Saturday, December 5, 2009

Shopping Malls- Dead or Alive?

Lately I have found going to American shopping malls to be unpleasant. My goal once being in one is to leave as quickly as possible. Many were built in the 1970s and are a tribute to the Brutalist architecture of the period. The enclosed shopping mall is in decline all over the country, due in part to the economy, but also due to our changing shopping preferences. In addition, the 150+ store mall no longer makes sense, given that the marketplace is being dominated by far fewer competitors than were available in the past. The Gaps, Targets, and Bed, Bath, and Beyonds have replaced the numerous smaller privately held retailers that were prevalent decades ago. Finally, the rabbit warren- like hallways featuring one retailer after another has lost its charm, although I am not sure that design ever had much charm.

No doubt that our shopping habits have also changed during the last four decades and retailers have found more effective ways of attracting us to their stores. Thus “lifestyle centers” and “big-box” strip malls are now in vogue. The former attempt to fool us into believing that the small-town retail center is reborn (Atlanta’s Atlantic Station is one example of this). The latter takes advantage of our tendency to drive everywhere, and park as close as possible to our destination, in order, I suppose, to reduce the need to walk.

Yet I find the shopping experience in malls in other countries to be quite a bit different, particularly in countries located in warmer climates. There are several reasons for this. First, other countries still have small retailers that have a niche market and that have not yet been swallowed up by two or three major chains. Second, many of these malls cater to well-to-do customers. This expands the shopping options in the mall. Third, these malls provide a new town center for people, particularly where heat and humidity can be a major barrier to leaving one’s house. The mall can be a social center, an entertainment complex, a place to leave children in a supervised and protected play area, and a temperature controlled environment to spend money.

But, for me, one of the reasons these malls are so successful is their architecture. They make extensive use of: expensive materials, such as marble floors and dramatic light fixtures; large clerestory windows to allow natural light to flow in; hallways that are either curved or irregularly shaped to pull the eye, and presumably the dollars, to the next set of retailers. The buildings are designed to have large central areas where people can congregate, or have a cup of coffee, while people watching. Some have ceiling components that are full of energy, in contrast to the flat suspended ceilings prevalent in our 1970s designs. They also make extensive use of water features; such are waterfalls or large outdoor ponds. Maybe if we were still building enclosed malls in the US, they would have these same design qualities. But the newly built malls I have seen rely more on spare industrial design rather than on elegant, high- end luxury features.

Here are a few surreptitious photos of The Avenues Mall in Kuwait that exemplify these new approaches to mall design. Since photography is not allowed in many foreign malls, I had to quickly take pictures using my cell phone, which accounts for their less-than-stellar photography. But I think they capture the beautiful finishes and spaces in this building. While I don’t have photos of it, the exterior of the building is exciting. It is made up of stone-clad boxes attached end to end, but the boxes are not perpendicular to the ground. Rather they look like a series of blocks that have been randomly thrown and have landed leaning on each other at different angles. It is so much more attractive than the block long walls broken only by the occasional Macy’s fa├žade that characterize American malls.

The malls are a treat for my eye and sometimes I even enjoy spending more than just time in them. It also gives me a sense of pride to see how my oil dollars are being invested, especially in the Middle East.

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