Mark Dery | Essays

Dawn of the Dead Mall

Dixie Square Mall, Harvey, IL, 2009. Photo: Jon Revelle

Dead malls, according to Deadmalls.com, are malls whose vacancy rate has reached the tipping point; whose consumer traffic is alarmingly low; are “dated or deteriorating”; or all of the above. A May 2009 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Recession Turns Malls into Ghost Towns,” predicts that the dead-mall bodycount “will swell to more than 100 by the end of this year.” Dead malls are a sign of the times, victims of the economic plague years.

The multitiered, fully enclosed mall (as opposed to the strip mall) has been the Vatican of shiny, happy consumerism since it staked its claim on the crabgrass frontier — and the public mind — in postwar America. The nation’s first enclosed shopping mall, the Southdale Center, opened its doors in Edina, outside Minneapolis, in 1956. Southdale was the brainchild of the Los Angeles– based architect (and Viennese refugee from the Anschluss) Victor Gruen. A socialist and former student of the modernist designer Peter Behrens, Gruen saw in the covered mall a Vision of Things to Come.

Burdick Mall, Kalamazoo, MI, designed by Victor Gruen, 1959. Photo from www.rootsweb.com

In his dreams, Southdale would be the nucleus of a utopian experiment in master-planned, mixed-use community, complete with housing, schools, a medical center, even a park and lake. It was all very Gropius-goes-Epcot. None of those Bauhausian fantasies came to pass, of course. (Do they ever?) On the bright side, Southdale did have a garden court with a café. And a fishpond. And brightly colored birds twittering in a 21-foot cage. Reporting on the opening, Architectural Record made it sound like the Platonic Ideal of Downtown — what downtown would be “if downtown weren’t so noisy and dirty and chaotic.” A town square in a bell jar: modern, orderly, spanking clean.

But it wasn’t Gruen’s Mad Men take on the Viennese plazas he remembered so fondly that made his Ur-mall go viral. Developers liked the way Gruen used architecture to socially engineer our patterns of consumption. His goal, he said, was to design an environment in which “shoppers will be so bedazzled by a store’s surroundings that they will be drawn — unconsciously, continually — to shop.” (Remember, Gruen was from Freud’s Vienna, where psychoanalysis was a growth industry.)

Newspaper ad for Dixie Square Mall, 1966. Photo from Pleasant Family Shopping.

Until Southdale, shopping centers had been “extroverted,” in architectural parlance: store windows faced outward, toward the parking lot, as well as inward, toward the main concourse. Southdale’s display windows were visible to the mall crawler only; from the outside, it was a blank box, blind to its suburban surroundings — the proverbial “world in miniature, in which customers will find everything they need,” as Walter Benjamin put it in his Arcade Projects description of the proto-malls of 19th-century Paris. In Gruen's galleria, shopping becomes a stage-managed experience in an unreal, hermetically sealed environment, where consumer behavior can (in theory, at least) be scientifically managed.

This innovation, together with Gruen’s decision to squeeze more stores into a more walkably small space by building a multistoried structure connected by escalators, and his decision to bookend the mall with big-name “anchor” stores — magnets to attract shoppers who, with luck, would browse the smaller shops as well (a strategy James Farrell, author of One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping, calls “coopetition”) — cut the die for nearly every mall in America today, which means Gruen “may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century” in Malcolm Gladwell’s hedging estimation.

Unfortunately, Gruen made the fatal mistake — fatal for an arm-waving futurist visionary, anyway — of living long enough to see American consumer culture embrace his idea with a vengeance. In a 1978 speech, he recalled visiting one of his old malls, where he swooned in horror at “the ugliness...of the land-wasting seas of parking” around it, and the soul-killing sprawl beyond.

Good thing he didn’t survive to see the undeath of the American mall. Most economic commentators attribute its dire state to the epic fail of the American economy. In April of this year, one of the country’s biggest mall operators — General Growth Properties, owner and/or manager of over 200 properties in 44 states — filed for bankruptcy, mortally wounded by the exodus of retail tenants.
Good riddance to bad rubbish, some say. In the comment thread to the November 12, 2008, Newsweek article, “Is the Mall Dead?,” a reader writes, “The end of temples of consumerism and irresponsibility? Sweet. The demise of a culture of greed? No problem.”

But wait, my Inner Marxist wonders: isn’t that the voice of bobo privilege talking? Teens marooned in decentered developments didn’t ask to live there; for many of them, the local mall is the closest thing to a commons, be it ever so ersatz. And malls are employment engines. Sure, in many cases the jobs they generate are low-skill and low-wage, but From Each According to His Ability, etc.

“I’m fine if some malls die,” says Farrell, “but it’s important to remember that malls had good points too. In a world in which no-new-taxes has made most new public buildings look like pole barns, malls have provided an architecture of elegance and pleasure — they are some of the best public spaces in America. In a country of cars, malls have provided a place for the pleasures of pedestrianism, and for the see-and-be-seen people-watching that’s one of the delights of the mall experience.”

Still, Woodstockian dreams of getting ourselves back to the garden — demolishing every last mall and letting the amber waves of grain roll back — are popular these days: “tear them down, recycle what can be recycled...and turn them back into carbon-absorbing, tree-filled natural landscape, habitat for wild animals,” a reader writes, on The New York Times site. For many, malls have come to symbolize the culture rot brought on by market capitalism: amok consumption, Real Housewives of New Jersey vulgarity.
Visions of taking a wrecking ball to malls everywhere are satisfyingly apocalyptic. But sending all that rebar, concrete, and Tyvek to a landfill is politically incorrect in the extreme. Already, architects, urbanists, designers and critics are thinking toward a near future in which dead malls are repurposed, redesigned and reincarnated as greener, smarter and more often than not more aesthetically inspiring places — seedbeds for locavore-oriented agriculture, vibrant social beehives or [fill in the huge footprint where the mall used to stand].

Brimming with evangelical zeal, New Urbanists are exhorting communities with dead malls to reverse the historical logic of Gruenization, turning malls inside-out so storefronts face the wider world and transforming them into mixed-use agglomerations of residences and retail; repurposing parking lots into civic plazas; infilling the dead zones that surround most malls with transit-accessible neighborhoods checkerboarded with public spaces (a rare commodity in sprawl developments),and weaving the streets of said neighborhoods into those of the surrounding suburbs.
The more visionary ideas sound a lot like what the cyberpunk designeratus Bruce Sterling calls “architecture fiction,” somewhere between Greg Lynn and Silent Running, Teddy Cruz and Ecotopia. The San Francisco-based Stoner Meek Architecture and Urban Design, finalists in the 2003 Dead Malls competition launched by the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, propose a post-sprawl take on the Vallejo Plaza in California: deconstruct the moribund mall, they advised, and reconstruct it as a shopping center-cum-ecotourist attraction, its stores squatting, half-submerged, in the nearby wetlands remediation project. For his third-place-winning entry in the Reburbia competition, Forrest Fulton wonders, in “Big Box Agriculture: A Productive Suburb,” why a ghost-box grocery store can’t morph “from retailer of food — food detached from processes from which it came to be — to producer of food”? The store as lookalike outlet for the trucked-in, tastealike products of factory farming is reborn as a grocery store Alice Waters could love. The box transforms into a restaurant; a greenhouse pops out of its roof. Where the desolate parking lot once stood, a pocket farm springs up. Light poles turn into solar trees studded with photovoltaic cells. Fulton imagines “pushing a shopping cart through this suburban farm and picking your produce right from the vine, with the option to bring your harvest to the restaurant chef for preparation and eating your harvest on the spot.”

Two other entrants, Evan Collins (“LivaBlox: Converting Big Box Stores to Container Homes”) and Micah Winkelstein of B3 Architects (“Transforming the Big Box into a Livable Environment”), envision the radical re-use of ghost boxes as termite mounds of domestic, retail and agricultural activity. Collins conjures Legoland stacks of brightly colored modular homes, fabricated from a recycled store and its discarded shipping containers. Where his “vacated megastore” now stands, Winkelstein sees a “behemoth structure” that is home to a mini-city of lofts, its ginormous common roof crowned with solar panels and carpeted with gardens and landscaped greens, wind turbines sprouting everywhere.

Radiant City, here we come. But Farrell spots some potholes in the road to Erewhon. Projects that resurrect dead malls “are visionary and wonderful,” he says, but many of them “involve a sense of public purpose that seems absent in America just now. I would love to see malls function as a commons, with public-private purposes, addressing the environment we really live in instead of the consumer fantasyland that has been the mainstay of mall design so far.”

As we cling by our hangnails to the historical precipice, with ecotastrophe on one side and econopocalypse on the other, that consumer fantasyland is an economic indulgence and an environmental obscenity we can’t afford — the dead end of an economic philosophy tied to manic overdevelopment (codeword: “housing starts”), maxed-out credit cards (codeword: “consumer confidence”) and arcane financial plays that generate humongous profits for Wall Street’s elite but little of real worth, in human terms. It’s the last gasp of the consumer culture founded on the economic logic articulated early in the 20th century by Earnest Elmo Calkins, who admonished his fellow advertising executives in 1932 that “consumer engineering must see to it that we use up the kind of goods we now merely use,” and by the domestic theorist Christine Frederick, who observed in 1929 that “the way to break the vicious deadlock of a low standard of living is to spend freely, and even waste creatively.”

The extreme turbulence that hit the American economy in 2008 offers a rare window of opportunity to hit the re-set button on consumer culture as we know it — to re-tool market capitalism along greener, more socially conscious and, crucially, more profoundly satisfying lines. Because an age of repurposing, recycling and retrofitting needn’t be a Beige New World of Soviet-style austerity measures. On the contrary, while we'll likely have far fewer status totems in the near future, the quality of our experiential lives could be far richer in diversity, if we muster the political will to make them so. “The most important fact about our shopping malls,” the social scientist Henry Fairlie told The Week magazine, “is that we do not need most of what they sell.” Animated by the requisite “sense of public purpose,” the post-mall, post-sprawl suburbs could be exuberantly heterogeneous Places That Do Not Suck, where food is grown closer to home, cottage industries are the norm and the nowheresville of chain restaurants and big-box retailers and megamalls has given way to local cuisines, one-of-a-kind shops and walkable communities with a sense of place and social cohesion.

Or we could persist in the fundamentalist faith in overproduction and hyperconsumption that has brought us to this pass. In Dawn of the Dead (1978), his black comedy about mindless consumption, George Romero offers a glimpse of that future, one of many possible tomorrows. Two SWAT team officers have just escaped from a ravening horde of cannibalistic zombies, into the safety of an abandoned mall. “Well, we’re in, but how the hell are we gonna get back?” Suddenly, they realize no one’s minding the store.

Peter: Who the hell cares?! Let’s go shopping!
Roger: Watches! Watches!
Peter: Wait a minute man, let’s just get the stuff we need. I'll get a television and a radio.
Roger: And chocolate, chocolate. Hey, how about a mink coat?

Posted in: Architecture, Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [15]

I like the idea of seeing vacancy being a form of art. Malls are such a suburban concept bustling full of people. I get ideas to spur some of my own work.

The Nation's first mall was really The Westminster Arcade in Providence, RI, built in 1828. Just ask the ever reliable Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westminster_Arcade
Ted James Butler

Are big box store shopping centers worse than malls?

-First of all its like backwards progress - we went from shopping centers to malls and then back to bigger shopping centers.

-Malls weren't able invade downtown urban areas as well as big box shopping centers - exp area around NYU looks like any suburb

-Big box shopping centers don't allow the more creative type stores in due to size - exp the crappy art seller, the ball cap store, and the half-ass seasonal holiday store

-Hanging out at Target vs the mall?

The article was very interesting, but the concluding final paragraphs were myopic and more than a little preachy. What I think is too often forgotten by people with a utopian post-capitalist view of the future, is how radically different life would be like without all the crap we often rail against. Companies in a capitalist system, especially in consumer goods, have very thin margins and depend on volume for their profits. We have aggressive advertising campaigns and planned obsolescence because companies need us to buy a lot of things to make money.

While I hate advertising and chintzy goods, they do mean that you can go and buy a blender for $30, that a working family can afford luxuries that would have dazzled the wealthiest kings and industrialist 100 years ago. A consumer society also means jobs for people, and though they aren't always good jobs, more often than not, a job is better than no job.

What would be lost in shifting away from this model is, 1) affordable consumer goods: prices would have to rise, as lower volume would mean fewer companies and smaller inventory, 2) slower technological progress, as consumption drives most of the innovation people experience in their everyday lives. While this may be fine for the majority of college-educated culturally-endowed individuals who are concerned with things like locally-grown produce, it would be a definite hinderance for most working Americans. Too often, its assumed that we can have less crap to buy, fewer advertisments, small shops, etc. and still enjoy the lifestyle that we do now, and I do not think that is possible.

Big box stores are ubiquitous because they're better than small stores. I grew up in a small town in Vermont with a great deal of small shops, most of them sold knick-knacks to tourist who came through, and the only reliable play to buy toys or games or anything that would interest a young boy, was a five-and-dime next to the movie theater. The selection was small, the store was dirty and cramped and the prices were, in restrospect, pretty outrageous. If I could have, I would have gone to the Ames (not quite a big box store, but close), which had better selection and better prices. I cannot imagine how my life would have been different if there was a Target in my town. The five-and-dime was quaint, but now, as then I would have gone to the Target, because there's no reason to pay more for something, to subsidize quaintness, and I think that's how most American's feel.

I think reusing and greening up dilapidated mall space is a noble endeavour, and I whole-heartedly agree that the brand of capitalism we practice(d), with high capacity production and out of control debt and borrowing is highly volatile and ruins the environment. I do not find the vision of greener, smaller future distasteful. But these visions are drafted and designed for well-heeled, upper-middle class families and creatives (assuming that the creatives will be able to afford this life as well, as most design and art jobs are related to advertising. Perhaps we'll have to go back to patronage) the kind of people who do not regularly worry about putting food on the table. The future needs to be the future, not a regression to simpler times paid for by further disenfranchsing the bottom rung.

It seems the downfall of most malls, strip or enclosed, is simply age and new development. The building gets old, but instead of continued renovations, a new mall gets built and the merchants rush over, and gravitate to it.

The major sins of the mall are that they are not "town centers" as originally envisioned where multi-use; shopping, living quarters, public square, ruled the day. Also, although they closely cluster the shops together, They are pedestrian unfriendly islands surrounded by vast asphalt deserts of parking lot. Surface parking lots large enough to hold all of the cars neccesary to fill the mall with people, both seperates itself from the surrounding community, and insures that cars will be the prefered mode of travel over pedestrians.

I like the idea of repurposing a failed mall. It would be useful to a town or community as its city hall. The abandoned movie theatre as a community theatre. However, the horizontal space used as parking must be diminished. Adding parking garage towers could achieve this. The outlying parcels could then be used as apartments, parks, or even more mall space. The object is to create an attractive, walkable, community enviroment.

Dixie Square Mall was featured in "The Blues Bothers."

An insightful article on a fascinating and yet rarely investigated topic. You might find this interesting, I wrote a piece of creative non-fiction a while ago that looks at the same topic from a more literary angle:


Mark Welker

Yesterday I went into woolworths in Clifton, Bristol (UK) and was overwhelmed.

The high street chain crashed spectacularly, and this time last year I went and quickly shopped in it's last days of life, picking up that last 5 pound cafetiere and checking out it's crappy plastic toys for the stocking.

Somehow, the woolworths of today is the epitomy of what might be called "green shoots of recession" - I was there, in what was once woolworth's upstairs warehouse, now an east european cafe, surrounded by workmen from the nearby road works, looking up job ads in the local paper, while next to me there was all the buzz of the market, equalled in Bristol only by our traditional covered market in the city centre, St Nicks, which has been going at least since the middle ages. Jewellery stalls, bookshops, clothes shops, even typical high street second hand shops had all managed to get themselves a tiny slice of the dead chain.

In the corner, someone had put a macintosh computer, and a sign advertising "photo software lessons" for £10 an hour. Chatting to the book shop owner, a space was still going, and it was all really cheap startup, and all really cheap rent. Downstairs, a local greengrocer was selling "student veg boxes" also a bargain, with all the most tasteless vegetables for the non-cooking masses.

"Woollies", the new incarnation of the old woolworths, doesn't exactly produce much, but is 10 times better than what it used to be, and aside from thinking of how easy it would be today to set up a little stall and make a bit of money in a nice enviroment, I just generally felt emotional staring at a big box of carrots, thinking this is exactly what every dead woolworths needs, and feeling sad that in some spaces, that energy to rebuild and reuse just isn't there. The woolworths down in Broadmead, once a bustling christmas budget shopping experience, is still closed and empty since last year. But on Saturday, Bristol Dorkbot will be busking outside it with circuit bent musical instruments built from scaveneged microprocessors and bits of old bikes. I hope they bring the sound of the future to that much bigger, but still dying mall.
Ale Fernandez

I hear American people use malls for exercise now. It seems like a good idea, but it's pretty depressing having experienced well designed urban walking environments in global cities.

To have to resort to this non-geographical shell is numbing. Everyone in the space seems confused, lost, and empty.

It's one thing to say, malls are a poor use of space, environmentally, or they create a commons based on buying things from distant corporations, which isn't terribly empowering (vs. the older idea of a commons, being where we could all graze our cows for free, which was an empowering way for a subsistence farmer to build wealth.)

But really, aren't most of us just against them because they're tacky and we'd like to think we're cooler than that? Be honest, now.

Besides, this isn't about the death of consumerism. GET REAL! It's just like the older inner suburbs being abandoned in favor of newer outer suburbs. Older malls are being abandoned for newer ones (usually more strip-style) or just Big Box stores. No one wants to rebuild or take care of the old when they can have the new for so cheap (the way local governments fund new infrastructure more than they do repairing old, is partly to blame).

Besides, consumerism is all about the NEW, so why would you want to buy it somewhere old? Then again, there are still plenty of malls that are thriving. Maybe they just built too damn many, like housing and just about everything else. I suppose it would help if things were built based on actual demand and not pure fantastical speculation. But then we wouldn't be able to delude ourselves into believing economic growth and consumption can fix all our problems then, could we?
Emily B

Malls try to create a town square look. Walkable streets with stores on both sides.

However, there is a big failure. A town square has offices and residences on the upper floors.

Most malls don't. Malls should have a multi-use to them, not single-use.
W. K. Lis

I love a really busy shopping mall because it has an atmosphere. It's depressing to see lots of empty shops because it shows up decay in our society.

I have always liked indoor malls. It's fun to just walk through one on miserable rainy days, window shopping. I'm a straight guy, who likes a controlled air-conditioned environment, where I can people watch, & relax. I'm not the type to stroll through a park, but I will in a mall. I don't curently live close to a mall, but there are two Wal-marts, equal distances from my house. Wal-mart has it purpose, a relatively quick shopping trip, with grocery's & more, but a mall should be a longer event. Now don't get me wrong, if you drive over there, but just go in to Sears or Penny's, using the outside entrees, that's not "going to the mall". Long Live the Indoor Mall
Mall-Lover 1972

Dixie Square Mall... the epitome of dead malls. Check out the pics and story on deadmalls.com. Amazing stuff...

Interesting stuff. I work in the industry- doing commericial decor for malls. Its interesting to see these old power centers falling by the dozens each year. Very little of my business any more comes from enclosed malls, mostly lifestyle centers now. Check us out if anyone is interested http://www.downtowndecorations.com

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