World of Malls 21.11.16

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A Munich exhibition charted the rise and evolution of the consumer paradise, and wondered whether it was time to put up the ‘closed’ sign. By Crystal Bennes

Victor Gruen is regrettably remembered for a much-criticised architectural legacy. An Austrian Jew who emigrated to America following Nazi annexation in 1938, Gruen is considered the father of the shopping mall – that monstrous ‘third space’ for the mindless consumption of fripperies – and consequently, one of consumerism’s greatest promoters.

But such characterisation is problematic in two respects. First, the notion that contained spaces for shopping were an original idea is patently false. What of Trajan’s Market in ancient Rome? Though often described as the ‘world’s first shopping mall’, recent archaeological evidence suggests that it was probably a mixed-use commercial and administrative complex. And what of the European shopping arcades of the 16th century, such as La Galerie du Palais in Henry III’s Paris? The architecture of consumption is, of course, as old as consumption itself.

Second, pure commercialism was never Gruen’s intention. Noting the increasing isolation of car-mad suburbanites, Gruen’s innovation was, paradoxically, to remove the shopping centre from the heart of the city and resituate it in suburban edgelands. Not unlike Trajan’s Market, Gruen’s original vision was of malls as mixed-use wonder facilities with apartments, libraries and medical centres alongside shops. To Gruen’s life-long frustration, the result was that his new typology removed the city and replaced it with a parking lot.

The first exhibition to outline the 65-year architectural history of the modern shopping mall, World of Malls presented a selection of 23 fascinating case studies from around the world, and came complete with an admirably full catalogue. Curator Vera Simone Bader organised her material chronologically to trace the development of the mall in its historical context. In so doing, she raised questions about the continuing relevance of the mall, its impact on our cities today and how we might better manage often-conflicting commercial and civic interests.

The exhibition commenced in the mid‑20th century with Sidney N Shurcliff’s 1951 Shoppers’ World, Gruen’s game-changing roofed and air-conditioned 1956 Southdale Center, and suburban Frankfurt’s 1964 Main-Taunus-Zentrum, a direct copy of the American model that pitched itself to ‘the housewives of Frankfurt’ by comparing the ease of shopping by car to the unpleasantness of the crowded city centre.

Later examples traced the development from contained, suburban box to the outdoor, village-y designs of Jon Jerde’s 1985 Horton Plaza, which aided the revival of downtown San Diego after the 1960s downturn (caused in part by downtown businesses moving to suburban shopping malls). A presentation on developments in the small medieval town of Bad Münstereifel, 50km from Cologne, illustrated the startling evolution of Jerde’s outdoor mall-cum-village. In 2014, rather than a new-build centre on the village outskirts, City Outlet Bad Münstereifel turned the village itself into an outlet mall. Some one million people per year snap up bargains at Puma and Levi’s outlets inside renovated medieval buildings on the high street.

Towards the end of the exhibition, projects in progress, such as MVRDV’s Vandamme Nord in Paris and J Mayer H’s Volt in Berlin, showed that the shopping mall continues to evolve in step with changes in thinking about urban planning. For one thing, malls have long since moved from the suburbs back to urban centres. But, harking back to both the mall’s ancient antecedents and Gruen’s original philosophy, commercial developments are now more likely to be mixed-use spaces, incorporating cultural, residential and administrative functions. Perhaps such evolutions also explain the mall’s increasing acceptability as a commission for big-name architects.

World of Malls was also wise to remind us that, while architects often equate shopping malls with vulgar populism, sometimes even populism isn’t very popular. The exhibition provided a number of educational examples, notably New South China Mall in Dongguan, an area of China largely inhabited by migrant workers. Opened as the world’s largest mall in 2005, the centre remained empty for nearly a decade despite its indoor rollercoaster and Venetian canals. Local economists speculated that mistakes were made in targeting upper-class shoppers in a city that has few. However, in the past year, it seems that attitudes have changed as shoppers have begun to trickle inside. In spite of the exhibition’s laudable focus on the architecture of consumption, its underlying thread was a reminder that, as in Dongguan, the future of the shopping mall remains in the hands of shoppers as much as architects.

World of Malls: Architectures of Consumption took place at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, from 14 July to 16 October 2016

 

Words

Crystal Bennes

 

Above: The El Helicoide mall in Caracas (1955–60) by Jorge Romero Gutiérrez has lain empty for decades

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World of Malls is also wise to remind us that, while architects often equate shopping malls with vulgar populism, sometimes even populism isn’t very popular

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Jon Jerde’s Horton Plaza (1985) aided the revival of downtown San Diego

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