Can the American Mall Survive?
In many ways, the process of implementing standards and designing shopping malls was about control. Lange tells of how Gruen’s idea for Northdale came in response to driving around Detroit and its environs and finding them a “mess” (her word). In Dallas in the 1960s, Raymond and Patsy Nasher built a shopping center, NorthPark, whose hallmark—beyond the stellar art collection it houses today—is its sophisticated coordination of everything from building materials to graphic design specifications. As the suburbs sprawled, developers, architects, and shoppers alike sought to impose order on them; they wanted to escape and refute the unwieldy realities of the city. “The ‘regional center,’” Lange writes, referring to one of the handbook’s designations, “was clean and neatly maintained … it lacked vehicular congestion, jostling crowds, street noise, the ‘wrong’ social elements, and crime—all departures from qualities associated with downtown.”
But building your own new downtown comes with problems, too. The more you try to control the environment, the more stifling it becomes. I think this is why I turned on malls after spending my formative years inside them. As I got older, I yearned for the unpredictability of a less manicured and mass-produced reality, one more surprising than what a stop at the Gap or Sbarro could offer. The more I understood the codes and rules of suburban shopping centers, the more I longed for the world outside of them.
As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, malls tried to fight their reputation for dreary conformity by going even bigger and more immersive. Inspired in part by the essays of science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, the architect Jon Jerde began designing spaces that were more like world’s fairs and theme parks than the orderly, sedate shopping centers of previous decades. Seen from above, San Diego’s Horton Plaza, one of his first major retail projects, looked like someone took a knife and cut a thin, diagonal slice out of multiple city blocks. The colorful, five-level pedestrian mall was dotted with stairs, escalators, and bridges and divided into six sections, each based on a different city’s architecture. It was the classic Main Street idea, given the mega-funhouse treatment. Jerde’s aesthetic was postmodern pastiche, a mash-up of international references, and he included waterways, movie theaters, and, in the case of the giant Mall of America, an entire theme park in his plans. John Simones, who has worked at Jerde’s firm since 1984, summed it up as “the idea of moving from a typical mall, a place of consumption, to a place of experience.”