A journey through the history of the mall

MEET ME AT THE SOURCE: An Inside Story of the Mall

Author: Alexandra Lang

Editor: Bloomsbury

Price: $28

Pages: 310

Just like people, clouds, and cars, shopping malls come in many shapes and colors. But shopping malls have certain fundamental commonalities. A handful of these are physical: food courts, escalators, kiosks, banks, plants, restrooms, parking lots. Others are intangible. Shopping malls are an ambiguous mix of public and private space, open to all in theory but inaccessible to many in practice. They are playgrounds, community centers, surveillance centers, temples of consumerism, places where loitering is encouraged until you get kicked out by the mall cops for loitering too much or incorrectly.

by Alexandra Lang meet me by the fountain is a well-researched introduction to the rise, fall, and uncertain future of an American institution. Perhaps the American institution of the firm; In a 1996 edition of The American Historical Review, Kenneth T. Jackson wrote that “the Egyptians have pyramids, the Chinese have a great wall, the British have immaculate gardens, the Germans have castles, the Dutch have canals, the Italians have great churches. And Americans have malls.”

Jackson may have been stretching the case to make a (brutal) point, but it’s hard to argue against the mall as a ubiquitous feature of postwar America.

Despite being “a compromised and often architecturally neglected form, a surrogate version of an older high street,” malls have much to offer, Lange writes: an air-conditioned respite on hot days, a place where the isolated can get a taste of social life and seating throughout the day (as long as you abide by mall rules). Could there be a world, she wonders, in which malls can reverse their decline and fulfill a civic function? Could the malls of the future minimize their environmental footprint and coexist peacefully with online shopping?

The father of American shopping malls was Victor Gruen, who studied architecture in his native Austria before fleeing in 1938. Landing in New York, Gruen quickly set his sights on retail. When Architectural Forum magazine solicited ideas for the city of Syracuse in 1942, Gruen and designer Elsie Krummeck suggested a large shopping mall that included a “post office, a circulating library, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and rooms for club activities in addition to of the usual commercial facilities.” It was an ambitious vision of closed retail, planned from the top down and operating almost like a miniature city.

That launch never happened, but a bigger and better successor came to fruition in 1956, when Gruen’s Southdale complex opened outside of Minneapolis. The center featured 810,000 square feet of retail, 5,200 parking spaces, sculptures by Harry Bertoia, glass mosaic murals, a cylindrical cage containing 50 birds, a fish pond, a café, and an indoor forest of magnolia and eucalyptus trees.

At the planning stage, Gruen made both aesthetic and economic arguments in favor of his scheme. Containing a group of stores within a single climate-controlled space would offer convenience to shoppers and eliminate the risk store owners face of losing sales due to bad weather. It would also give smaller retail establishments the gift of collateral foot traffic.

The relationship was symbiotic, of course. A carb-heavy customer has more energy to buy than a hungry one. And if a person who drove to the mall to buy a single item, like a stereo, can be convinced to have a snack, why not lipstick as well? And a pair of earrings, since the store is back in the car, and an iced tea for the road, yyy…

The phrase for this seductive maneuver is the “Gruen transfer,” in which what starts out as a single item on a to-do list turns into an ecstasy of associative spending. Department stores had already recognized and capitalized on this behavior, with their dense and dizzyingly varied offerings. But Gruen’s malls required even less of an excuse to visit than a department store. With all of Gruen’s built-in attractions, a person could go to the mall for no reason.

Being a multi-purpose space, shopping malls quickly came to mean different things to different people. They were a workplace for some and a pleasure dome for others. For Joan Didion, writing in Esquire in 1975, shopping malls represented “the perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal.” They were simultaneously sedative and stimulating.

Lange is evocative when it comes to the affective elements of mall culture, but her book is occasionally loaded with messy detail. Is it critical to note that a Dallas shopping mall design mark appeared, at one point, in dark green on a lighter green background, while later iterations experimented with slightly different shades of green? Do we need to know where the current owners of that same mall graduated?

When a nonfiction book buckles under the weight of data dumping, I tend to blame the publisher rather than the writer. Still, this book is a useful survey, and Lange opens up plenty of avenues for readers to wander through, from the curious microgenre of “mallwave” music to the devious ways developers have made shopping malls hostile to so-called undesirable customers. . The issue of Esquire in which Didion’s essay appeared was devoted to “Great American Things” and included praise for apple pie, blue jeans, baseball, bourbon, and television. The rest of those things are still going strong. It remains to be seen if the malls will remain, if they should.


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