Thursday, November 19, 2009

Agora Agony

Last Rites: Even with God's help, this shopping center in Pahrump, Nevada, probably cannot be revived.
THE DESIGN OBSERVER is one of the more thoughtful web sites dedicated to the appreciation of design of all kinds. Mark Dery has an article, titled "Dawn of the Dead Mall", where he proclaims "The landscape is littered with the giant carcasses of failed retail emporia. Ideas for what's next are no less visionary. But are they any more practical?"

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.

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.)

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.

Anyway, Mark has lots to say. Along the way, check out DEAD MALLS.COM, an eponymous web site with interesting stuff, including a Dead Mall Dictionary, with situationally-relevant entries like

Labelscar: Fading or dirt left behind from a sign on or in a mall. Labelscars leave a readable marking, which is very helpful when identifying former stores.

It is also interesting to see how Europeans look upon the situation. DER SPIEGEL has a great piece with some neat photos, like the one at the top. Originally published in German, you sure have to love that Google Translation.

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