Postmodernism, a style popular at the time, in an attempt to re-fresh the building both inside and out.

The Postmodern brick cladding and decorative mirrored interior still currently remain. By now the dirt has taken hold once more, and the building is in the same inevitable period of being percieved as dirty, and therefore dated and unfashionable.

The combination of dated interiors, fully artificial lighting, and low-grade ‘pound shops’ come together to create an atmosphere of intense melancholy and almost unrivalled experience of retail-based depression.

Over the years further en-vogue refreshing attempts have been made on a piecemeal and ad hoc basis. Here with an add-on entrance canopy for the Holiday Inn hotel c.2001, in the corporate-hi-tech style.

Currently plans are being drawn up for yet another large-scale refreshing exercise, with proposals showing clean white lines in a modern style, reminiscent of the original 1971 design.

A refreshed St John’s centre is indeed likely to be popular with today’s discerning shopper, but in time when the ‘newness’ inevitably fades, will we be in this same situation once more?

This story raises important points about Modernity and Postmodernity, as well as the current state of society, as documented by sociologist and academic Zygmunt Bauman.

The bold clearance of the Victorian market, and the stark rational design of it’s replacement, characterise the post-war Modern movement’s quest for ‘order’ and ‘rationality’ – control over nature, hierarchical bureaucracy, rules and regulations, control and categorisation — all of which attempted to gradually remove personal insecurities, making the chaotic aspects of human life appear well-ordered and familiar.

However such order-making efforts never manage to achieve the desired results. Many felt such buildings failed to meet the human need for comfort both for body and for the eye, that Modernism did not account for the desire for beauty. The problem worsened when some already monotonous apartment blocks degenerated into slums, and shopping centres such as St Johns became vacant and unpopular.

The revamp of the 1980’s characterised the reaction against Modernism at the time, in the form of Postmodernism, when architects sought to reintroduce ornament, color, decoration and human scale to buildings (demonstrated here by the addition of the brick cladding, tiles, and green pitched roof canopies). In social terms, Bauman saw this as an important shift – modern society had altered from being a society of producers to a society of consumers. This time Modernism’s security was given up in order to enjoy increased freedom, freedom to purchase, to consume, and to enjoy life.

According to Bauman, this shift has created a new setting for individual life pursuits, confronting individuals with a series of challenges never before encountered. He argues that instead of basing long-term life plans on solid institutions (concepts of “career” or “progress”), individuals now live more ‘fragemented’ lives. Such fragmented lives require individuals to be flexible and adaptable — to be constantly ready and willing to change tactics at short notice, to abandon commitments and loyalties without regret and to pursue opportunities according to their current availability. In Bauman’s Postmodernity (he calls Liquid Modernity), the individual must act, plan actions and calculate the likely gains and losses of acting (or failing to act) under conditions of endemic uncertainty.

In architectural terms this fragmentation can manifest itself as a disregard for consistency in design, as shown by the add-on canopies, ornaments, and features at St Johns. The further ‘revamping’ plans proposed are further evidence of Bauman’s ‘consumer society’ and its associated love of things “clean /new” and dispising of “dirty / old” – favouring disposability and convenience over permanence solidity and longevity.

The problem of course is that ‘consuming’ means consuming energy. It’s widely acknowledged that high levels of energy consumption will be increasingly difficult to sustain – particularly with reference to ‘making things’. Architects therefore have an important role to synthesise society’s demands with environmental demands, in order to apply an intelligent approach and minimise waste.

Should a more intelligent architecture strive to embrace ‘dirt’ through careful selection of materials, in order to assert permanence and transcend society’s fragmented fads and fashions? Or should new architectures acknowledge their own impermanence, and embrace adaptability and re-appropriation, to suit the ‘fragmented’ lives of a new society?