Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, by Alexandra Lange (Bloomsbury Publishing, 320 pp., $28)
When I was 12, I went to the mall after school to look at a dress in the window at Laura Ashley. I pined after that dress. And Laura Ashley, unlike the fast-fashion outlets of today, kept the same dress in the window for weeks, its floral print illuminated by fluorescent lights.
Making people want things has always been part of mall design. In their ideal form, malls offer a smorgasbord of shopping options in a safe, climate-controlled environment. Around the next corner is another store, with another window, offering something new. Meantime, one finds places to eat, places to sit, and piped-in music to maintain the mood. What you want is not simply the object you shop for but to be at the mall. The “Gruen Transfer,” named for mall designer Victor Gruen, is defined as the point in time that mall-going ceases to be about running an errand and becomes about enjoying the visit itself.
As architecture critic Alexandra Lange notes in Meet Me By The Fountain, “People love to be in public with other people.” For the suburbs, malls offered this experience in the way that parks and town squares had in the past. Like railway stations and hotels before them, malls created a zone of public-private space: private property, yet open to the public to use within certain bounds. They are enjoyed by groups as diverse as white-haired walking groups, teenage truants, and representatives of fringe religions scouting for recruits.
Malls in their prime form emerged after World War II. By the 1970s, they had become a ubiquitous element in suburban life and in popular culture. They often featured as the setting of 1980s-era urban legends about child abductions, featuring kidnappers who were supposedly adept enough to cut and dye a child’s hair in a public restroom before making their escape.
Lange delves into the design and planning of particular malls, explaining how they thrived (or didn’t). She discusses mall engineering and business structures and how localities responded to them. For years, mall construction figured prominently in American public architecture; Lange details precisely how the form evolved, and what each generation learned from its predecessors about consumer behavior.
For a time, middle-class suburban women provided malls with their customer base—and their employees. Malls’ retail shops offered part-time work to mothers located close to their homes and in the same place where, for example, she might drop her kids off for ballet practice.
Dead and dying malls now dot many suburbs, however, and are mocked on South Park as abandoned hellscapes. What killed them wasn’t just online shopping or big box stores, but a broader cultural shift. Malls succeeded by catering to different groups, from housewives to retirees to teens, the latter often attracted to cinema multiplexes and arcades, until Netflix and Nintendo undercut both options.
Even today, though, the retail mall remains overwhelmingly an American form. According to Lange approximately 24 square feet of retail space exists for every American, compared with 16.8 for Canada, 4.6 for the United Kingdom, and 2.8 for China. The relative lack of malls in the United Kingdom may explain why department stores there made the shift to online shopping sooner than U.S. stores. (The U.K. still leads the U.S. by some margin in the percentage of retail sales that take place online.)
U.K. developers did make several attempts to imitate American-style malls. Meet Me by the Fountain describes postwar New Town models and, starting in the 1960s, the chain of Arndale Centres. But malls remained uncommon, due in part to higher land costs and associated challenges. With greater open spaces and car-dependent suburbs, Australia and Canada were more mall-friendly. (Indeed, Westfield Corporation, which now dominates the global mall landscape, is an Australian firm.)
Many critics see malls as anti-urban, emblematic of the abandonment of downtown shopping as middle classes fled the city for dormitory suburbs, but Lange casts her net wider, discussing the mall’s urban iterations. Downtown-regeneration malls, like the “festival marketplaces” that started popping up after the 1970s, typically featured pedestrianized streets and reused industrial buildings rather than being more narrowly purpose-built. But as with the convention center and stadium—the other classic urban-renewal white elephants—these malls were not always what consumers wanted or needed. “From 1959 through the early 1980s,” Lange writes, “more than two hundred American cities closed blocks of their downtowns to car traffic. By 2000, fewer than twenty-four of those original malls remained.”
The urban mall has taken on newer forms. The more recent downtown mall developments I’ve seen have been glossy and high-end, all glass walls and Gucci—a far cry from Spencer’s Gifts and Auntie Anne’s. Aspirational malls also tend to feature a “concierge desk,” a faux-genteel version of the information booth. These venues want to attract shoppers, of course, but they don’t exactly encourage people to hang around all day (seating options are limited). They assume their customers are in transit, on the way to the office, the train, or the gym. It’s a different mindset from that of the mall-as-destination.
It’s been years since I have gone to a mall to window-shop or to relax. I no longer pine for dresses in a store window; those are now to be found in one of the open tabs in my browser. For me, malls are now sites of occasional desperation, as when I find myself in a strange town and need to get something quickly. I’ll wander into a Macy’s or a Nordstrom Rack, where the lingerie department looks like the aftermath of a police raid. Finding anything that fits is like picking a winning lottery ticket. Meantime, my meeting is in two hours, and I’m trying to remember where I parked the rental car (Blue 12? Green 9?). No Gruen transfer here.
As a historian, I’m also fond of noticing how much things cycle back to the past. The contemporary big-box store, for instance—containing a cafe, drugstore, and other elements—is just the down-market version of the grand, turn-of-the-century department store in the model of Wanamaker’s or Selfridges. These stores contained everything under one roof, offering the lady shopper a place to browse, eat lunch, and get her hair done. The midcentury mall itself was in a way the “centrifuging” out of those various departments into individual retailers located across a wider space. And now we see them spooling back in, like a yo-yo, in a different form.
Lange is optimistic that malls can be reinvented. She offers examples of malls that have become hubs for immigrant communities, particularly for the selling of food. But in another sense, we are at the mall all the time—in virtual space.