In HK, there are some people who are anti-mall. They think mall is the root of all capitalism evil, the source of social unjust. They should read what a mall really is before they complain.
Dec 19th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Birth, death and shopping
THE Southdale shopping centre in Minnesota has an atrium, a food court, fountains and acres of parking. Its shops include a Dairy Queen, a Victoria’s Secret and a purveyor of comic T-shirts. It may not seem like a landmark, as important to architectural history as the Louvre or New York’s Woolworth Building. But it is. “Ohmigod!” chimes a group of teenage girls, on learning that they are standing in the world’s first true shopping mall. “That is the coolest thing anybody has said to us all day.”In the past half century Southdale and its many imitators have transformed shopping habits, urban economies and teenage speech. America now has some 1,100 enclosed shopping malls, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres. Clones have appeared from Chennai to Martinique. Yet the mall’s story is far from triumphal. Invented by a European socialist who hated cars and came to deride his own creation, it has a murky future. While malls continue to multiply outside America, they are gradually dying in the country that pioneered them.
Southdale’s creator arrived in America as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna. Victor Gruen was a Jewish bohemian who began to design shops for fellow immigrants in New York after failing in cabaret theatre. His work was admired partly for its uncluttered, modernist look, which seemed revolutionary in 1930s America. But Gruen’s secret was the way he used arcades and eye-level display cases to lure customers into stores almost against their will. As a critic complained, his shops were like mousetraps. A few years later the same would be said of his shopping malls.
By the 1940s department stores were already moving to the suburbs. Some had begun to build adjacent strips of shops, which they filled with boutiques in an attempt to re-create urban shopping districts. In 1947 a shopping centre opened in Los Angeles featuring two department stores, a cluster of small shops and a large car park. It was, in effect, an outdoor shopping mall. Fine for balmy southern California, perhaps, but not for Minnesota’s harsh climate. Commissioned to build a shopping centre at Southdale in 1956, Gruen threw a roof over the structure and installed an air-conditioning system to keep the temperature at 75°F (24°C)—which a contemporary press release called “Eternal Spring”. The mall was born.
Gruen got an extraordinary number of things right first time. He built a sloping road around the perimeter of the mall, so that half of the shoppers entered on the ground floor and half on the first floor—something that became a standard feature of malls. Southdale’s balconies were low, so that shoppers could see the shops on the floor above or below them. The car park had animal signs to help shoppers remember the way back to their vehicles. It was as though Orville and Wilbur Wright had not just discovered powered flight but had built a plane with tray tables and a duty-free service.
Oddly, this most suburban American invention was supposed to evoke a European city centre. Hence Southdale’s density and its atrium, where shoppers were expected to sit and debate over cups of coffee, just as they do in the Piazza San Marco or the Place Dauphine. Gruen exiled cars, which he thought noisy and anti-social, to the outside of his mall. Most contemporary critics thought Gruen had succeeded in bringing urbanity to the suburbs. Southdale was “more like downtown than downtown itself”, claimed the Architectural Record. Another asserted, in a rare example of journalistic hyperbole that turned out to be absolutely right, that the indoor shopping mall was henceforth “part of the American way”.
As Jeffrey Hardwick explains in his excellent biography, Gruen did not believe his creation would take business away from downtown shopping districts. He saw it as an adjunct to them. If indoor shopping centres harmed any businesses, Gruen dearly hoped it would be the fast-food stands and tacky strip malls that were sprouting like weeds along main roads. Southdale’s first tenants shared this sanguine view. When it opened it was filled not with national chains but with second branches of downtown merchants.
By the 1970s malls were proliferating. Gruen toured America promoting his invention. Malls began to open in Europe too—where, Gruen was presumably surprised to learn, they were seen as quintessentially American. At home, two developments speeded their growth. The first was a change in the tax code which allowed investors to write down a large proportion of a new building’s cost as a loss. That made malls much more profitable. The second was a widespread property-tax revolt that deprived local governments of their most reliable source of income. Desperate, they tried to lure businesses that they could milk for taxes. They were particularly keen on shopping malls.
Tribes of the mall
By the early 1980s indoor shopping centres were woven tightly into American culture. New cuisines (the term is perhaps too grand) emerged in them, thanks to chains like Cinnabon and Panda Express, which did not exist outside malls. They began to swell to the point of absurdity. Canada’s West Edmonton Mall, which opened in 1982, has an ice-skating rink, a pool with sea-lions and an indoor bungee jump. The Mall of America, in Minnesota, has three rollercoasters and more than 500 shops arranged in “streets” designed to appeal to different age groups. Every morning it opens early to accommodate a group of “mall walkers” who trudge around its 0.57-mile perimeter for exercise.
Artists and urban anthropologists began to note the appearance of mall-based tribes. Most celebrated—and lampooned—were the Valley girls who congregated in California’s Glendale Galleria. Frank Zappa’s then-teenage daughter, Moon Unit, wrote a hit song that captured their argot (“ohmigod!”, “no biggie”, “grody to the max”, “total space cadet”) and praised the Galleria for having “like, all these, like, really great shoe stores”. Mall-oriented films followed, spreading the Valley girls’ culture like spores in the wind.
Just as the onward march of malls began to seem unstoppable, though, things began to go wrong. In just a few years they turned from temples of consumption to receptacles for social problems. The changing attitude to shopping malls can be seen in two films, both of which, appropriately, are to cinema what Panda Express is to the Chinese culinary tradition.
George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, released in 1978, is ostensibly a story about a group of people struggling to survive in a world taken over by flesh-eating zombies. But it is also a commentary on the lurid appeal of shopping malls, which were then multiplying quickly. That becomes clear a third of the way through the film, when the humans must decide where to take refuge. They rule out the cities, which are thick with monsters. Yet they need food, water and fuel, which are hard to find in the wilderness. They decide to head for a suburban shopping mall.
There are a few zombies at the mall when the refugees arrive, staggering about aimlessly in a fashion familiar to Christmas shoppers. As one character explains, the monsters seem to have been drawn there by instinct: the mall was clearly an important place in their lives. Most of the humans are similarly intoxicated by the variety of goods on display. That worries the film’s heroine, Fran. “I’m afraid,” she says. “You’re hypnotised by this place, all of you. It’s all so bright and neatly wrapped that you don’t see that it can be a prison.” Nonsense, replies her boyfriend: “We got everything we need right here!” The rest of the film bears out the horror-movie dictum that nervous young women are always right.
In 1995 a much gloomier vision of the shopping mall appeared. If “Dawn of the Dead” suggested malls were monstrously appealing, Kevin Smith’s “Mallrats” depicted them simply as magnets for dysfunctional youth. The film chronicles the mundane adventures of four young men who come to a New Jersey mall to hang out, complain about their girlfriends and annoy security guards. The shopkeepers loathe them because, as the manager of Fashionable Male, a clothes shop, puts it, they lack a “shopping agenda”. Indeed, they lack much of an agenda at all. In Mr Smith’s mall everybody is a kind of zombie. As the film’s tagline explained: “They’re not there to work. They’re not there to shop. They’re just there.”
So many shopping malls have died or are dying that a new hobby has appeared: amateur shopping-mall history
By the 1990s malls were in trouble. Having bred too quickly, they began to cannibalise each other. (Turn left out of Southdale’s car park and the first building you pass is another shopping mall.) Discount shops, factory-outlet stores and category killers like Toys “R” Us ate into their profits. As middle-aged shoppers began to disappear, the teenagers who had inhabited malls from the beginning became more noticeable, which only made things worse. In 1998 Good Housekeeping ran a story entitled “Danger at the Mall”. Indoor shopping malls are now so out of favour that not one will be built in America before 2009 at the earliest, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres.
One reason for the malls’ problems is that the suburbs have changed. When the Southdale shopping centre opened on the outskirts of Minneapolis, the suburbs were almost entirely white and middle-class. Whites were fleeing a wave of new arrivals from the South (the black population of Minneapolis rose by 155% between 1940 and 1960). Although Gruen could not bear to admit it, his invention appealed to those who wanted downtown’s shops without its purported dangers. These days, in Minneapolis as in much of America, the ethnic drift is in the opposite direction. The suburbs are becoming much more racially mixed while the cities fill up with hip, affluent whites. As a result, suburban malls no longer provide a refuge from diversity.
So many malls have died or are dying that a new hobby has appeared: amateur shopping-mall history. Like many esoteric pursuits, this has been facilitated by the internet. Websites such as Deadmalls.com and Labelscar.com collect pictures of weedy car parks and empty food courts and try to explain how once-thriving shopping centres began to spiral downward. Some of the recollections are faintly ironic or gloating. Yet the strongest note is anguish. Implausibly, these online histories reveal the deep emotional connections that people can establish with malls.
One of the most touching is a website devoted to Lakehurst mall near Chicago, which was demolished in 2004. Prodded by a local journalist, women and a few men write in with memories of back-to-school shopping trips, ear piercings, first jobs at Cinnabon and Orange Julius, early dates and even marriage proposals. Many are bereft at the mall’s demolition, as though suffering the death of a pet. “You don’t realise how much you miss something until it is gone,” writes one. Others are almost apologetic: “If only we knew what we had, we would never have strayed to other malls.”
As shopping malls decline, they sometimes come to resemble the civic centres that Gruen intended them to be. Attracted by cheap rents, community groups and police stations move in. On a trip to one of Gruen’s creations, the now-desolate Carousel Mall in San Bernardino, your correspondent encountered a group of middle-aged Mexicans studying for the American citizenship test.
Not all malls have suffered from competition and the suburbs’ transformation. Some have prospered by appealing to growing ethnic-minority groups. American malls are courting middle-class Latinos by adding butchers’ shops and, in some cases, by decking themselves out to resemble Mexican villages. La Gran Plaza, in the Texas town of Fort Worth, lays on mariachi and reggaeton acts and is building a rodeo. Other malls changed their clientele without adjusting their look. Brent Cross shopping centre, one of Britain’s earliest malls, now contains shops staffed by second- and third-generation Asians selling to new arrivals from eastern Europe.
The mall goes downtown
Yet without white, middle-aged women few British or American shopping centres could survive. One bold attempt to lure them back can be seen at the corner of Third Street and Fairfax Boulevard in Los Angeles. The Grove shopping centre, which opened in 2002, performs all the functions of a mall without looking at all like one. Like Southdale, it has fountains, flowers, piped music and a good selection of underwear. But the Grove is open to the elements, the plants are real and, rather than vaguely evoking a town centre, it is actually done up to look like one. Or rather (this being Los Angeles) a fantasy amalgam of several town centres.
Among the Grove’s 40 or so buildings are a Caribbean house with shutters and a wooden balcony, an Art Deco cinema and a grand Beaux Arts building that houses a branch of the clothes shop Abercrombie & Fitch. Its fountains are choreographed to songs by Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis junior. Every few minutes a tram trundles through the shopping centre. The tram’s driver rings his bell almost constantly, because the other thing that distinguishes the Grove from an old-fashioned mall is that it is nearly always packed.
The Grove was built by Rick Caruso (below), a dapper man who owns eight shopping centres in southern California and has three more under way. His next project, a 16-acre development with a large public square, apartments and lots more fountains, will open in 2008 next to the Glendale Galleria. He also plans to build an open-air shopping centre by a race track in the city of Arcadia, where the weary will be transported from shop to shop in a horse-drawn carriage. It is a sign of the popularity of his developments, as well as the bleak future of conventional malls, that the owners of nearby shopping centres are fighting hard to stop him.
Mr Caruso doesn’t think he builds malls. The industry term is “lifestyle centres”; he calls his creations simply “streets”. Nor can he claim to have invented the outdoor shopping centre. Before Gruen’s revolutionary designs, all shopping centres were open to the sky. But Mr Caruso has brought the open-air mall to a pitch of ersatz perfection. It is partly thanks to him, and particularly the Grove, that every new shopping centre built in America next year will be roofless (and several traditional shopping malls will tear off their roofs). Open-air centres will appear not just in temperate places like southern California but also in muggy Houston and frigid Massachusetts.
The mix-and-match appearance of the “lifestyle centres” is thought to be key to their appeal. Mr Caruso and his designers visit cities as diverse as Savannah and Capri to measure buildings and try to capture their appeal. Architectural styles are jumbled together with the aim of creating a festive, holiday atmosphere which people go to hang out in and end up spending money. “After all,” says Mr Caruso, “you buy things when you’re on holiday that you wouldn’t buy otherwise.” But Mr Caruso also claims, more boldly, that his creations are more “real” and authentic than conventional shopping centres.
It is an odd claim for a man whose signature style is a mish-mash of two continents’ and several centuries’ worth of architectural traditions. But, like Gruen half a century ago, Mr Caruso has a bold vision for his developments. Indeed, his vision is rather similar to Gruen’s. Like the Austrian émigré, Mr Caruso believes that people are naturally gregarious, and that America has failed to provide them with places that meet their social needs. Like Gruen, he claims to be trying to create not just profitable shopping places but also more perfect city centres.
There is one crucial difference. Gruen wanted to improve upon the American city centre by modernising and Europeanising it. Mr Caruso, by contrast, looks to the past. He has tried to re-create a kind of prelapsarian downtown where there is no crime or homelessness. His romantic evocations of city centres are possible only because people have forgotten what downtowns used to be like. And they have forgotten, of course, largely because of the suburban shopping malls that Gruen built. It was necessary to kill the American city centre before bringing it back to life.