issue 202 - December 1989
Shopping malls are popping up like mushrooms after
spring rain. They are despised by architectural critics -
but are an astounding commercial success. John Barber
argues that we will have to learn to love them.
It is easy to criticize shopping malls for their destructive effects on cities, their usurpation of street life and their bland homogeneity. It is far harder to come to grips with their astounding success.
Like steel tools introduced to a stone-age culture, they have swept aside traditional retailing with brutal force. Scarcely 30 years after their invention, malls account for more than half of all retail transactions in North America (the figure will nudge 70 per cent by the turn of the century). They are the third most frequented places on the continent, behind work and home. They have remade entire cities, in the process transforming a chore into one of society's most popular leisure pursuits. Like the medieval cathedrals or the great nineteenth-century railway terminals, these temples of consumerism are more than the reigning architectural symbols of their age: they are among the most important public institutions as well.
Critics frequently characterize malls as soulless machines for selling that suppress the more humane aspects of the old markets for the sake of maximizing profits. It wasn't always that way. In fact, the invention of the enclosed shopping mall, which took place 33 years ago in suburban Minneapolis, represented a triumph of good social planning over what was considered to be good business sense.
The design for the Southdale Shopping Center was the first to incorporate not one but two department stores, which critics thought would kill each other off in ruinous competition. But the architect, Victor Gruen, argued successfully for a common roof over the string of stores separating the two 'anchor tenants', in effect creating an indoor street between them.
Gruen's primary motive was to clean up the slum of strip development that had accompanied the postwar rush to the suburbs and to inject some semblance of public life into the new communities. He wanted to create a gracious enclave where suburbanites would get out of their cars and meet each other. Space that would not only support commercial activity but social life as well - a modern, climate-controlled version of the ancient town squares of his native Europe.
The spectacular success of Southdale enabled Gruen to advance his altruistic program in several more innovative projects: the first downtown mall in Rochester, New York, and Toronto's Yorkdale Shopping Centre - the first mall to incorporate three department stores. But developers and retailers drew more pragmatic lessons from Southdale. Far from battling each other for limited custom, the two department stores together pulled unprecedented numbers of shoppers into the mall. There was more than enough business to go around even for the smaller specialty stores.
In the stampede of imitation that followed, developers quickly abandoned any pretence to Gruenite idealism and concentrated on refining malls as corridors of selling power - cramped, sterile and devoid of natural light. The spacious and elegant internal streetscapes Gruen had created gave way to what Toronto retail analyst John Winter calls 'lobster trap' malls. These were designed with tortured floor plans and inconspicuous exits in a deliberate attempt to disorient shoppers and make them pass as many shops as possible before leaving. By the time he died in 1980, Victor Gruen had become one of the bitterest critics of this new kind of selling machine.
But complaints about the human qualities of malls fell on deaf ears. They were just too profitable for developers and retailers to worry about such niceties. 'They are money machines, the greatest annuity known to humankind,' says Winter. 'You build one and then you pass every single one of your costs on to your tenants. That's why so many of them are built.' Not only do the tenants pay developers for the maintenance, heating, promotion and policing of the mall, they also fork over a percentage of sales, a neofeudal institution known as 'overage'. But because the mall as a whole generates far more traffic than most tenants could expect from a street location, they are happy to pay. Higher sales volumes mean tenants with no more reason to complain than a sparkplug in a well-tuned engine.
The reasons that malls are so attractive to consumers are simple enough: free parking and guaranteed comfort in all kinds of weather. In small cities and farflung suburbs, malls offer a variety of goods that traditional local shopping areas could never match. But the real key to success in a mall is control. The mall is no mere collection of storefronts but rather a sophisticated machine that shakes money out of consumers' pockets with unparalleled efficiency.
Research is used to fine-tune the mix of tenants in a mall. Owners solicit likely winners, based on their reading of trends, and ruthlessly eject poor performers. Locating stores is an art in itself. Malls charge their highest rents for 'centre-court' locations, furthest away from anchor tenants, because shoppers quicken their pace the closer they get to the department stores. These centre-court locations are populated by high-margin stores that rely on impulse buying while 'destination' stores, which shoppers visit deliberately, cluster near the anchors.
Even the most trivial features are carefully designed to maximize sales. The entrance to a highly profitable food court will contain a booth serving food with a particularly attractive odor. This is the reason for the recent proliferation of stores selling nothing but cinnamon buns in Canadian malls. Seating is conspicuously rare in malls. The more shoppers sit the less they shop. The seating that is provided comes in the form of deliberately uncomfortable backless benches.
Despite that, people have always used malls for more purposes than mere shopping. For better or worse, suburban malls are downtown for millions of people: in the absence of any other planned public spaces, they become 'the accidental capitals of suburbia'. People go to malls to meet their friends and neighbors, to linger over coffee, show off their new clothes or simply savor the incessant bustle. They go to malls to do all the quirky, human, unprofitable things Victor Gruen wanted them to do.
Mall owners, ever-aware of trends, didn't fail to notice. As a result the latest malls are deliberately designed to welcome the lingerers; they are dramatic, light-filled and festive, a sharp contrast to the infamous lobster traps. The best of them are undeniably pleasant places to be - and more popular than ever. 'The beauty of it', says John Winter. 'was that the new malls were even more effective as money machines.' Another retail analyst, Ian Thomas of Vancouver, claims, 'The public areas in the new malls are better than Main Street. They have created the ambience without any of the problems.' In fact the ambience is usually more that of a kitsch stageset - the influence of Disneyland is pervasive.
But critics of the mall maintain that they can never replace town centres. 'Everything is isolated and fragmented in the suburbs, so the mall tries to recreate the world under one roof,' says Toronto architect Bruce Kuwabara. 'So malls have police forces and libraries and every thing else you find in cities.' But in the wide-open spaces of suburbia, where the separation of residential and commercial areas makes street life impossible and cars are as necessary as oxygen, the chemistry of Main Street can never take place. 'The mall,' says Kuwabara, 'is part and parcel of the whole shredding of the urban fabric that took place in the suburbs'.
Architect Barry Sampson would accuse his colleague of seeing suburbia as 'an anthropological condition'. The truth, he says, is that suburbia does change. Many of the malls built 20 years ago in an asphalt sea of parking spaces are unrecognizable. They have been enveloped by a new urban fabric of dense residential and office buildings. 'To see a suburban condition as being permanent is to he somewhat historically naive.' says Sampson.
Sampson believes that as suburbs evolve into cities, developers who 'own' the downtowns of these new cities will come under new pressures. 'My sense is that society is growing up with respect to malls. Now that the novelty has worn off people are going to place greater demands on them. The mall owners will object, but they are caught in a field of checks and balances.'
The best example of that process to date is the ongoing controversy over access to malls. As malls become increasingly important to communities citizens are objecting to the owners habit of evicting 'undesirables'. This can result in discrimination against youth, members of visible minorities, and anybody else whose only crime is hanging out rather than shopping. Many US states and at least one Canadian province are drafting new trespass laws that define malls as quasi-public space and restrict the right of owners to evict. Says Sampson: 'The shopping centre began as a marketing device but it has become an institution, and it has become subject to all the pressures associated with public space'.
It is an intriguing process, and the outcome is far from certain. But the trend is clear: malls are becoming better places because they are becoming more human.
John Barber is a Toronto-based freelance writer.
When it was completed in 1939, Lea View housing estate was dubbed 'Heaven in Hackney'. Its tenants came from the slums of the East End of London, The accommodation was spacious, modern and clean and there were unprecedented communal facilities: hall, laundry, tennis courts and bowling green, not to mention its own porters and resident caretaker.
By the 1970s, it was a very different story: the tennis courts had gone; the streets of the internal courtyard had become clogged with parked cars; the fabric of the building was in serious need of repair; community spirit had broken down; and the estate management had all but disappeared. The 300 flats, in two fivestorey U-shaped blocks, had become oppressive to their residents - 90 per cent of whom wanted to move.
It had become a 'sink' estate typical of the UK's decaying inner-city housing stock. The common areas were vandalized, the central heating didn't work, staircases were insecure, ground-floor flats were 'tinned-up' (windows and doors blocked off with corrugated metal sheeting), and break-ins and muggings were rife.
In the autumn of 1980 the architects moved into an unlet flat which they were to use as their project office. It had four staff. The tenants were suspicious. Their newsletter said: 'The architects are using Flat No 3 . beware!' But the commitment to genuine citizen participation of these particular architects (from Hunt Thompson Associates) quickly turned the project office into the social focus of the whole estate. Through a combination of day-to-day contacts, a survey and meetings with the tenants' association, one major problem came into focus - the social friction generated by single elderly tenants sharing the same staircase with large families.
A radical restructuring was proposed and accepted. All large families were accommodated at ground level in their own private houses with only nine small flats on the upper floor reserved for the elderly, frail and disabled. All front doors would henceforth be on the street and the central courtyard was landscaped and surrounded by private back gardens.
When the projects funding was threatened the tenants marched on Hackney Town Hall - and won the day. Over the two years of construction the tenants worked closely with architects and builders, even organising joint Christmas parties and raising money for local charities.The project humanised the desolate appearance of the blocks by the addition of brick lift shafts serving the flats on the upper floors, new pitched roofs and front gardens for all the family homes. Colour and visual interest had transformed the estate. After tenants moved in, they carried out their own planting of communal areas - few had any experience of gardening. Heaven had returned to Hackney and now other outside the estate were wanting to move in.
It may sound like a fairy story, but the transformation of Lea View House is not unique. The community architecture approach pays dividends whenever it is used. Pride, dignity and self-respect have been restored at Lea View. Community architecture was the process by which it came about.
Charles Knevitt is architecture correspondent of the London Times