Alexandra Lange on Malls as “A Resource of Semi-Public Community Space”
Alexandra Lange’s new book, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, is aptly titled. For a book clocking in at a brisk 263 pages, it’s an engaging, elegantly written, and deceptively comprehensive work. Lange is a wonderful critic, so one of the consistent pleasures of the book is the rigor she brings to the mall, as both an architectural idea and a cultural phenomenon. She likes them, even with their very obvious flaws and shortcomings. Recently I talked to Lange about the book, whether malls are a dying building type, and what becomes of them in the future.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AL: Alexandra Lange
Let’s start where I usually start: the origin story for the book. Tell me why you wanted to write about…a dying building type.
I think “dying building type” is up for debate. That said, there are two different origin stories. One of them is that when I finished my last book, The Design of Childhood, which ends with kids at around 12 years old, I realized that I was starting to get interested in teenagers. I wrote a couple of articles for Curbed about teenagers in public space and teenagers and the public library. The logical third space after that is teenagers and the mall. So that was on my mind. How are we providing for teenagers? Where do teenagers go? Why is there this black hole in the literature about teenagers, even more so than there had been for children, which is why I wrote my other book?
The second part was, I was the architecture critic for Curbed at the time, and I started noticing that people seemed to be building things that were in my mind shopping malls, but they weren’t calling them shopping malls. The most notable example being Renzo Piano’s City Center Bishop Ranch, which is in the greater Bay Area. Of course, Renzo, whenever he does a project, goes on and on about the piazza. And it sounds perfect in his accent.
So he was talking about City Center Bishop Ranch. The architecture was all very tasteful and high end. It’s a wealthy area that doesn’t have a main street. I was looking at the plans and I thought: This is a shopping mall. And I wouldn’t really expect a famous Italian architect to call it a shopping mall. But to me, it was a shopping mall. I just thought, OK, let’s call this what it is. There are ideas here that are still operative in the 21st century, architectural ideas about semi-public civic space. And if we’re not calling it a shopping mall, we’re cutting these new spaces off from what is now a 70-year history. As someone trained as an architectural historian, but also super interested in pop culture and teen culture, it just seemed that this was a time to think about the mall as a historic form, and point out where the developers and marketers were just changing the words, but not really changing the ideas.
The idea is much older than postwar America.
Absolutely. For the book, I felt like it was too much to go into the full history of arcades, gallerias, and department stores, because there are much better histories of those than there are of shopping malls, but all of that is in the background. I’m actually speaking in two weeks at the DOCOMOMO symposium in Philadelphia, and I’m doing 20 minutes on how the galleria came to America. I have a bunch of amazing examples of gallerias that are aping the form of the Galleria in Milan, the glass barrel vault. These spread across America in the ’70s and early ’80s. It’s an obvious through line.
You spent a fair amount of time in malls as a teenager. I’m assuming you didn’t spend a whole lot of time in your young adulthood, but probably spent a lot more researching the book. Has anything changed about them fundamentally?
I’ve been going to malls all along. Maybe somewhat less because I live in New York City. But I have a whole chapter that talks about pedestrian malls, and I live right near Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, which is an amazing, long-term example of a successful pedestrian mall. So I don’t feel so divorced from what has happened to malls. I would say the biggest thing that’s happened to them, from the ’80s to the present day, is like everything else: You can see income inequality writ large in malls. The malls I’m more likely to seek out are the fancy malls that are still successful: the Westchester in White Plains or the Mall at Short Hills in northern New Jersey.
Is that still profitable?
It is. It’s super popular. King of Prussia, outside Philadelphia, is also very profitable. One mall that I highlight in the book that’s interesting because it remains family owned is NorthPark Center in Dallas, which is beautiful, historic, and highly successful.
Even post-pandemic, or post-whatever-we-are-now?
What people told me throughout my reporting for the book, which was mostly during the pandemic, was that while the pandemic accelerated some mall and department store failures, it didn’t really change the patterns that people were already seeing, which was essentially a big die-off, but not a complete die-off.
Kind of like magazines?
Right. But the rich get richer. Because they were already well positioned in their communities and offering things that all malls used to offer, which was a shopping experience that you couldn’t get anywhere else, and a social community experience, albeit underpinned by private money, that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Yes, half of the malls in America from 20 years ago will go out of business, but that still leaves 800 malls. So even if many of them die, this is a building form that people keep going to.
Because it essentially tries to recreate the social experience of urbanism.
Yes, exactly. An idea that I keep returning to in my head is: imagine the suburbs without malls. Some people find malls to be a dystopian space. I don’t happen to feel that way. But the suburb without the mall is definitely a dystopia, because you have these completely disconnected single-family homes located in road-dominated communities. Where would people go? Where would they go to talk? Where would they go during their day? All of the ennui of the suburbs would have been doubled, tripled, exponentially multiplied, without the mall.
For good or ill, they were often the only public realm. The book deals a fair amount with malls and race, and malls as places of exclusion. Talk about that.
There’s still more work to be done talking about the suburbs, how they’ve changed, exactly how malls included and excluded, but I feel like there’s been so much interesting recent work on the suburbs, ending the idea of treating their default whiteness as something that we don’t need to recognize and talk about. I couldn’t see a way to write this book without grappling with that. And then as soon as I started looking into it, I found all of this interesting work, including Supreme Court decisions like Logan Valley, from 1968, ruling on whether malls were public space. It’s pretty clear from the decision that the justices were thinking about where civil rights protests would be allowed, though that case is about union picketing.
The demographics of the suburbs have changed. And how the malls change to reflect that is fascinating. Now you can go to a Latin American mall or an Asian American mall, or an African—from Africa—American mall. Understanding the mall as a form that isn’t fixed in time and isn’t fixed in the 1950s helps you to understand how they can be flexible enough to take on these new iterations, how they can provide that sense of community for people who aren’t the demographic for which they were originally designed. The way that malls may succeed in the next decades is by becoming more reflective of the geographic and demographic trends of their immediate surroundings, and not always pitching themselves to national chains and perhaps their developer’s idea of who goes to the mall.
But that gets us to the inherent limitation of the mall as it relates to urbanism: they remain privatized public space. They can’t fully be the public realm because they’re owned and operated by private money.
No, they can’t. There’s a deep ambivalence at the heart of the mall, as an architectural and urban form, and even in my analysis. That comes across in my discussion of teenagers at the mall: how the mall is a safer space than the city at large, but only for some teenagers, and only some of the time. It provides this sense of freedom, but Black and brown teenagers are more heavily policed in the mall, as they are on city streets. They’re more likely to be affected by codes of conduct and curfews.
The mall emerges in postwar suburbia and becomes a dominant building type largely because it’s reproducing missing urbanity. But it also produces something new: privatized public space. Decades later, that begins to happen in cities. So we took the worst aspects of the faux urbanism of malls and transported them back into cities, which malls were imitating in the first place.
That’s the neoliberal city. And yes, it is extremely problematic. At least when you’re in a mall, you can have some awareness that you’re entering private space, that it might not be the same as a sidewalk or a public park. But when business improvement districts and other ersatz privatized forms take over in cities, then you get enforcement of codes that aren’t so easily perceived.
The book is about malls, but it’s also about the history of American retail for the last 70 years. As a result, you take the mall seriously as an architectural type.
Somebody on Twitter made a joke about cardboard boxes being “fun,” and then I jumped in, saying, “Actually, there’s a whole intellectual history …” I did that about boxes and playgrounds, and now I’m doing it about malls. But I’m comfortable with that because I guess that’s the kind of geek that I am. I believe it only enriches our experience to think about how things came to be and how they’ve changed over time.
The other point I wanted to make about how malls have changed is that we have to think about their ownership. And there’s more research to be done in this area. For example, there’s been this long ongoing saga over the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in Los Angeles, which is located in a historically Black neighborhood. In the 1990s, Magic Johnson Theaters opened a cinema there. At one point it was owned by one of the country’s largest Black private equity firms. More recently, an investor group from the community was trying to buy it, fearing further gentrification, but their bid failed. One way to achieve a more equitable mall is to get more diverse ownership. That would not necessarily solve all of the problems, but it would change some of the dialogue around the publicness of these spaces.
From an architectural history perspective, Victor Gruen makes a number of appearances in your book. Why is he important?
Victor Gruen was a Jewish émigré who came to the U.S. in 1938. One of the first projects he worked on was the Futurama exhibit for General Motors at the 1939 World Fair. This is important to his biography because he comes from Vienna, this beautiful old European city with streets lined with cafes. He arrives in New York, and the first thing he works on is Norman Bel Geddes’ vision of what America will look like in 1960. And that vision is completely dominated by cars and highways. So there’s this kind of abrupt jump cut between two forms of urbanism in his life. I think that Futurama must have been formative in him realizing, “Hey, there’s something missing in this urbanistic picture: Where will people go?”
And so over the next few decades—initially in partnership with his first wife, Elsie Krummeck—Gruen started working for department store owners. This was at a time when the owners started realizing that customers were leaving cities and that they were going to lose their client base if they didn’t build department stores closer to where they were living in the suburbs. Eventually, Guen realizes that the department store can be an anchor for this kind of miniaturized new main street. He tries that first with Northland outside Detroit, which is an indoor/outdoor shopping center. Then he tries it again at Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, which opens in 1956 and is a huge sensation. And while formally it was not influential—because he used a pinwheel plan that was just too complicated for other architects to handle—the idea of the indoor mall and the mall centered on this gardenesque space takes off after that.
Final question, and the obvious one: is there even a future for malls, given challenges like climate change?
I believe there’s a future for malls as spaces of adaptive reuse. And I believe there is a future for the mall as a mall. As a nation, we need to use less air conditioning. But as the planet warms, communal air-conditioned spaces will become an important resource. In terms of adaptive reuse, we tend to think of malls as single purpose objects. In fact, they’re just a series of boxes. There are two big boxes at the end, the department stores, and then a series of smaller boxes along the legs of the mall. The parking lots are big open spaces that are relatively easy to densify, because in the future, let’s hope, we won’t need as much parking. So I think of malls as an ongoing resource of semi-public community space, but also perhaps, and equally importantly, a resource of grayfield space in what tend to be fairly dense first- and second-ring suburbs. What I’m hoping the book encourages people to do is think about malls more creatively, reuse the structures, and densify and green the parking lots.
Featured image: Universal CityWalk, Los Angeles, California, 1985. Designed by the Jerde Partnership.