Martyrdom of an Icon
[The fall of the American shopping mall]
Driven by optimism and faith, Austrian born architect and planner, Victor Gruen thoroughly believed in the potential of the American shopping mall. Visions of mixed use developments ran throughout his imagination, fancying environments similar to that of Austrian main streets. Utopian in nature, the mall was to alleviate the decentralized sprawl of post war suburbia and reduce dependence on the automobile. Despite failure to encourage urban and social reconfigurations, the indulgences and pursuits of social capital thrived, the mall become the epicenter of hangout culture. Yet in 1978, years into retirement and serving as a planning consultant in Vienna, Gruen publically spoke against the mall, saying that…
“I am often called the father of the shopping mall”, “I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities”
What had led to this lack of faith and departure of belief in the mall? If Gruen had lived beyond 1980, would his impression of the mall have changed? Would movies such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Clueless (1995) be enough to disburden such hatred and embarrassment?
A tad morbid but perhaps its best off that Gruen had passed when he had for America’s devout cult following of the secular religion of capitalism intensified. The mall has fallen with mercy to the free market and became its church, hosting rituals and services of consumerism. Yet here we are, mid-way through 2016 and identifying what seems to be the decline/end of the mall and the architype itself.
If one searches “Decline of the American shopping mall”, they’ll see numerous reports on various media outlets addressing the American pandemic, comparing the decline of mall attendance to trends such as bedazzled jeans once available at K-Marts nationwide. Somewhere in the turn of the recent century, notable mall tenants slowly departed, leaving vacant storefronts with signs expressing apologies and promise of trendier shops. Internet junkies thrived on the opportunity to photograph the ruins and decay, posting stories on websites such as www.deadmalls.com and image galleries to Dead Malls Enthusiasts, a Facebook group of 21,041+ members.
Mass media outlets such as CNN and The New York Times have done a wonderful job documenting the slow death of the mall; their reports have sent mild waves of hysteria to businesses and chains. Anchor stores close their doors far before sales dwindle, analytics claiming times of struggle seem to be enough to spook the chains.
Is it possible that these reports are all exaggerations? Are the articles slowly committing atrocities far beyond their text, scripting fate of genocide upon the architype? It seems those responsible for exploiting the mall as a space of consumption are now responsible for the mass amounts of propaganda stating the mall is dead.
Hidden in the decay one can occasionally stumble upon the rare article raising this exact question, is the death of the mall an exaggeration? One article written by Tim Worstall, a contributor to Forbes, spoke in light of these exaggerations, taking position that, “The malls that are doing well tend to be destinations. Those that aren’t tend to be places where people just go shopping.
Critically reflecting upon the age old question of space and place. Is the mall, a space or a place? The common mall serves the flow of commodity and consumption, feeding into consumer desires. It is my belief that Gruen would define his mall as a space. Aware of the importance that social interaction plays in design, Gruen was attentive to space and its ability to provide experiences. The ability to spend a day at the mall and agency to selectively choose your experience is desirable. Today, malls are manipulative, designed to exploit consumer behavior for maximum profit. Combatting the unsustainable approach to the shopping mall, identification of what lies behind the motivations of the community is crucial. Consumer studies have fascinated themselves with behavioral studies based upon the post analysis of observations, leading developments of market strategies designed to feed on consumer insecurities. Gruen’s interventions in mall centers may have been based upon intuition and experiences in thriving social centers, but the push for social spaces was critical. These spaces did not dwell on the consumer but met the social needs of the community. The mall was to offer those who congregate, satisfaction in self for ways less inexpensive and materialistic than shopping.
The momentum of the “dead mall” may be too great to prevent at this point in time. The propaganda set forth by those who steroid fed the architype (Mall of America in mind) have succeeded. The Church of Capitalism had not needed to pray for forgiveness but simply cast away their sins. Perhaps the greatest cover up of contemporary architecture, one can reflect upon two distinctly different lives the mall lived throughout the decades; a life dedicated to the teachings and following of capitalism and one deeply invested in the desire to unite the suburban landscape.