The Rise and Fall of the Mall

Suburban Arcades

What was the shopping mall?


The shopping mall has a great many antecedents: the opulent markets of Victorian London, the arcades of Paris, and the department stores in the United States that could swallow an entire city block. But the mall as we know it has only one daddy: the architect Victor Gruen. A Viennese socialist, Gruen had established a tidy practice designing residential projects and shops before the Nazis seized Austria in 1938. Gruen’s forte was making the quotidian a bit lovelier: A typical tweak of retail spaces might have involved relieving the tight, cloying atmosphere of a tiny perfumery by placing mirrors on the ceiling. After fleeing to the United States, Gruen dipped his toe in wage drudgery before deciding to unpack his drafting desk and return to his bread-and-butter work of transforming shops into open and welcoming spaces in a freelance capacity.

What made Gruen’s designs distinct was the way they were able to add small pleasures to the act of shopping. An early American commission came from another recent émigré, the Polish chocolatier Stefan Klein, who was looking to bring fancy chocolates to New York. Having been an admirer of Gruen’s handsomely designed shops in Vienna, he set the architect loose to create a home for his fledgling Barton’s Bonbonniere. With lots of glass and light and reflective surfaces, Gruen’s work drew passersby into the store’s vestibule with window displays that put the candies in front of customers much like a jeweler might lay out a set of precious necklaces. The candy store quickly found a following, and soon Klein had hired Gruen for so many expansion jobs that he could copy and paste Gruen’s designs for his quickly proliferating stores and still remain innovative.

Before long, jobs outside of New York began to roll in, including from Grayson’s, the women’s wear chain, and the West Coast department store Milliron’s. Gruen started crisscrossing the country to supervise the construction of his growing portfolio. On one of those intercoastal flights in 1948, a dense fog forced him to make a layover in Detroit. Spending some time in the city’s commercial center, he found the shopping lousy: Thanks to the city’s historically car-friendly layout, consumers treated shopping as mere product acquisition, driving from store to store and curb to curb to pick up their wares from stand-alone shops marred by garish signage that put attention-grabbing ahead of conveying a proper vibe. That is, until Gruen found his way to Hudson’s, the city’s preeminent department store. There, he recalls in his memoir Shopping Town, he cooed over the “exquisite features and rich range of goods” he encountered within its 13 floors. This gave Gruen an idea: What if he could help this retail marvel export its magnificence to Detroit’s growing suburbs and impose its high standards on every merchant within arm’s reach? He managed to finagle a meeting with Hudson’s general manager, Oscar Webber. To combat flagging sales and take advantage of Detroit’s decamping wealth, Gruen proposed that the company establish a suburban outpost that would be an all-encompassing beacon of shopping excellence. Six years earlier, Gruen had sketched out his idea for the mall as we know it today, and now he had a chance to make it happen. Webber was convinced and spared no expense to realize Gruen’s vision.

What resulted in 1954 was Northland Center, a new kind of semi-enclosed commercial space where beautiful art—sculptures and landscaping so striking that a New York gallery exhibited the corresponding sketches and models—and the intense aesthetic regulation of stores came together to turn shopping into a form of entertainment. This effect, in which you come to the mall to buy one thing and find yourself in such a lovely mood that you end up buying a whole bunch of other things, became known as the “Gruen transfer,” and it changed the way we shop. Gruen’s concept opened up the space to other businesses, too; they could all gather in one palatial compound. Northland Center was soon fully leased, and a horde of enthusiastic consumers meant that the venture made a lot of money for Webber —and likely for the retailers as well. The Gruen transfer helped encourage people to spend, spend, spend, and it looms almost as large as any building in the architect’s legacy.

In Meet Me by the Fountain, a new history of the mall by Alexandra Lange, we learn a great deal about Gruen and all the further innovations built upon his handiwork in order to increase the amount of money squeezed from mallgoers. After we meet America’s Mall Daddy, we’re introduced to the mall’s first family, the Nashers of Dallas, who in 1965 constructed NorthPark Center, a gleaming white monument to Texas luxury, where art, curation, and aesthetic discipline again united to create a powerful draw. The Nasher family purchased heaps of artwork for their mall, including a giant Beverly Pepper sculpture that was “designed to be admired from a car in motion,” Nancy Nasher told the Dallas Morning News. “Drive by and see it. Then park and come in.” The mall’s sizable staff, led by a design director who hovered over details as small as the comfort of a store’s seating, constantly preened and primped NorthPark, searching for ways to keep customers mesmerized and refreshed. From Northland to NorthPark, if you want to pull thousands of people miles away from their homes for the pleasure of parting with their money, you had better make the experience worth it.

But Gruen and his forebears could not have predicted what the mall would become, something Gruen himself admits in his memoir: “Shopping centers were initially successful because they were designed on the basis of idealistic motives. But now they have simply become too successful, in the same way the car has become too successful. They are so overwhelming that nothing is able to restore the balance.” This contradiction sits at the center of Lange’s book: The mall is beautiful and soothing, but its pursuit of profit steers it away from truly serving us.

Lange’s previous book, The Design of Childhood, focused on the ways that playgrounds and other built environments shape the behaviors of young people, and Meet Me at the Fountain similarly swings its focus between the buildings that house the shopping to the people who do the shopping: She draws our eye to the constant presence of children on the plinths and pools of a fountain outside the Neiman Marcus store at NorthPark. But she also dives into the ways that people use malls outside of commerce. The Nashers, for instance, project civic magnanimity by opening up NorthPark for public use, including a children’s branch of the Dallas Public Library and Lunar New Year celebrations.

Another subset of the public Lange discusses is the elderly, who find in malls the predictability and safety that they can’t get in other environments. For example, we meet Carolina Knutson, who in her 50s became possibly the first serious mall walker, and we realize that walking around a bunch of indoor stores is actually a perfectly reasonable hobby. “The mall, in its quiet early hours, provides affordances most cities and suburbs cannot: even, open walkways, consistent weather, bathrooms, and benches,” Lange writes. Even the best public parks can’t guarantee all of those anymore. It’s a draw so powerful that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a resource guide to encourage more mall walking for older people. What Lange articulates in passages like these is that the mall is no longer a mere accelerant of urban disaggregation; the city in America has become so atomized and privatized that malls are often a key provider of social goods.

Mall walkers aside, the mall has also long carried an association with youth. For many years, when a teenager wasn’t in school or at home and didn’t have some sort of extracurricular pursuit, it would be a good bet that you’d find them shopping (or, more likely, loitering) at a mall. In a lot of places, there’s really nowhere else to go. Though John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club follows a group of teens spending their Saturday in detention at a suburban high school, Lange diagrams the film’s stairs-and-banisters shots, which resemble an escalator-littered atrium, to show how strongly they lean on the viewer’s muscle memory of their local mall. But developers associate young people with problems, as well—they’re too loud, too wild, and don’t spend enough money—so teen magnets like video-game arcades get stashed on the mall’s higher floors or in remote corners, to quarantine their troublesome occupants. The feeling of safety so beloved by the mall walkers is guaranteed by the violence of the mall security apparatus, embodied by strict dress codes, cameras, mall cops, actual cops, curfews, anti-loitering rules, and outright bans on those below a certain age unaccompanied by chaperones. (Ironically, when Lange looks over the research of the artist-designer Chat Travieso, who convened a bunch of Bronx teens to figure out the best not-home, not-school, not-work environment for young people, she finds that “their ideal space came to sound very much like a mall: protected from the elements, with Wi-Fi and seating. Access to affordable food. Public bathrooms. Places to play. Open late.”)

Lange notes that these issues aren’t confined to malls but have become a growing problem for nearly all public spaces, which are increasingly given over to private interests. This capture is manifest throughout the history of the mall. After his Northland work, Gruen was asked to shape the shopping experience of the white-flight, racially covenanted Country Club project near Kansas City. There is also the example of the awkward friction at Denver’s Sixteenth Street Mall, whose proprietors couldn’t abide many of their own customers. Lange speaks to a former mall manager, Yvette Freeman, who recalls that her bosses wanted her to clear out a bus stop at the corner of the mall where too many mostly Black and brown people (“these people”) were gathering. She tells Lange, “I had to explain they have as much of a right to be here as anybody else.”

There have been efforts over the years by people fighting for their right to hang out at the mall, but we know how this country feels about rights that weigh on revenues. In 1968’s Amalgamated Food Employees Union v. Logan Valley Plaza, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the opinion that found that striking grocery store workers had the right to picket within the bounds of the shopping center and not just on the nearby public roads, since for all intents and purposes the shopping center existed as a truly public place. But then, four years later, that decision was overruled in Lloyd Corp., Ltd., v. Tanner, when a more conservative court ruled that Lloyd Center, a mall built on public-cum-private land, was free to decide what political speech was acceptable (presidential debates) and not acceptable (anti-war pamphlets) on its property. It’s a framing that has persisted ever since. When thousands of demonstrators showed up at the Mall of America in 2014 to protest police brutality in the wake of Michael Brown’s fatal shooting, the mall’s giant display monitors announced in all-caps: “This demonstration is not authorized and is in clear violation of Mall of America policy,” before 25 protesters were arrested.

The mall is not dead—plenty of people still go to them, and plenty of new ones are getting built—but it is not the commercial behemoth it once was. Thanks in no small part to the rise of Amazon and other e-commerce giants, the mall has fallen so far from the center of our shopping lives that in the recent Netflix documentary White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch, one of the film’s talking heads treats the mall as though it’s already a mysterious artifact: “Imagine, like, a search engine that you could walk through,” he intones.

The empty mall is the specter that haunts Lange’s book, especially in an age of increasingly online, disintermediated stuff-getting. Gruen’s seminal Northland, for example, fell into obsolescence and disrepute before it closed in 2015. In northern New Jersey, the gargantuan American Dream mall has emerged as a rough omen for the institution’s declining status in the United States today. Opening in the shadow of MetLife Stadium just months before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has struggled mightily to get a business foothold. Neither its Nickelodeon theme park, nor its Dreamworks water park, nor the Avenue, its Instagram-friendly, 300,000-square-foot paean to luxe wares, has been enough to sustain it. Which is to say that it’s not just the Internet that is killing malls. Not only have consumer habits changed over the past two decades in favor of the artisanal and direct-to-consumer specialists, but we have also seen a sort of reverse flight from America’s more distant suburbs, draining many of these once wealthy areas of their capital and their eager-to-spend consumers. If you’re going to get in your car anyway, why not go all the way downtown instead of to the burbs?

In Meet Me by the Fountain’s introduction, Lange tells the story of her first mall, the Northgate Mall in Durham, N.C. It was a basic, L-shaped, small-town strip mall—Sears on one end, Kroger on the other—whose enclosure was itself an innovation to keep up with nearby competitors. Her second, South Square, near Chapel Hill, was fancier (a Gap!), and her third, Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall, was even fancier and became the Research Triangle’s consumption lodestar. But chasing that top shopper dollar isn’t easy: Crabtree Valley stood firm, but South Square closed in 2002 and was demolished before being resurrected a few miles away as the swanky indoor-outdoor Streets at Southpoint; Northgate shrank its ambitions to local businesses instead of national chains but is nonetheless now slated for demolition.

What might bloom in the husks of dead or dying malls might not be squalor, Lange writes, but opportunity. Rather than tear them down, she argues, let’s reimagine their use of public space. That malls are no longer efficient engines of pure moneymaking is perhaps a good thing. Yes, their empty shells are an invitation for decay, crime, and ruin pornographers, but she makes the case that all the thought that went into their construction should not go to waste. The mall in its heyday may never have realized its promise as a public square, but perhaps it can do so now in its afterlife. In Wayzata, Minn., for example, senior housing, apartments, and a hotel have emerged from the tomb of a shopping center. In Austin, a foreclosed mall has become a community college. Given that so many malls sit atop wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas, Lange notes, the properties could simply be returned to nature to create a more traditional kind of public space, as in Meriden, Conn., where a park and an amphitheater have replaced a moldering mall.

Whatever moral or economic or land-use injury the enclosed shopping center inflicted in the past, the buildings are here now, and Gruen’s hope that they would become exemplars of high-minded urban planning—which has remained dashed ever since the permits for Northland’s airport-like loop for buses and taxis got lost in the mail—could still be fulfilled. As Lange observes, “Any travelers in the world of dead malls must ask themselves whether they are prepared to fight to put people back into the gutted buildings, or if they merely intend to pick over the aesthetic bones.”

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