‘Those bastard developments’ – why the inventor of the shopping mall denounced his dream | Architecture

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‘Every day will be a perfect shopping day,” cooed the adverts for America’s first indoor mall when it opened in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956. Edina is blanketed by snow and ice in winter, and baked by unbearably humid heat in summer. The Southdale Center offered the bliss of balmy strolls all year round.

Inside its crisp, white, rectangular blocks lay neat parades of shops arranged around a three-storey Garden Court of Perpetual Spring, where 50ft eucalyptus trees rose towards high windows and exotic vines tumbled from balconies overhead. A cylindrical cage filled with brightly coloured birds towered over cafe tables adorned with cheery yellow umbrellas (despite the lack of weather), while a carousel turned to the soothing sounds of muzak. Compared with the familiar low-rise, outdoor strip malls, this climate-controlled, multi-storey shopping landscape was a breakthrough.

“Flow up and down is so easy and uninhibited,” gushed Architectural Forum, on the novel use of escalators, “and so much gaiety is added by that second layer of moving people, lights and colour, that timidity about two-level design now seems pointless.”

This radical vision was the work of Victor Gruen, a Jewish refugee who had fled Nazi-occupied Austria in 1938. He set his sights on bringing a dose of Viennese urbanity to what he saw as the car-dominated “avenues of horror” of American commercial strips. He imagined Southdale as the centre of a new high-density, mixed-use district, surrounded by housing and offices, as well as a school and a medical centre, with an artificial lake wrapped by curved streets, all forming a utopian “blight-proof neighbourhood”.

Thousands of imitators … Christmas at Southdale. Photograph:  [email protected],

Dayton, the development company, had other ideas. The construction of the shopping centre massively raised land values in the surrounding area, so they decided to cash in, flogging their remaining plots to builders of single-family homes. The result has since become an all-too-familiar sight across the US: a mall marooned in a sea of car parking, ringed by multi-lane roads and suburban sprawl. It was far from an inclusive vision, either. By proposing an idealised alternative to downtown – removed from actual downtown, shielded from the elements, only accessible by car and designed solely for shopping – Gruen had created a mechanism to protect white, middle-class homeowners from those unlike themselves.

Southdale spawned thousands of imitators across the country, many designed by Gruen, leading him to be crowned Father of the Shopping Mall – a label he grew to despise when he saw what he had unleashed. In 1978, two years before his death, he renounced this legacy. “I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all,” he said. “I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”

In the eyes of design critic Alexandra Lange, the caricature of the mall as malevolent place-wrecker is not quite not so straightforward. In her new book, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, she explores the death and life of the great American shopping centre, charting its evolutions, mutations and shortcomings, but also examining what lessons might be learned, and how the mall could be reimagined for a more civic future.

Despite occupying so many sprawling acres of the US landscape, malls have received little critical attention. Like design for children, the subject of her last book, Lange notes that “the mall was ubiquitous and underexamined and potentially a little bit embarrassing as the object of serious study”. They are a compromised and often architecturally despised form, she writes, an ersatz version of a more ancient high street. Yet they offer protection from weather and traffic, with level access, automatic doors, lifts and abundant toilets, providing a haven for children, elderly people and the less able, for whom the city is not always a welcoming place. Malls also offer teens a dry-run of independence, a safer hang-out than a street corner. But, says Lange, “teens aren’t alone in their desire for a gentler public realm”.

‘The father of the shopping mall’ … Victor Gruen eventually despised this title.
‘I refuse to pay alimony’ … Victor Gruen despised his title ‘The Father of the Shopping Mall’. Photograph: Imagno/Getty Images

Charting the boom of suburban malls in the 1960s, Lange tracks how their principles were imposed on downtown areas in the 1970s, in the form of “festival marketplaces” and pedestrianised shopping zones, in an effort to revitalise hollowed-out urban cores. Once again, Gruen led the charge, arguing that the salvation of downtown rested on luring white upwardly-mobile housewives.

Cities needed ring roads, he argued, along with masses of satellite parking lots and an underground network of tunnels for trucks, liberating the streets for pedestrians, plants, fountains and public art. It would be an ordered, clean and secure landscape of consumption, managed by commercial interests – foreshadowing the rise of Business Improvement Districts, which would later manage swathes of urban centres, seen by many as the privatisation of public space by stealth.

The festive revival took off, seized upon by mayors looking for a cheap fix. From 1959 to the early 1980s more than 200 US cities embraced the model, closing blocks to car traffic. But by 2000, fewer than 24 of these open-air malls remained. As Lange writes: “The design intervention that was supposed to bring people back from the suburban mall had, instead, exacerbated the very problem it was trying to solve, turning downtowns into car-centric, retail-first monocultures rather than pedestrian-first, mixed-use places.” The few pedestrian malls that did succeed were all anchored by either a university, a beach, or a major tourist attraction. “Americans walk when they are in college or on vacation,” Lange observes. “The rest of the time, automobility rules.”

We see how mall design takes a quantum leap in the 1980s with the arrival of Jon Jerde, the ringmaster of retail experience, whose Horton Plaza in San Diego set a new bar for consumerist dreamscapes. Opened in 1985, it was a fantasy land of exotic references, where Spanish piazzas collided with Moorish souks, and Italian colonnades crashed into Mexican terraces, connected by elevated crisscrossing routes. It was an instant hit, attracting 25 million visitors in its first year, lured by the possibility of dining inside a super-sized stripy cube modelled on an Alberti church in Florence, or lounging on an undulating bench beneath an op-art obelisk.

Neon everywhere at CityWalk Mall at Universal Studios, Hollywood, LA.
CityWalk Mall at Universal Studios, Hollywood, LA. Photograph: robertharding/Alamy

Jerde’s strategy transcended the malls of the 1960s and 70s, which had been based on maximising customer transactions. Instead, he argued that malls should “make shopping beside the point”. In Jerde’s eyes, they took on an almost religious status, as “a vessel for heightened human experience to occur”. Opened in 1993, his Universal CityWalk in Los Angeles was a surreal simulation of Tinseltown, conceived as a trashy mashup of famous fragments from across the city, complete with a big King Kong hanging off a building halfway down the street.

“This isn’t the LA we did get,” said Jerde, “but it’s the LA we could have gotten – the quintessential, idealised LA.” Seduced by the perpetual carnival atmosphere, with the crime and grime of the city edited out, people might hang out longer – and end up spending more.

That is, until the magic wears off. Monthly average time spent in malls dropped from 12 hours in 1980 to just four by 1990, while a 2017 report predicted the demise of up to a quarter of US malls by 2022. In reality, thanks to the pandemic, that figure increased to a third. As Lange points out, the vacancy represents an opportunity: “As big blank boxes in the middle of big empty parking lots, their structures serve as a land trust for the 21st century.”

When the huge Highland Mall in Texas went into foreclosure, Austin Community College saw their chance. Cutting windows and skylights into what were concrete bunkers, they transformed the site into an education campus. Former boutiques are now classrooms, with translucent walls facing indoor, tiled streets, while a local public television station has moved its studios into a former department store, sharing facilities with the college. Other redundant malls have been converted into offices, seniors’ housing, even public parks.

The jazzy Horton Plaza mall in San Diego, California.
Horton Plaza mall in San Diego, California. Photograph: Peter Schickert/Alamy

In the UK, vacant department stores are also taking on a new lease of life. The Ministry of Sound announced this week that it plans to “remix” a House of Fraser store in west London as flexible offices, a gym and a rooftop bar-restaurant, while others across the country have been transformed into galleries, studios and training kitchens.

Some fates are better than others. Jerde’s Horton Plaza was sadly stripped to the bones last year, awaiting rebirth as a bland hi-tech office campus. Meanwhile, Gruen’s City Center Mall in Columbus, Ohio is now Columbus Commons, a six-acre oasis in the heart of downtown, with a performance space, bocce courts and lush gardens.

“Imagine the department store reborn as a spa or a rec centre,” Lange concludes, “community college classroom cheek by jowl with Forever 21 and a branch library.” Once conceived as an idealised, sanitised version of the city, safe behind walls and parking lots, the mall, it seems, is fated to be swallowed up by the city itself.

Meet Me By the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange is published by Bloomsbury, £14.55.

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