Cathedrals to consumption: The mall as public space
Thursday, July 05, 2018
Malls have been around for centuries, from Trajan’s Market in ancient Rome through to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. But the mall in its massive, "out-of-town" reincarnation came into its own in the late 20th century, as cars allowed more of us the mobility to make the weekend pilgrimage to these new temples of the capitalist age.
The U.S., with more mall space per person than any other country in the world, has been at the epicenter of this love affair.
Some have been trying to ring the death knell for malls for some time — announcing "the end of the mall as we know it" and citing changing tastes and the rise of online shopping as reasons. But it is impossible to ignore the enormous imprint the rise of the mall has had, and continues to have, on our public life.
It is unlikely that the age of the mall is coming to an end, and more likely that they are simply shape-shifting into something with a little less hubris.
Malls as temples
Just as the agora was the gathering point of ancient Greek cities, the Food Court of our local mall might be where we meet friends today. The polished corridors of malls have in many ways replaced our streets as hubs of social life.
Even the way that malls are designed hint at references to ancient ideals — the sculpting of central domed atriums echo those places where we used to wile away hours on Sundays, our churches.
The dark side of the modern mall
This may all be well and good — a meeting place is a meeting place. But a mall is only a pseudo-public space.
Real public space is full of the uncertainties that urban life entails, but what malls do is patrol and control this public life, excluding what is not welcome and removing all potential for disruption. While the agora was a place for integration and discussion, a space that allowed democracy to flourish, malls are instead carefully engineered for passive consumption.
This is not a public space equipped to host political protest, or conflict, or the growing ranks of homeless people. Indeed we might see the mall as the accompaniment to a broader cultural trend of "leave-me-alone-ism" that has shaped our suburban landscapes.
This makes for a degraded quality of "public space." Despite attempts at filling them with festivals and pastiches of "outdoor markets," it is difficult in malls to create that elusive atmosphere that happens when people come together.
This is perhaps why some are rejoicing in the prospect of "dead malls".
How malls are changing
However, malls might not be disappearing, simply transforming.
The first wave of out-of-town malls have fallen out of favor with city authorities for the traffic they produce and how they float in open space, disconnected from the urban fabric around them. But there are signs that malls are metamorphosing from a suburban phenomenon to reinvent itself as the "urban mall."
The "urban mall" is a more humble creature — with less of the soaring, cathedral-like, effect of neoclassical domes and vast atriums.
In the U.K. city of Liverpool, the award-winning, open-air Liverpool One mall has been praised for how it seamlessly connects to the rest of the historic town center, with exits and entrances weaved into existing streetscapes. As a result, it "sits" more comfortably in the existing city, rather than glaring at it from across a highway.
However, design innovations do not change the underlying functions and structures of these places — ultimately as centers of consumption, they are heavily (if subtly) controlled, privatized "public spaces."
Toasting to the end of an era?
Malls provoke a range of reactions. Many lament the loss of malls as gathering places (those safe spaces where we had our first taste of independence as teenagers) to the growing dominance of e-shopping, done from the comfort of our own homes.
But many more long for a return to the messier, more diverse realities of what shopping and city life used to be — fewer bland chain stores and franchises, and a little more grit and humanity.
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