Book Review: World of Malls

Art history student, Matt Page used to associate shopping malls purely with a feeling of dread.  The engaging and beautifully illustrated World of Malls from the Architekturmuseum of the Technical University of Munich has persuaded him there is much much more to malls than muzak and window shopping.  

World of Malls

World of Malls offers a comprehensive examination of shopping malls as an architectural typology. It traces the development of the mall from the shopping arcades of the nineteenth century through to today’s languishing malls which are being repurposed and retrofitted. The book accompanies the 2016 exhibition at the Architekturmuseum of the Technical University of Munich which was the first exhibition dedicated to the shopping mall as an architectural type. Up to then, the shopping mall had been largely written out of architectural histories; excluded due to its unstable balance between being a site for architectural experimentation and “seen one, seen them all” insipidity. World of Malls draws on the insight of economists, urban planners and architectural historians to give validity to the study of the mall as a building type. It presents an engaging discussion of the history of the shopping mall over the last sixty years and the issues that it faces in the twenty-first century. In addition to the many essays, the book illustrates the shopping mall’s evolution with diverse case studies which elaborate on specific examples referenced throughout the texts.

At present, the shopping mall is at a cross roads. In North America and Europe many malls are languishing due to shifting modes of consumerism and competition arising from overbuilding; in Africa and the Middle-East, however, the shopping mall continues to proliferate. World of Malls examines why this divergence is occurring by explaining the ambitions of early mall architects such as Victor Gruen — the “father of the mall” — and the interrelationship between the construction of malls and the changing modes of living within inner- and outer-city environments during the twentieth century. The book begins by exploring developments such as Gruen’s Southdale Centre (1956) which is regarded as the first example of mall architecture and became the foundation for the mall as an architectural type. Underlying the construction of the Southdale Cente, and the malls which succeeded it, is a trajectory of urban planning in twentieth-century USA which saw traditional commercial and social spaces excised from pedestrianised, downtown zones and relocated to the outskirts of urban zones — a result of increasing motorisation and suburbanisation.

World of Malls

In conjunction with the historicisation of the mall and presentation of its chronology, World of Malls examines of the social importance of the shopping mall as a building type. Its heritage is traceable back to collective spaces for commerce which have existed since antiquity and have operated as loci for social interaction as well as consumption. In one of the last essays in the book, Anna Klingmann explores the focal shift of architects and urban planners towards explicitly addressing and re-conceptualising the shopping mall as a space for social interaction rather than a solely commercial enterprise. Klingmann invokes the example of malls in Dubai in demonstration of this fact: they are air-conditioned and act as surrogates for Dubai’s lack of historic city centres and provide spaces for socialising.

The importance of socialisation and the mall’s supplanting — or surrogacy in the Dubai-context — of traditional loci for interactions is discussed throughout the book. Alain Teirstein argues in his essay that shopping malls are the new focal point for human interaction, replacing the church, town hall or market. Tierstein’s argument echoes that made by J.G. Ballard in his 2006 novel, Kingdom Come, which is quoted in the foreword to World of Malls:

This isn't just a shopping mall. It’s more like a ...’ ‘religious experience?’ ‘Exactly! It’s like going to church. And here you can go everyday and you get something to take home.’

The comparison between Christian worship and the shopping mall is less blasphemous and provocative than it may first seem. Both spaces are connected by their facilitation of sociability and uses as spaces for interactions beyond their initial purpose. It is this aspect of the shopping mall which allows the typology to avoid redundancy in a time where e-commerce is encroaching on the commercial territory of the physical shopping mall.

World of Malls

The final essays of the book are dedicated to the future of malls. As mentioned, the authors perceive today as a cross-roads for the mall as a building type; the issues of e-commerce and wider economic events, such as the 2008 financial crisis had led to the decline and demise of twenty-percent of American malls by 2010. This decline, and the growing propensity of consumers to shop online, has necessitated an existential reconsideration of what a mall is and how it is used. June Williamson’s essay explores how architects and planners have begun to reconsider the mall as a multivalent space: now, a mall can contain schools, offices and housing, in addition to shops — a mode of urban planning reminiscent of the downtown districts that malls originally supplanted. This new way of conceptualising the shopping mall is illustrated with projections for malls which are currently being built or proposed. Evident across these later case studies, particularly at The Hills at Vallco (Cupertino, California, 2016-21) and Volt (Berlin, 2016-18) is a focus on sociability, the mall offers large open plazas which appear to have a multivalence beyond being an environment for consumption: they are now public arenas with adjunct shops.

The diversity of the authors’ academic disciplines prevents World of Malls being simply an architectural survey and, as a result, allows it to be extensive in its scope. The contributions of economists, architectural historians and sociologists is particularly pertinent, and effective, in the case of the mall as it represents a space where economics, architecture and psychology are allied —perhaps more overtly than any other building type. Although the book is largely focussed on the European-American context — not out of exclusion, but due to the pattern of development of the mall typology — the context of Africa and the Persian Gulf region are addressed in Anna Klingmann’s essay. These differing contexts are illustrated by interspersed case studies of malls allows for the catalogue to have a wide geographical scope and to present a history of malls from the first air conditioned one by Victor Gruen to plans for malls with projected end-dates in the 2020s.

Although malls may seem an unlikely source of interest, what this book shows is that the mall has equal potential for extending sociological understanding and research into the importance of sociability. The insightful essays in World of Malls and richly illustrated case studies demonstrate that malls are far more than simply places of consumption.