The Rise, Fall, and Reinvention of the American Mall

Shopping malls are dead. At least that was the consensus at the height of the pandemic. The mall was already on shaky ground before the pandemic. A 2017 report by Credit Suisse predicted that, by 2022, between 20% and 25% of all US malls would close. The pandemic has increased the already immense pressure on online stores. In 2020, non-store retailers saw their sales increase by 30% compared to the previous year. After the pandemic, the mall’s future looked bleak.

But don’t write the eulogy right away. Alexandra Lange, a design critic and writer, believes that shopping malls have been given the “bad wrap”, especially from the architecture and design community. In his new book, “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall,” Lange details the history of the American mall and how its beginnings shaped American culture, society and design. She believes design has played a major role in the successes and failures of the mall.

“Once you think of something as dead, in our minds, it goes away,” Lange told Marketplace’s Amy Scott. “I want people to see malls as a place where we can do a lot of new and creative things.”

The following is an excerpt from his book.

The American dream – bootstraps, border, white picket fence – crossed paths with malls when they emerged in the post-World War II decades as the United States reinvented itself. In 1954, for the first time in American history, the number of children born passed the four million mark, a level which would be maintained for each of the following ten years. The 1944 GI Bill and federal highway laws approved in 1944 and 1956 subsidized the growth of new residential suburbs to house these burgeoning families, and the roads to reach them: more than a million new homes built by year, and more than forty-two thousand kilometers of highway. What most early post-war developments failed to incorporate, however, was the kind of central space – and centering – that had been part of human civilization from its most remote origins. By subsidizing the house and the road, the government did not subsidize a gathering place. Something essential to human nature had been forgotten: people like to be in public with other people. This momentary joy I felt in seeing happy families is the core of the mall’s strength and the essence of its continued usefulness. In postwar American suburbia, the mall was the only structure designed to meet this need. People, money, controversies and bigger and bigger structures followed. So, in turn, did culture. The United States of the late 20th century is meaningless without the mall.

Portrait of Alexandra Lange.
Alexandra Lange (Courtesy of Lange)

I knew that by embarking on this project, I, born in 1973, was part of the Mall Generation, raised on the smell of these pretzels, able to turn off the Muzak and find my car in a multi-level parking lot . As a design critic, as a child of the 1980s, and as someone committed to the idea that architecture should serve everyone, the mall was my ideal subject. Like children’s design, the subject of my last book, the mall was ubiquitous and under-examined and potentially a bit awkward as an object of serious study. Shopping, like children, was an after-hours topic; and malls, like playgrounds, were places dominated by women and children. Go to Etsy and you’ll find plenty of no-nonsense bumper stickers that read A Woman’s Place is in the mall. What I didn’t know was that I had been in the field creating urban inventions like the festival market at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and that even in my current neighborhood of Brooklyn, I was doing shopping on a pedestrian street that was one of the city’s responses to the flight of white dollars to the suburbs. Once I started seeing shopping not as a distraction but as a shaper of cities, I saw its traces everywhere. As the history of architecture tended to focus on suburban homes and the history of planning turned to highways, the mall fell into the cracks between the personal and the professional, as if we, as a culture, didn’t want to recognize that we needed a wardrobe, furniture and tools for both.

Excerpt from “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall” by Alexandra Lange. Copyright © Alexandra Lange, 2022. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Inc.

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