A conversation with architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange on malls in America

By Jonathan Dale

In her new book Meet Me by the Fountain, design critic Alexandra Lange asserts the mall as America’s most significant postwar architectural creation. “Once I saw shopping not as a distraction, but as a shaper of cities,” writes Lange, “I saw its traces everywhere.”

The shape of these cities would be, increasingly, along asphalt highways and interstate junctions, with malls anchoring suburban, car-centric expansion. The mall was born and shaped, at least partially, in the Midwest. Rust Belt cities fostered architectural innovation like the skyscraper, catalyzed by the growing wealth of their industries. The mall is of that same chronology, but, given the influence of white flight, its innovation was largely at the expense of the downtown.

The Rust Belt played host to some of the most important moments in American shopping history. Victor Gruen, the pioneer of American shopping malls, had his eureka moment in Detroit, eventually creating the first modern mall in the suburbs of the automobile capital. He later built the first fully indoor mall in snowy Minnesota, and the first outdoor pedestrian mall in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Decades later, one of the most iconic and maximalist shopping spaces, the Mall of America, was built in Minnesota. Labor disputes in the Rust Belt would lead the Supreme Court to litigate malls in relation to public space, emphasizing how public space has been co-opted by private interests.

We all have some idea of what a mall was, is, and can be. But the strength of Lange’s writing is in leading the reader to its many potential futures. Because the mall is, ultimately, the crystallized American postwar conception of that ancient human desire to be around each other. The book is a humanistic, often moving story, from the department store owners and architects who built shopping malls to the unintended communities, like arcade teens or elderly mall walkers, that grew from them. In Lange’s hands the shopping mall is an opportunity, bricks and glass and space to reimagine what our lives can be.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jonathan Dale: You mention this book was constructed partially from smaller pieces you wrote for Curbed. Was there a specific moment when you realized that there was a book somewhere there?

Alexandra Lange: My last book, The Design of Childhood, took me about ten columns to have that feeling like wait, there’s something happening here. And it was actually a much quicker turnaround with malls. I think there were about three pieces that I wrote for Curbed over the span of a couple of years. And the first one was based on my observation of this–at that time–new project by Italian architect Renzo Piano, out in the Bay Area, called City Center Bishop Ranch. There was a lot of coverage in the design press, like, “Oh my god, Renzo Piano is designing a mall. How weird is that?” And I thought, yes, that is kind of weird. But then I looked deeper into it. And I found that nobody in the development team or the architecture team was really referring to it as a mall. And that was what actually interested me: we were still building things like malls, but we weren’t calling them that anymore. So that made me want to delve into the history of the mall and the root principles of it. But then also into the afterlife of the mall and why people are coming up with new words for the same old thing.

JD: Your mall history begins with Victor Gruen, the pioneer of American shopping malls. And Detroit and the automobile industry figure prominently in his story. Gruen worked on General Motors’s 1938 World’s Exposition display, Futurama, that helped inspire the Federal Highway Act. And it was a Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit that sparked for Gruen what would become the first iteration of the modern American mall, Northland. Did you see it as fitting that Detroit would be central to the story of the mall?

AL: Definitely. Detroit in the immediate postwar era was a really amazing proving ground for a lot of architects. It was a hotbed of design. And then I think it’s also important that design was a hotbed of suburban culture. And so it really makes sense that Northland would have been this prototype for the indoor mall. The Hudson family proved to be such great clients for Gruen–as department store owners, they had to be kind of at the cutting edge of fashion. And so investing in Gruen’s pretty grand scheme for malls definitely showed that they had their eye on the future in terms of urbanism.

I read a lot of editions of this book published by the Urban Land Institute called The Community Builders Handbook. The early editions, in the 1940s and early 1950s, all kept saying “Downtown is still going to be the center of the city. Don’t worry, everyone will still go to your department store.” But by the 1960s editions, they’ve kind of given up on that because they realize it’s just not true. So you can even kind of feel them trying to reassure their audience that all is not lost. But then yes, in fact, it all kind of is.

JD: You get at this the irony in urban development, where suburban malls replaced the failing downtown. But eventually, the malls get replaced by newer malls. It’s this cyclical process of development.

AL: Yeah, the malls cannibalized downtown, and then each successive wave of suburbs cannibalized the previous wave of suburbs. And we now know, in our current climate crisis, we should say, okay, we can’t build any more [suburban] rings, right? Three rings is enough. What we actually have to do is reinvest in the rings of development that we already have. And that’s where, towards the end of the book, I see malls as actually this tremendous potential resource of space. But first, you’ve got to stop thinking expansively, and start thinking intensively. Detroit is a great example of that, because it’s built on the back of car culture, both in terms of, like, that’s where the money was, but also in terms of the way the city is designed, with its radiating spokes, and the different, very wealthy suburbs that ring the city, each with their own fancy mall.

JD: A mall is fundamentally different from a public downtown, but the mall that gets cannibalized for the newer mall does share a lot in common with the downtown that gets left behind. Do you think the mall’s shifting form is instructive toward thinking about re-use in the post-industrial downtown?

AL: Definitely, because I think some of the rationales and the design patterns that you need apply to both. And by rationale, I mean, you know, one of the arguments I make in the book is that people want to be around people. And that’s always been the driving force behind the success of downtown: mixed use, mixed opportunities for people from different income levels, different ages, and different walks of life to mingle, see and be seen, and I think in the best case scenario, malls also provide that. So part of what both downtowns and malls need to do is think again about demographics and how to get that mix of people.

But then also, as has happened with a bunch of downtown department stores, we have to start thinking about the architecture of malls as malleable, something that can be adaptively reused. I spent the early part of my life in Cambridge, so Faneuil Hall, which is the ur-festival marketplace, is really important to me and my childhood. For a lot of people, that kind of old, brick industrial architecture obviously has value, but malls, as kind of bland masonry boxes, don’t necessarily have the same value. But their materials are tremendously valuable. And they’re also really flexible. Because what is a mall department store? It’s a big, stainless steel frame, open space. Some have been converted into libraries, or mall boutiques can become classrooms. So instead of getting distracted by the neon signs, the racks of clothing, or the sad carpet, we have to just think of them as containers of space.

JD: I was fascinated by your writing on the mall as a contested space, a space of protest and mediated speech. You write about the Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of America in 2018, but an earlier mall protest you discuss took place in Altoona, Pennsylvania, with grocery store workers picketing a mall. What was the importance of that protest?

AL: That case is very important because it’s the first time the Supreme Court had to articulate whether malls were public space, essentially. And there have been a series of cases after that, that kind of both gave and took away the right to protest in malls. And now it’s a states’ rights issue. In some states, malls are open to protest. And in some states, they are not. That’s just one of the very weird things that happens when the Supreme Court decides something is not a federal issue.

But in that case, it was really about the right to picket outside a grocery store that was in the strip mall, and whether picketers had the right to stand in front of the store, or if they had to be kind of exiled to the highway median outside the store. So I think it’s interesting on a couple of levels. It’s interesting in terms of thinking about what kinds of retail workers are unionized and which are not, and grocery store workers were unionized at that point in the 1960s. And then it’s also interesting in terms of thinking about car urbanism and what’s public. Like, how much room do we even leave for public protests? Because in the geography of that particular case, the one space near the store that counted as public space was essentially, like, the grassy area next to the highway before the driveway that led to the parking lot. And the protesters were saying, this is not adequate space for protest. Like, we’re too far from the store and nobody’s gonna see our signs because they’re gonna be driving by too quickly. So thinking about the different scales of space required for people protests versus cars. And then, how much of suburban development is within the public realm and how much is privatized space is also part of the story there.

JD: Something you wrote about that I loved was Ray Bradbury’s involvement in malls. I didn’t know that he was the inspiration for Los Angeles’s Glendale Galleria. And I didn’t know he was commissioned to write a mall manifesto titled The Aesthetics of Lostness.

AL: One of the most fun things in researching this book was finding all the really cool, smart people who were thinking about the mall and wrote about the mall, because I felt like, in architecture and culture, it’s been such denigrated form, and it’s not something that people think of as having an intellectual history. So every time I was like, “Joan Didion! Ray Bradbury!”–these are people that the literary world considered at the pinnacle, and they thought the mall was an important enough structure in late twentieth century America to devote a lot of time and thought to it. They made me feel like I was on the right track, that this was a great topic for a book. But also it was really fun to read what they said. And finding out that there was this one-to-one connection between Ray Bradbury and Jon Jerde, who is definitely a successor to Victor Gruen in the mall inventor chronology, was so amazing. It’s one of those things that’s almost too perfect. You can’t believe it when you come across it.

JD: You write about the relatively recent phenomenon of r/deadmalls and “ruin porn,” aestheticized photographs of abandoned places. Why was it important for you to devote time to these more recent, mostly online phenomena?

AL: I personally have a bit of an ambivalent and complicated relationship to ruin porn, and particularly the dead mall photos. I’m always trying to fix something, solve the problem. I think design needs to have a kind of optimistic outlook. That’s something I try to do in my writing and criticism. But the figure of the dead mall has become so publicized through the photography of them, and a lot of those photographs are very beautiful. I felt like I had to have a section where I grappled with that and kind of talked about what I see as the downside of aestheticizing decay.

And I think Detroit is a place that has been particularly harmed by that, both by being treated as a dead city, even though there are thousands of people still living there, and because if something is dead and beautiful, you don’t necessarily have to think about how to make it live again. It’s kind of like this frozen aesthetic object. And that’s why I prefer architecture to art, because architecture has to do something about it, whereas with art, that can be it.

So, yeah, I just wanted to talk about some of the artists that are making beautiful work from these ruins–but also, then, what’s the downside of having that be the dominant thing that people associate with malls now? So it’s fine to photograph them, but don’t pretend that, like, that’s the end of the city. That’s not how it works. When we have physical objects, something has to happen with them, whether it’s decay, whether it’s rebirth, but it’s not like they’re actually fixed in time in real life, as they are in a photograph. ■



Jonathan Dale is a freelance writer from Chicago with work in South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader. You can find him on Twitter @dalejondale.

Cover art by Chris Harvey.

Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at just $5 a month