You know the mall, right? It’s like a 15 minute drive from you. Located on Rt. NUMBER right next to Lowes? The fluorescent-lit indoor garden filled with palms? Food court full of fast-food stalls and chain coffee shops? Modern world’s answer to the need for public restrooms and enforced civility? To the right is a visual reference.
This picture is of the ABC Mall in Beirut, Lebanon, not AWESOME BUYING CENTER in SUBURB, SoCal, but I forgive you for the mistake. Mall architecture is pretty much the same everywhere. And by that I mean that all malls feel vaguely desolate despite being optimistically lavish and somehow simultaneously Midwestern-looking.
This uniformity is intentional.
The architectural wonder that we know as the mall has roots in ancient souks and markets of course, but the version that we know today was pioneered in 1956 by an Austrian immigrant named Victor Gruen (who, fun fact, hung out with the likes of Albert Einstein and several other members of the intellectual elite of Holocaust-escapees). It all began, not surprisingly, in a suburb in middle America.
Though strip malls started popping up right alongside the first personal automobiles and markets have always been a part of civic life in American cities, until the mid-1900s most shopping took place in downtowns, where people could walk from store to store and wave to each other. With the end of the war and the rise of the personal automobile, people began leaving the city to live in idyllic boxy ranch houses on postage-stamp-sized grassy lots and, lo and behold, it turned out that downtowns lacked sufficient parking and, cleared of people, invited vice.
Gruen believed strongly that massive civic design projects were a good way to impact behavior, which was very Austrian of him. He set out to save the suburb from a similar fate and/or irrelevance by designing an indoor shopping center (the word mall would not come into parlance until later) in the suburb of Edina, Minnesota. The Southdale Center was intended to be set among meticulously developed apartment complexes, hospitals, and schools. Essentially what he set out to create was the polar opposite of the modern-day mall – a carefully developed, functional downtown. The New Yorker, in a 2004 profile on Gruen, describes:
“Southdale was not a suburban alternative to downtown Minneapolis. It was the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corrected all the mistakes that were made the first time around.”
What Gruen ended up with, underestimating the American love of poor land use and open space, was the first fully enclosed, practically useless, garden-courtyard-sporting parking lot.
Gruen’s mall was just one building, but his design took on a life of it’s own thanks to an absurd tax code change that made owning unprofitable malls an advantageous tax write-off. So, as these things happen, boxy buildings spread and spread to all sorts of random unnecessary places. Gruen was very frustrated with this turn and eventually moved back to Austria. There, he discovered that his design had preceded him and was in the process of killing downtown business in Austria as well. Oh well!
Either way, Gruen’s design is now as central to American youth culture as peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and unnaturally yellow powdered mac and cheese. Central enough that a kid like myself from Manhattan, who did not grow up in proximity to a mall, yearned for years to participate in the rite of passage that is hanging around the food court with your friends. I tried it a couple of times and found it surprisingly unfulfilling.
Generally, when I visit malls now I find them an oppressive a reminder of all that is wrong with American culture. So yeah, I’m a tool.
For some reason, however, all bets are off when I visit malls in other countries. International malls, despite being just as flavorless as their counterparts in the states, make me happy.
You’ll notice I was AT the ABC mall in Beirut long enough to get the picture above AND this one of another mall in Beirut:
See, Gruen’s mall changed the world. And yes, we all agree that the modern-day mall and sprawl is bad for people, cities, and civilization. Yet the mall is an architectural experience that creates the same social experience everywhere. Local culture does not rule in a mall – mall culture rules. It’s not a local market. There is no bargaining. You don’t need local knowledge to know how much things should cost. Things are the price they are and everybody pays that price and making money is the only goal.
Now, despite what pre-teens the world over believe, mall culture and American culture are not the same thing and for me especially, malls do not harken back to my youth in any direct way. They still, however, remind me of home because they remind me of American television and all of the things I was supposed to be doing as a teenager. In a mall I understand my surroundings in same way as everybody else in the world. Despite the self-loathing this causes me, it’s somewhere I belong even in places where my foreignness is obvious. This is comforting especially during extended stays abroad, which despite being valuable and interesting, become exhausting. Feeling confused and out of place all the time, after all, is draining.
So Victor Gruen destroyed the country but made the world a friendlier place.
In Beirut, where I spent the last month, the ancient souk is gone. There is something called the “Beirut Souks,” but it is a newly developed mall built atop the former town marketplace, which was destroyed during the civil war. The fact that clothing stores seem to constitute an appropriate replacement for the former town center is sort of jarring, but then again I spent a day shopping there so who am I to say?
Oh, and you can now get sushi there so it’s not all bad.
Happy New Year Readbots!