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A Better Outdoors Indoors

Meet Me at the Fountain: an Inside History of the Mall

Alexandra Lange
Bloomsbury, pp. 320, $19.60


The father of the mall was a socialist. This tidbit always gets dropped in discussions of mall history, and it’s usually deployed for cheap irony: let’s all laugh at Victor Gruen, the left-winger who created the architectural signature of global capitalism—as if he did it by accident! It’s a joke that is funniest if you believe neither in socialism nor in malls. Alexandra Lange’s Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall treats the mall more seriously, because its author is faithful to the mall of her youth, honoring the small joys and safe liberties she discovered there. She still holds out hope that the great dream of the socialist mall may yet come to pass: a place where private pleasures can be channeled and co-ordinated to serve the public good. Her book is at once passionate about the mall’s civic potential and honest about the reasons it’s so hard to shop your way to brotherhood. There’s a line in Pascal’s Pensées that has stuck with me since I first encountered it: “Man’s greatness even in his concupiscence. He has managed to produce such a remarkable system from it and make it the image of true charity.”

The dream of the mall is that you can also get a pretzel.

Lange notes that when she told people she was writing a book on malls, almost everybody replied, “Oh, let me tell you about my mall.” I, too, found that Lange evoked deeply pleasurable memories: trailing through fixture-and-furniture stores behind my parents, adorning my dream house with the coolest lampshades and faucets; hiding behind a convenient shelf at Waldenbooks to read disturbingly sexy vampire tales; watching as a Cinnabon the size of my head was furled and baked, knowing that soon it would be in my belly. Our mall memories are particular and nostalgic, but Lange emphasizes the mall’s ability to re-invent itself for new audiences. Spencer’s becomes Hot Topic, Orange Julius is replaced by horchata-flavored boba. Malls, considered a dying commercial form in the United States, flourish in Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. There’s a shopping mall minutes from the Kaaba in Mecca. As the imperial architecture of Austria-Hungary embodied the claim that disparate tongues and faiths could forge a united identity as subjects of the K.-und-K., so the global spread of shopping malls suggests that we can overcome our differences in a common love of water features and palm courts.

The original mall designers were trying to solve a problem of suburbanization. The United States government created the suburbs through its funding of highways and housing. But, Lange notes, “in subsidizing the home and the road, the government failed to subsidize a place to gather.” The mall didn’t just give white people fleeing the cities a place to shop. It also solved one of their emotional or even spiritual problems, as single-family housing and the triumph of the nuclear family over the extended family left housewives isolated in the home. Victor Gruen and those who came after him intended to solve this problem by creating spaces that were not only convenient but beautiful and convivial.

The first malls look great—and just a little weird. Milliron’s Department Store, one of Gruen’s early projects, has the hot white slanting lines of a Chuck Jones cartoon. You expect Marvin the Martian to start tumbling helmet-over-heels down the parking ramps. The test-tube fitting rooms at the Neiman Marcus in Dallas’s NorthPark Center are pure genius. The classic mall’s distinctive look, all skylights and glass and balconies, owes at least as much to museums as to the long outdoor promenades that share its name. Inside the classic mall, there’s modern art, usually vertical and playful: the Northland Shopping Center outside Detroit featured a “screwball fountain,” “a wall-size ceramic map of the Great Lakes,” and a totem pole. The mall has enticing benches, easy landmarks (as Lange’s title indicates), and both escalators and elevators to ease the lives of moms tugging toddlers or pushing strollers. The mall, at its inception, brought art to young families. The mall has public bathrooms and long flat floors for elderly exercisers or wheelchair riders. No more cracked sidewalks and dangerous curbs! The mall eases extreme climates—this is one reason the mall is such an important model for public spaces today. The mall has a unified, easily intelligible “look,” rather than the colorful chaos of downtown shopping districts. One handbook for malls notes that aviaries are nice, but warns against having monkeys. (Were mall monkeys ever a thing? Is this what they took from us?) In the words of an article published in Architectural Record in 1966, malls reject “the chaos of unbridled competition” in favor of “order and delight.” Material satisfaction through top-down control: it’s almost as if the mall was invented by a socialist.

But the mall was never for everybody. The delightfully orderly mall was always intended as a refuge from the city: not just “A Better Outdoors Indoors,” but “a downtown outside downtown”—away from poor and black people. Gruen failed to predict that malls would raise local housing prices, since people want to live near amenities, and so developers would turn the land into lucrative single-family housing instead of the mixed-use neighborhoods Gruen hoped malls could anchor. Malls themselves were not explicitly racially restricted, but they served communities created by whites-only covenants and mortgage discrimination; both public and private funding structures kept the suburbs, and their malls, dominated by whites.

And, as happens so often in American history, race simply crystallizes a problem which can also be expressed in non-racial terms. The mall is a place where some people feel especially comfortable, because other people are kept out. The mall doesn’t have anti-homeless designs, because the mall doesn’t have homeless people. You can lie down on the benches because nobody else does. The mall offers some people the safety that allows them their first taste of independence, because others are monitored, surveilled, or kept away by the difficulties of reaching the place on public transportation. Even later projects which sought to bring mall comforts to neglected urban areas remained restrictive and car-centered, places where high retail rents paid for (among other things) all the private security. Lange delves into the legal history of the mall, the various court cases by which protesters won or failed to win the right to agitate at this most calming of civic spaces, this most public of private property. But the mall’s totalitarian air comes more from the daily absence of poverty than from the occasional absence of protest.

Look, I love the mall. Don’t you? Lange does a great job of exploring the architectural features that make the mall such fun: escalators and balconies let teens pose and flirt as they scope out the scene; ample seating promotes conversation and allows rest. The mall is a space designed for friendship. Outside, the air shimmers and the parking lots soften in the heat, but in here we are cool in every sense of the word. Because malls evoke nostalgia, I want to add to Lange’s catalog my own favorite malls in pop culture: the B-movie classic Chopping Mall, say, or the video for the B-52s’ “Funplex,” in which security guards arrest a protester, then hold a dance-off with mall Goths. I like the mall because it’s bad fun, because it pleases in a way that energizes and also dazes—that’s the “Gruen transfer,” which Lange glosses sunnily as “the moment when your presence at the mall tips from being goal-oriented . . . into a pleasure in itself.” The Gruen transfer is just a fancy name for the thing the B-52s frontman Fred Schneider caterwauls in “Funplex,” as he sucks a smoothie and zooms along on a Segway: “I’m at the mawwwllll on a diet pill!

Lange argues that the mall idea is worth salvaging. What’s so bad about a place designed for comfort, beauty, and friendship, even if that place was also designed for Aéropostale? Perhaps there are ways to reduce the mall’s quantum of evil, its car culture and unequal security. Perhaps just as the first malls were mashups of department store, museum, and World’s Fair, a civil architecture of the future will blend mall, public library, and wilderness preserve. Lange highlights projects like the Galleria in Houston, which offers not just retail but offices, housing, hotels, a bowling alley, and even an ice rink: “victory over weather.” One mall became a community college; another, a mix of parkland and “transit-oriented mixed-use development.” Atlanta’s Plaza Fiesta has “280 stores, thirty food businesses . . . dentists, hair salons, barbers, insurance agents, and a bus company with routes from Georgia over the Texas border into Mexico. A whiteboard detailed the process to become a U.S. citizen.” Outside the United States, the mall’s transformation into infrastructure has gone even further: Chilean tax structures encourage the incorporation of libraries and museums; at a mall in the Philippines, you can drop your kid at daycare or the carousel while you deal with government offices. From a “downtown outside downtown,” we’ve moved to seeking “a mall without the mall.”

But all these projects are still the result of well-intentioned, top-down planning, and I suspect all will replicate the central tension of the mall: evoking desire versus maintaining discipline. A mall open to everything becomes a sketchy mall, and then an empty mall. But a mall that treats its customers like threats will become empty too. Most malls have chosen to impose discipline on some for the reassurance of others, using security, surveillance, and anti-urban planning to bar an ever-expanding list of the disreputable and the unprofitable. The treatment of teenagers at the mall may be the clearest example. Teens are the iconic mall rats. Malls built oddball upper levels and secluded video arcades to attract them. But with teens came trouble, because teens are like people only more so. Since the 2000s, Lange notes, more and more malls have cracked down on the crime of being young, imposing curfews and parental-escort requirements.

It’s tempting to think that the mall can become a secular basilica, in which pleasure and not prayer guides the soul to follow the order of the architecture. But none of us will ever be orderly enough to bring our desires into perfect harmony. The worst aspect of the classic mall isn’t its enforcement of pristine conformity. It’s the fact that everything in the mall is shaped toward the needs of the “ideal customer.” A better place—a place more like a real community—will have more give-and-take, more conflict, and more room for people who are neither customers nor ideal.

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Eve Tushnet is the editor of Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds and the author of several books.