The call of the mall

Excerpt from the September issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Having kids converted me to the mall. Before my first child, I got my bearings on the subject from JG Ballard and George A. Romero; I viewed the mall as an alien threat to urban good form. Once at the helm of a buggy, I began to see the benefits of having a wide variety of stores in one weatherproof location with no stairs and a large restroom. Soon I realized that I went to the local mall about once a week, even though I had no practical reason; it was simply a comfortable and safe place to spend time with the baby.

Of course, I was still spending money, even if I had no intention of buying anything. This is the “Gruen transference”: “When your presence at the mall changes from being purpose-oriented (you have to buy new underwear, you have to buy a birthday present) to a pleasure in itself”, writes the architecture critic Alexandra Lange in Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside Mall Story. Victor Gruen, the man credited with inventing the modern mall, didn’t invent the idea of ​​shopping for fun – that has long been the domain of department stores. The experience wasn’t entirely new, but the location was. As American cities expanded outward in the post-war years, department stores and other retailers wondered how they could reach suburban consumers who were increasingly unwilling to make the trip up. downtown. The suburban commercial strip was an ugly and unloved substitute.
Working on behalf of a Detroit department store, Gruen developed Northland, a suburban mall with a large “pillar” store at its center, surrounded by smaller stores served by pleasant pedestrian walkways, all in the middle of a acres of parking. It wasn’t quite the classic formula, since it was open-air, but Gruen followed it up with Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, the first temperature-controlled enclosed mall, which opened in 1956.

The mall has been the subject of much criticism since its invention, as a site of soulless homogeneity and a bulwark of ruinous automobile addiction. A shrewd and adroit critic, Lange knows all this, but she approaches her subject from a position of affection, and the resulting portrait is unexpected and rich. Meet Me by the Fountain tells the story of the mall in the United States (and occasionally in Canada – the rest of the world is glimpsed in a fragmentary way in a final chapter) through some of its most exceptional manifestations.

The most prominent of these is the NorthPark Center in Dallas, Texas, developed by Raymond and Patsy Nasher and originally designed by EG Hamilton. (It’s striking how so many malls have portmanteau names made by mashing together two bland location words, creating a somewhere out of thin air.) For Lange, NorthPark, which opened in 1965, is something like the perfect mall, still owned by the family that built it and still expressing the best that a mall could be. Gruen was a European émigré and a socialist, and his first vision for malls was that they would simply be part of mixed-use neighborhood centers that would replicate something like European city life on the edge of suburbia, with parks, arts, recreation and community facilities. . It never happened, much to his regret, but NorthPark comes close. The Nashers were collectors and connoisseurs as well as promoters and they made the mall a centerpiece of sculpture, including a large Corten steel work of Beverly Pepper, designed to be admired from a moving car, and a sculptural inner courtyard of playful pyramids by landscape architects Lawrence Halprin and Richard Vignolo. The Nasher family has since used continued profits from NorthPark to found the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas.

It’s rare for a mall to remain in the ownership of a family like NorthPark, and rarer for that family to exercise such fine aesthetic control. But control is at the heart of what makes a mall a mall. Unlike the downtown shopping district, with its public lands and patchwork of interests, the mall assigned responsibility to a single landowner, and his writ was executed without opposition. It’s a component of their unhealthy reputation, particularly in terms of free speech, although Lange suggests they’re far more vibrant community centers than one would assume, pointing to a long history of court judgments upholding customers’ right to protest. . As a New Jersey judge argued in the 1990s, if malls were to supplant the city square and exploit the human desire to congregate for profit, then they should take on some of the responsibilities of that role.

The first mall often catered to the worst desires of its clientele: it served white suburbs and was an expression of the aspirations of white consumers. Blacks didn’t have malls built for them. Lange quotes a Chris Rock routine: “And every town has two malls! They got the mall white, and the mall whites used go to.’ She adds: “The black mall went black not intentionally but by default.” And while they often catered to a predominantly female clientele and were centers of female employment, the profits tended to disappear into the pockets of men’s trousers.

Lange works from example to example, and sometimes down to the level of detail of an enthusiast. Her presentation is meticulous but at times could have been better served by more personality, especially since the mall is such a personal place, for her and for so many others. A chapter on efforts to rejuvenate historic buildings by turning them into sort of malls, like Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, comes way too soon, making it seem like we’re learning a lot about the exceptions and little about the rule. . Some of these limitations can be attributed to the fact that parts of the book started out as articles for the online town planning magazine Braked. But while more attention could have been given to the overall structure, Meet me by the fountain is an exciting and valuable book.

Since the September issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

Edwin S. Wolfe