On the Double RL Ranch
Architectural Dreams and Consumer Advertising

Published in Spanish in an edited version in:
Arquitectura Viva 31, July - August 1993, page 104.

In a 1987 article in the Denver Post, reporter Jim Carrier described Ralph Lauren's Double RL Ranch in the foothills of the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado:

While he left the ranching to his men, Lauren paid attention to the aesthetics....  Take the cookhouse.  Built two years ago of aged barn board, it looks as old as the 1890 cabin beside it.  The porch roof is supported by four knotty posts, the third set to be tried before Lauren accepted the right look.  Inside, there are old cupboards, old lanterns, banged-up floors, tables and chairs.  Inside the cupboards are Ralph Lauren dishes, Ralph Lauren towels, and in the dark and weathered bathroom, Chaps for Men aftershave. (Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, Ralph Lauren: The Man Behind the Mystique, Little Brown & Company, Boston, 1988, p. 246.)

Lauren's ranch is not just a rich man's pastime and tax dodge.  It sets the scene for his advertising and marketing campaigns; it is the cinematic image to which his line of western-style products talismanically refer.  Lauren sells more than a product or a name; he packages visual lures for our unengaged desires and fantasies.

Like all media images, the ranch is a work of mimicry, of visual simulation.   To maintain the illusion, the image is frozen, and works best in the softly-lit haze of a magazine spread or a television spot, where semiotic distance creates the explosive,  electric potential of consumer longing and demand.

The Double RL Ranch is also a working cattle ranch, but this has nothing to do with its aesthetics.  Using functionalist terminology, we could say that Lauren makes a distinction between the representational and instrumental functions of his ranch –  he separates sign from instrument, symbolic value from use value.  After all, ranch hands don't wear his western clothes, and the upper-middle class families who do don't live on cattle ranches.

What exactly happens when we see an advertisement for Chaps aftershave?  How does the lure work?  It makes a direct appeal to the individual and his desire.  It establishes a field of desire outside his social context, without physical or social resistance  –  the appeal of cattle ranching, we could say, without the hard work of it, the symbol without instrumentality.  Its tendency is to neutralize the individual's relation with his context, and send him alone with his fantasies into the modern consumer landscape.  We find him in a suburban shopping center, with music softly whispering in his ears, a credit card in his pocket, window shopping, riding escalators.

But the advertisement also creates a focussed pressure on the Double RL Ranch. The emptying that occurs at the site of the advertisement has its corresponding filling at the hypothetical site of the image. The image is a kind of emotional funnel, draining our sense of presence from one site and concentrating it on another.

The North American landscape has long since been transformed by the impact of the media.  The frenzy of monument building, museum-going, landmark restoring, the talk of place, context, history, the full-color formal aggressiveness of new building, are some of the symptoms of this transformation.  The destiny of architecture has become to fill places emptied by the media image, to attract and distribute the media's gaze.

This process has only begun in countries like Spain, where it is still possible to classify architecture between media-hot and  media-cold.  The difference between Francisco J. Sáenz de Oiza's controversial M-30 housing project and all other public housing is that Oiza's attracts media attention.  Oiza has given the building media plumage, the sexual markings of a media site  --  bold shapes, bright colors.  Its tenants enjoy, at least for the moment, the intangible privilege of living in a place where the media gaze can be completed and returned.

In the United States, this process of placing media images has a generally commercial character.  Retailers and developers have learned to offer the consumer more than a bottle of Chaps in the window. Architectural packaging helps define and attract a particular target market of consumers. In non-profit ventures such as museums, corporate donors measure the value of their contributions in relation to the visibility of the institution (its market audience) and the volume of its potential visitor flow.  Together with magazines, television and radio programming, architectural symbols help sort the market into its various categories of consumers, like egg sorters on a chicken farm.

The common aim of these architectural lures is to provide the gratification of finding yourself at the other end of a projected media image.  Their spectacularly artificial quality is part of their attraction.  You are backstage at the theater, mixing with the actors in stage make-up and costumes, their faces beaded with sweat. You work in a Times Square office behind a multi-story neon sign, your desk soaked in its changing colors, the air buzzing with its clicking and humming. A Norman Foster spaceship with glass elevators and flashing lights lands in your hometown and invites you aboard for a new shopping experience.

Media-inflated architecture is thus very different from the media image itself. The media image creates confusion and insecurity because its gaze can fall absolutely anywhere, with the same impartial intensity, and then move on.  Its effect is to eliminate difference, hierarchy and permanence from the visual landscape, to eliminate the connecting time and space between successive takes. The anxious reaction of commercial architecture is to insist ever more strongly on spectacular reaffirmations of place.

But this architecture stops short of delivering all that the media image seems to take from us. It is still constructed in the form of a sign, a spectacle to which we are passive spectators. We never stop looking, our gaze never finds a resting place, it is never absorbed and transformed into that final promised inner glow.

The construction of commercial stage sets for the mingling of crowds is nothing more than mimicry, nostalgic testimony to a collective sense of loss. In Spain, there still exists a public culture of the paseo, an evening walk, or the tertulia, a long conversation over coffee or a drink in a neighborhood café  –  a public social life to which public spaces form an unobtrusive background, where they are instruments of social form and not empty symbols of it.

In the Untied States, only the socially marginalized  –teenagers, the elderly, the homeless–  are forced to actually occupy commercial spaces as a truly public realm.  They are the public equivalent of the cow hands on Lauren's ranch or the sales people in his stores.  A Spanish friend of mine once commented that everyone he knows in New York seems to live like a homeless person in his own house  –  some in decorated showplaces, others in a dusty, barely furnished apartments.  For the few hours of the day when they are not at work or sleeping, they lounge in dirty tennis shoes and rumpled T-shirts, watching television and eating fast food from throw-away containers.

Architecture, as every designer learns, is an instrument that can improve the quality of everyday life.  But this dimension of architecture, not readily visible in photographs, has been forgotten by the general public and gradually replaced, under the mark of the sign, by an impoverished economic determinism. In this context, architecture becomes something like a beautiful musical instrument that no one remembers how to play.

Proposals to reintroduce the full instrumental power of design imply radical changes in the practice of architecture and the structure of society. The ideas of Christopher Alexander or Herman Hertzberger, for example, take effect at the outer limits of commercial development  –  Alexander's Pattern Language is developed from vernacular forms and finds its best application in the Third World context of self-built communities, while Hertzberger's experiments begin at the less-than-adequate limits of state financed construction  –  both conditions a certain if distant future for the developed world in any case.

In the meantime, the inadequacies of commercial development and their corresponding social stresses are part of a situation that continues to evolve.  Desire is never fully satisfied with mimicry and lures.  The unanswered promise of the media image produces a tremendous public hunger, a collective longing that would seem to have the potential to inspire more than empty symbols and predatory commercial forms.