Before condemning the mall to the ash heap of history, we should ask what the appeal of the mall is in the first place.
In a short essay on “Shopping Mall Morality” written in the 1980s, the historian Allan Carlson came to their defense, pointing out that the architect who first dreamed of the shopping mall was no fan of suburbia at all, and in fact conceived of the mall as a way of combating its ills.
Victor Gruen escaped from Nazi-occupied Austria with, by his own account, nothing but an architecture degree and $8 in his pocket, yet would go on to build the first indoor and outdoor shopping malls in America in the mid-1950s. The central theorist of the shopping mall, Gruen began by observing the chaos of mid-century suburban expansion. No fan of these new neighborhoods, Gruen thought that rising automobile use obliterated community coherence and called the suburbs themselves “an arid land inhabited during the day almost entirely by women and children.”
To Gruen, the suburbs cried out for communal, civic-oriented spaces that gave meaning to an otherwise dull lifestyle. As Carlson puts it, suburbia needed something along the lines of a Greek Agora or a medieval cathedral surrounded by market stalls and public activity.
Gruen’s original conception of the mall would fit just such needs. There would be the necessary parking, of course, but he thought the mall might be a way of prioritizing pedestrian activity over the movement of vehicles. Pleasant walkways and centers with seating, art and sculpture installations, public performances by musical groups, and trees and green space (both indoor and out) were designed to draw the community together not only to make business transactions but to enjoy life together, forming bonds of community the suburbs otherwise lacked.
For Carlson, shopping malls successfully filled such needs:
“Escaping the grasp of both social democratic planners and profit-minded entrepreneurs, they took a unique shape. Representing neither the triumph of socialism nor of capitalism, the malls actually evolved into a new political-economic form, one bearing in structure an uncanny resemblance to the medieval manor.”
Carlson goes on to explain how this structure created unique managerial and even legal forms. The tenants of a mall have to work together to settle disputes, and understand that the good of each business relies on the overall fate of the entire mall ecosystem. Each location had communal obligations to the other tenants, but also to the public spaces that they jointly maintained.
“Like guild systems that enforced quality and price levels to assure a basic income for all, malls operate on the theory that the whole venture depends on the little shops.”
So discount stores that set the wrong price point might be banned, or a potential new tenant denied a lease because it would directly compete with another longstanding retailer.
This balance of interests created an atmosphere that people seemed to like: by the late 1970s malls had exploded across the country, gobbling up nearly half of all retail revenue nationwide across 18,000 locations. They were thought of as relatively secure places to visit or allow adolescents to explore, they protected people from the elements and the dangers of car traffic, and they were clean and well-maintained compared to many of the cities of the day.
Carlson notes that one Harvard psychologist declared that visiting malls was now a communal ritual where otherwise isolated people could share common experiences, and a study by researchers at the University of Kansas “confirmed that shopping at malls had primarily a social, rather than commercial, purpose.”
But a little over 20 years since he launched the first mall, Victor Gruen had turned against his creation.
He memorably quipped, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” which he said represented environmental degradation, the death of the city center, and substituted “an artificial and therefore sterile order for naturally developed blends of urban forms.”
Perhaps the mall will continue on its current trajectory, closing up shop in many locations while becoming a labyrinthine showcase for luxury goods aimed at the upper echelons of our society in select locations.
And if in the coming decades shopping malls do go the way of Blockbuster and disappear, I’ll give it two cheers. Two, not three, because while I won’t personally miss them, I am inclined to agree with Victor Gruen that something like them was needed.
As long as there are human beings living in suburb environments, the fundamental needs that drove Victor Gruen to design malls will remain. And some form grasping at a more communal life—whether medieval cathedral squares, Greek marketplaces, or mid-century shopping malls—will be attempting to serve them.
Read Death of the Shopping Mall, Part I here.