Shrines to shopping

Jean Nouvel is leading the rush of top architects designing luxury retail outlets – and they show that beauty can have a place in the mall, says Jay Merrick

The French architectural superstar Jean Nouvel has just unveiled his latest building, an enormous three-storey H&M shop on the Champs Elysees in Paris.

And in the City of London, the substantial retail element of his massive One New Change building, with its "stealth" facades, will soon become a shopping hotspot 60 metres east of St Paul's Cathedral. In Hills Place, just off London's Oxford Street, a retail facade designed by Amanda Levete looks like a surreal razor-cut canvas by Lucio Fontana. In Las Vegas, the MGM Mirage CityCenter retail development has been hyper-blinged with huge crystal structures designed by Daniel Libeskind. Welcome to the increasingly spectacular nexus of retail design in the 21st century's experience economy.

"Less is a bore," said Robert Venturi, the arch-guru of architectural postmodernism. And we mustn't be bored, must we? What we really like, if the 2.6 million Oxford Street shoppers who spent £140m in fashion sales alone in the first week in September are anything to go by, is to be seduced by brands. In as many different ways as possible. If you step into Czech & Speake in Jermyn Street to purchase a bottle of their stroke-inducingly expensive No. 88 Cologne, you find yourself in a dark but subtly glinting interior whose design murmurs: "This is a quiet, very private haven, and the smell and touch of every product in here, and there aren't many, reflects that ethos".

The small, otherwise unremarkable room is distinctly mood-altering; and it triggers a very specific feeling of expectancy. If you wander into the Apple store in Regent Street, the effect of its long, vanilla-smooth sightlines provokes a very different emotion: a non-specific, faintly bemused ease.

Wait! It's just shopping! It's simple! People like to buy stuff, and great architects have always designed retail outlets. Think of Frank Lloyd Wright's exquisitely sculpted V C Morris gift shop in San Francisco, whose spiral ramp cloned the architecture of his Guggenheim Museum in New York. And what about the architecturally grandiose 19th-century Galeries Lafayette in Paris, or the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan? Yes, and don't forget Milton Keynes shopping centre – still the only mall in Britain that doesn't induce a Night of the Living Dead atmosphere.

In the face of this evidence, is there really anything new to say about the architecture and mysteries of the shopping experience? The philosopher Walter Benjamin became so obsessed with the arcades of Paris that he jotted down thousands of pages of thoughts and observations about them between 1927-40. Predictably, it is architecture's most fractious intellectual, Rem Koolhaas, who has added something to Benjamin's often impenetrable musings. In his influential 2002 essay, "Junkspace", Koolhaas speaks of "a fuzzy empire of blur, it fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed... Why can't we tolerate stronger sensations? Dissonance? Awkwardness? Genius? Anarchy?"

But we can, and do, when we shop. Is there anywhere more emotionally and profitably dissonant than the internal bazaars of Selfridges in London – so starkly different from the Edwardian monumentality of the building as a whole, designed by the legendary Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Inside it, the commonplace, arrayed in fractured or layered perspectives, becomes sublime: we're very nearly in a Warhol mindset in which mostly unremarkable objects become fetishised. In buildings like this, we don't amble or pause, we mall. We are supplicants of the slightly erotic fusion of disjointed movement, brand overload, big sensations jumbled with smaller ones – and the always impending petit mort of purchase.

When Koolhaas designed the Prada Epicenter in New York, he dipped retail strategy into a radical diagnosis of cultural pathology. Shopping, he argues, is arguably the last remaining form of public activity. Museums, libraries, airports, hospitals, and schools have become indistinguishable from shopping centres, and their adoption of retail for survival "has unleashed an enormous wave of commercial entrapment that has transformed museum-goers, researchers, travellers, patients, and students into customers.

"The result," he adds, "is a deadening loss of variety. What were once distinct activities no longer retain the uniqueness that gave them richness. What if the equation were reversed, so that customers were no longer identified as consumers, but recognised as researchers, students, patients, museum-goers?" The ultra-grungy facade of Commes des Garçons in New York, punctured by a slinky tunnel entrance designed by Future Systems, seems to echo this idea, despite its lead architect Rei Kawakubo's hideously fatuous declaration that the shop was designed for people who "get energy from clothes, who like taking risks".

In Paris, the rationale for the flagship store of Comme des Garçons' creator, Yohji Yamamoto, co-designed with Sophie Hicks, is slightly more interesting: the white-box mixture of shop and gallery was inspired by the subtle ideas in the Nobel Laureate Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's essay, "In Praise of Shadows".

But in super-luxurious retail domains, complexity tends to give way to egregiously svelte architectural aesthetics, or faux avant-garde artistry. This building-as-brand approach has been perfected during the Noughties, at vast expense, by Prada in particular. But in the 1990s, retail buildings such as Toyo Ito's Glass Boulder Tower for Mikimoto turned cultural ideas – building shell as a filter for "profuse floods of information" – into iconic architectural form. The facades of Ito's recent Tokyo building for the leather goods specialist Tod's mimic the branch patterns of elm trees in the street.

Retail buildings like this – and the best examples are all in Tokyo – are specifically meant to be beautiful, and set up suitably beatific consumer expectations. Here, Renzo Piano's Maison Hermes, a taller version of the 1932 Maison de Verre in Paris, whose glass-block walls were designed by Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet, is an object of retro clarity. Nothing, though, has equalled the exquisite Prada store designed by Herzog & de Meuron. Its carapace of diamond-shaped glass panels varies between flat, concave and convex surfaces whose optical effects produce faintly hallucinatory visions of merchandise and the city simultaneously.

The cultural commentator Virginia Postrel is right: "Beauty in its many forms no longer needs justification. Delighting the senses is enough – 'I like that' rather than 'this is good design'." There is no escape from the siren-call of increasingly lurid or bizarre retail architecture. Not even if, wreathed in a dense cloud of No. 88 Cologne, you imagine it has nothing to do with you.