Shopping Malls: Palaces of Consumption

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A shopping mall is a complex of shops with interconnecting walkways, usually covered with a roof to form an enclosed environment. They are designed according to theories of how customers can be manipulated to spend money. Shopping malls arose in the post-

A shopping mall is a complex of shops with interconnecting walkways, usually covered with a roof to form an enclosed environment. They are designed according to theories of how customers can be manipulated to spend money. Shopping malls arose in the post-war period and corresponded with the rise of suburban living and automobile culture in the United States. After World War II, prosperous American families migrated from the cities to the suburbs. Levels of car ownership increased. This gave rise to a new kind of shopping centre away from downtown areas and accessible only by car.

The idea of a fully-enclosed shopping complex was devised by the architect Victor Gruen in 1956. Gruen designed the Southdale Center, which opened in the Twin Cities suburb of Edina, Minnesota in 1956. This was the first true mall.

The early malls moved retailing away from the dense, commercial cities into the suburbs, which were largely residential. This meant they were accessible only by car. Victor Gruen himself came to abhor this aspect of the design. He decried the creation of ‘land wasting seas of parking’ and suburban sprawl.

In Britain, malls developed as part of the New Town programme. Many new towns were built after the war, including Milton Keynes, Washington and Peterlee. As towns-built-from-scratch, these did not have a traditional town centre. Instead, they were equipped with shopping centres. These also contained civic and community facilities such as libraries, pubs and community centres.

A number of malls were built in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Meadowhall in Sheffield and the Trafford Centre in Manchester. The MetroCentre in Gateshead is the largest shopping centre in Europe.

Eldon Square in Newcastle, a classic 1970s mall.

A pastiche of Neo-Classical grandeur in Manchester's Trafford Centre.

Simulated Victoriana in the MetroCentre.

The idea of building an enclosed, fake city is fundamentally strange. It is as if people are trying to escape from reality. In malls, all of the controversial and unpalatable elements of real cities are excluded. There is no crime, graffiti or homelessness. It has been argued that malls construct a nostalgic, sanitised city for middle class consumers, which they find preferable to real urban spaces. Indeed, malls do have clear advantages over the high street. It is in the owners’ interest to make the welcoming and comfortable. For that reason they are equipped seats so that people can sit down, thus prolonging the shopping trip. They tend to use escalators and lifts rather than stairs. They are usually climate controlled, so it doesn’t matter if it’s cold or raining.

Malls are designed to be preferable to real urban space, but it could be argued that they also exclude the ‘reality’ of the street.  One controversial aspect of malls is that they displace traditional streets. Ostensibly, shopping centres are public places; theyare publicly accessible and theoretically everyone has the right to access them. But they are not public spaces in the tru e sense because they are privately owned, and that makes them fundamentally different from the high street. Malls are constantly monitored by CTTV and patrolled by private security forces, and any form of transgressive behaviour is immediately suppressed. The atmosphere of friendly placidity is an illusion.

Shopping centres use private security forces to exclude ‘undesirable’ individuals and forms of behaviour. Tramps, street performers, Big Issue sellers, market researchers and political protesters are all excluded. Nothing is allowed to interrupt the placid shopping experience. It has been argued that malls create sanitised streetscapes that are free of the poverty, social diversity and perceived danger of real urban space. And that is why people use them. Middle class consumers prefer them to real urban spaces.

In the postmodern era, the uniqueness of places is under threat and malls, in particular, are characterised by a sense of placelessness. The architect Rem Koolhaas published a book entitled The Generic City. He argued that globalisation would lead to an homogenous built environment where every city is exactly the same. A network of standardised office blocks, airports and shopping malls is spreading around the world. This produces an alienating landscape of bland, indistinguishable architecture. As the built environment becomes increasingly homogenous, our sense of place is being eroded. This is damaging because our identities are tied to specific places.

One text that has explored this idea is Dawn of the Dead (1978) a zombie film by George A. Romero. This was the second film in Romero's Living Dead series, following on from the classic horror film Night of the Living Dead. In the film, a pandemic has caused the dead to return to life to prey on the living. This causes mass hysteria and society falls apart, but a group of survivors take refuge inside a huge suburban shopping mall. The mall has everything they need to survive, but it’s overrun with zombies.

Romero’s films are very political. Dawn of the Dead is a satire about consumer culture. Beneath the scenario of the zombie movie, Romero is critiquing our role as consumers mindlessly buying products to satiate our desires and fill up our lives. The zombies wander aimlessly through the mall as the monotone announcements from the speakers are repeated on an endless loop. 

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