The landscape of our post-recession country is littered with the carcasses of abandoned malls — fallen, ghostly temples of twentieth-century consumerism and suburbia. In an interesting two-year-old piece, Design Observer wonders what to do with them. Utopian schemes from wild-eyed planners abound:
Dead malls, according to Deadmalls.com, are malls whose vacancy rate has reached the tipping point; whose consumer traffic is alarmingly low; are “dated or deteriorating”; or all of the above. A May 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Recession Turns Malls into Ghost Towns,” predicts that the dead-mall bodycount “will swell to more than 100 by the end of this year.” Dead malls are a sign of the times, victims of the economic plague years.
The multitiered, fully enclosed mall (as opposed to the strip mall) has been the Vatican of shiny, happy consumerism since it staked its claim on the crabgrass frontier — and the public mind — in postwar America. The nation’s first enclosed shopping mall, the Southdale Center, opened its doors in Edina, outside Minneapolis, in 1956. Southdale was the brainchild of the Los Angeles– based architect (and Viennese refugee from the Anschluss) Victor Gruen. A socialist and former student of the modernist designer Peter Behrens, Gruen saw in the covered mall a Vision of Things to Come.
Until Southdale, shopping centers had been “extroverted,” in architectural parlance: store windows faced outward, toward the parking lot, as well as inward, toward the main concourse. Southdale’s display windows were visible to the mall crawler only; from the outside, it was a blank box, blind to its suburban surroundings — the proverbial “world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need,” as Walter Benjamin put it in his Arcade Projects description of the proto-malls of 19th-century Paris. In Gruen’s galleria, shopping becomes a stage-managed experience in an unreal, hermetically sealed environment, where consumer behavior can (in theory, at least) be scientifically managed.
This innovation, together with Gruen’s decision to squeeze more stores into a more walkably small space by building a multistoried structure connected by escalators, and his decision to bookend the mall with big-name “anchor” stores — magnets to attract shoppers who, with luck, would browse the smaller shops as well cut the die for nearly every mall in America today, which means Gruen “may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century” in Malcolm Gladwell’s hedging estimation.
Unfortunately, Gruen made the fatal mistake — fatal for an arm-waving futurist visionary, anyway — of living long enough to see American consumer culture embrace his idea with a vengeance. In a 1978 speech, he recalled visiting one of his old malls, where he swooned in horror at “the ugliness…of the land-wasting seas of parking” around it, and the soul-killing sprawl beyond.
Good thing he didn’t survive to see the undeath of the American mall. Most economic commentators attribute its dire state to the epic fail of the American economy. In April of this year, one of the country’s biggest mall operators — General Growth Properties, owner and/or manager of over 200 properties in 44 states — filed for bankruptcy, mortally wounded by the exodus of retail tenants.
Good riddance to bad rubbish, some say. In the comment thread to the November 12, 2008, Newsweek article, “Is the Mall Dead?,” a reader writes, “The end of temples of consumerism and irresponsibility? Sweet. The demise of a culture of greed? No problem.”
But wait, my Inner Marxist wonders: isn’t that the voice of bobo privilege talking? Teens marooned in decentered developments didn’t ask to live there; for many of them, the local mall is the closest thing to a commons, be it ever so ersatz. And malls are employment engines. Sure, in many cases the jobs they generate are low-skill and low-wage, but From Each According to His Ability, etc.
“I’m fine if some malls die,” says Farrell, “but it’s important to remember that malls had good points too. In a world in which no-new-taxes has made most new public buildings look like pole barns, malls have provided an architecture of elegance and pleasure — they are some of the best public spaces in America. In a country of cars, malls have provided a place for the pleasures of pedestrianism, and for the see-and-be-seen people-watching that’s one of the delights of the mall experience.”
Still, Woodstockian dreams of getting ourselves back to the garden — demolishing every last mall and letting the amber waves of grain roll back — are popular these days: “tear them down, recycle what can be recycled…and turn them back into carbon-absorbing, tree-filled natural landscape, habitat for wild animals,” a reader writes, on The New York Times site. For many, malls have come to symbolize the culture rot brought on by market capitalism: amok consumption, Real Housewives of New Jersey vulgarity.
Visions of taking a wrecking ball to malls everywhere are satisfyingly apocalyptic. But sending all that rebar, concrete, and Tyvek to a landfill is politically incorrect in the extreme. Already, architects, urbanists, designers and critics are thinking toward a near future in which dead malls are repurposed, redesigned and reincarnated as greener, smarter and more often than not more aesthetically inspiring places — seedbeds for locavore-oriented agriculture, vibrant social beehives or [fill in the huge footprint where the mall used to stand].
Brimming with evangelical zeal, New Urbanists are exhorting communities with dead malls to reverse the historical logic of Gruenization, turning malls inside-out so storefronts face the wider world and transforming them into mixed-use agglomerations of residences and retail; repurposing parking lots into civic plazas; infilling the dead zones that surround most malls with transit-accessible neighborhoods checkerboarded with public spaces (a rare commodity in sprawl developments),and weaving the streets of said neighborhoods into those of the surrounding suburbs.
The more visionary ideas sound a lot like what the cyberpunk designeratus Bruce Sterling calls “architecture fiction,” somewhere between Greg Lynn and Silent Running, Teddy Cruz and Ecotopia. The San Francisco-based Stoner Meek Architecture and Urban Design, finalists in the 2003 Dead Malls competition launched by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, propose a post-sprawl take on the Vallejo Plaza in California: deconstruct the moribund mall, they advised, and reconstruct it as a shopping center-cum-ecotourist attraction, its stores squatting, half-submerged, in the nearby wetlands remediation project. For his third-place-winning entry in the Reburbia competition, Forrest Fulton wonders, in “Big Box Agriculture: A Productive Suburb,” why a ghost-box grocery store can’t morph “from retailer of food — food detached from processes from which it came to be — to producer of food”? The store as lookalike outlet for the trucked-in, tastealike products of factory farming is reborn as a grocery store Alice Waters could love. The box transforms into a restaurant; a greenhouse pops out of its roof. Where the desolate parking lot once stood, a pocket farm springs up. Light poles turn into solar trees studded with photovoltaic cells. Fulton imagines “pushing a shopping cart through this suburban farm and picking your produce right from the vine, with the option to bring your harvest to the restaurant chef for preparation and eating your harvest on the spot.”
Two other entrants, Evan Collins (“LivaBlox: Converting Big Box Stores to Container Homes”) and Micah Winkelstein of B3 Architects (“Transforming the Big Box into a Livable Environment”), envision the radical re-use of ghost boxes as termite mounds of domestic, retail and agricultural activity. Collins conjures Legoland stacks of brightly colored modular homes, fabricated from a recycled store and its discarded shipping containers. Where his “vacated megastore” now stands, Winkelstein sees a “behemoth structure” that is home to a mini-city of lofts, its ginormous common roof crowned with solar panels and carpeted with gardens and landscaped greens, wind turbines sprouting everywhere.
Radiant City, here we come. But Farrell spots some potholes in the road to Erewhon. Projects that resurrect dead malls “are visionary and wonderful,” he says, but many of them “involve a sense of public purpose that seems absent in America just now. I would love to see malls function as a commons, with public-private purposes, addressing the environment we really live in instead of the consumer fantasyland that has been the mainstay of mall design so far.”
As we cling by our hangnails to the historical precipice, with ecotastrophe on one side and econopocalypse on the other, that consumer fantasyland is an economic indulgence and an environmental obscenity we can’t afford — the dead end of an economic philosophy tied to manic overdevelopment (codeword: “housing starts”), maxed-out credit cards (codeword: “consumer confidence”) and arcane financial plays that generate humongous profits for Wall Street’s elite but little of real worth, in human terms. It’s the last gasp of the consumer culture founded on the economic logic articulated early in the 20th century by Earnest Elmo Calkins, who admonished his fellow advertising executives in 1932 that “consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use,” and by the domestic theorist Christine Frederick, who observed in 1929 that “the way to break the vicious deadlock of a low standard of living is to spend freely, and even waste creatively.”
The extreme turbulence that hit the American economy in 2008 offers a rare window of opportunity to hit the re-set button on consumer culture as we know it — to re-tool market capitalism along greener, more socially conscious and, crucially, more profoundly satisfying lines. Because an age of repurposing, recycling and retrofitting needn’t be a Beige New World of Soviet-style austerity measures. On the contrary, while we’ll likely have far fewer status totems in the near future, the quality of our experiential lives could be far richer in diversity, if we muster the political will to make them so. “The most important fact about our shopping malls,” the social scientist Henry Fairlie told The Week magazine, “is that we do not need most of what they sell.” Animated by the requisite “sense of public purpose,” the post-mall, post-sprawl suburbs could be exuberantly heterogeneous Places That Do Not Suck, where food is grown closer to home, cottage industries are the norm and the nowheresville of chain restaurants and big-box retailers and megamalls has given way to local cuisines, one-of-a-kind shops and walkable communities with a sense of place and social cohesion.
Or we could persist in the fundamentalist faith in overproduction and hyperconsumption that has brought us to this pass. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), his black comedy about mindless consumption, George Romero offers a glimpse of that future, one of many possible tomorrows. Two SWAT team officers have just escaped from a ravening horde of cannibalistic zombies, into the safety of an abandoned mall. “Well, we’re in, but how the hell are we gonna get back?” Suddenly, they realize no one’s minding the store.
Peter: Who the hell cares?! Let’s go shopping!
Roger: Watches! Watches!
Peter: Wait a minute man, let’s just get the stuff we need. I’ll get a television and a radio.
Roger: And chocolate, chocolate. Hey, how about a mink coat?