The paradigmatic space of contemporary neoliberalism is the shopping mall. Malls constitute a space that is simultaneously local and universal, sited in a particular geographical location yet also hermetically sealed from local context, part of a world of commodities that knows no national borders. Moreover, as Beatriz Sarlo notes, the mall “creates new habits [. . .] familiarizing people with the ways in which they should function in the mall” (Scenes from Postmodern Life 13). In Chile during the dictatorship, a quite distinctive version of the mall flourished in Santiago’s upscale neighborhoods such as Providencia: the caracol or “shell,” so-called because they are shaped somewhat like seashells, with shops lining a spiral walkway surrounding a central atrium. First to be built was the “Caracol Los Leones,” in 1975; other examples include “Dos Caracoles” (1976), “La Rampa de las Flores” (1979), and “Caracol Vips” (1982). Though their popularity has since declined, Cecilia Gutiérrez Ronda recounts that the caracoles were all the rage in the late 1970s: “Everyday Saturday, as was the habit at the time, Providencia was the big draw for shopping” (“Caracoles”). Unlike the typical North American mall, which tends to be no more than two stories high, and to be built to an “L” or “T” plan with major department stores at each extremity, caracoles have no such “anchor” stores, but are rather occupied by up to 200 more or less equally small retail outlets strung out over the equivalent of five or six stories. Moreover, they also lack the meeting points characteristic of other mall architecture. These common areas, usually located at the intersection of the mall’s main thoroughfares, are a legacy of the philosophy of pioneering architect Victor Gruen, the so-called “inventor of the shopping mall” who designed Detroit’s Northland Mall (the United States’ first multifunctional regional shopping center) in 1954, and Minneapolis’s Southdale Center Mall (the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center) in 1956. Gruen, “a fervent socialist” as Jeffery Hardwick notes (Mall Maker 3), hoped that malls would counteract the increasing atomization of 1950s US suburbia, by uniting city center functions and services under a single roof and serving as the modern version of the ancient Greek agora or medieval city square.
But the Chilean malls, by contrast, accentuate atomizing tendencies. In the caracol, even the atrium floor is usually at a basement level, and so bypassed by shoppers. Thus there are no areas of special intensity and no points for downtime to break up the shopping experience; the caracoles construct a smooth space which is relatively undifferentiated along the whole length of its gently sloping gradient. These malls can only be successfully negotiated by very small groups or by individuals: any larger congregation of bodies would cause congestion on the narrow ramps. Shoppers are separated out by the gaping void of the atrium. Processes encouraged elsewhere by the dictatorship, such as the dissolution of group identities, are therefore facilitated in the course of reverent interaction with boutique-packaged commodification. No wonder that the North American building that the caracoles most resemble should be Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim museum: both are secular shrines whose centrifugal force draws people away from each other and towards a collection of riches to be venerated. In the malls, however, a state logic of disassociation combines immediately and immanently with the market presentation of seemingly limitless choice lining a prescribed but otherwise aimless path, to generate a cultural practice of anomic consumerism. The endless, spiralling drift up and down that they encourage is a post-ideological disaggregation of potentially subversive bodies; and there is neither outside nor inside, only a moebius strip of commerce winding round a central abyss.