What do we do with all the dead malls? Anyone with an eye on the years-long spate of unambiguous headlines — "The Death of the American Mall," "The Economics (and Nostalgia) of Dead Malls," "America's Shopping Malls Are Dying A Slow, Ugly Death" — knows that the question has begun to vex American cities, and more so American suburbs. But just twenty years ago (which I remember as the time of my own if not mall-centric then often mall-oriented adolescence), nobody could have foreseen the end of the large, enclosed shopping mall as an American institution — nobody except Douglas Coupland.
"On August 11 1992 I was in Bloomington, Minnesota, close to Minneapolis," remembers the Generation X author in a recent Financial Times column. "I was on a book tour and it was the grand opening day of Mall of America, the biggest mall in the US." He took the stage to give a live radio interview and the host said, “I guess you must think this whole mall is kind of hokey and trashy.” No such thing, replied Coupland: “I feel like I’m in another era that we thought had vanished, but it really hasn’t, not yet. I think we might one day look back on photos of today and think to ourselves, ‘You know, those people were living in golden times and they didn’t even know it.’”
Golden times or not, they now look unquestionably like the high watermark of the era when "malls used to be cool." Coupland describes the shopping mall as "the internet shopping of 1968," but they go back a bit farther: 1956, to be precise, the year the Southdale Center, the very first enclosed, department store-anchored mall of the form that would spread across America and elsewhere over the next forty years, opened in Edina, Minnesota. You can see vintage color footage of the Southdale Center in all its midcentury glory — its auto showroom, its playground, its full-service Red Owl grocery, its umbrella-tabled cafés under a vast atrium, and outside, of course, its even vaster parking lot — at the top of the post.
“You have no idea what an innovation this was in the 1950s," says writer and midcentury Minnesota enthusiast James Lileks. "There wasn’t any place where you could sit ‘outside’ in your shirt-sleeves in January.” I used that quote when I wrote a piece for the Guardian on the Southdale Center, an institution easily important enough for their History of Cities in 50 Buildings (as well as PBS' television series Ten Buildings that Changed America), whether you love them or hate them. The Austrian architect Victor Gruen, who came to America in flight from the Nazis, hated them, but he also created them; or rather, he envisioned the oases of rich Viennese urbanity for his new country that would, corrupted by American reality, quickly become shorthand for "consumerist" suburban life at its blandest.
Malcolm Gladwell tells that story in full in his New Yorker profile of Gruen and the creation he disowned: "He revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in 'severe emotional shock.' Malls, he said, had been disfigured by 'the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking' around them." Given Gruen's final pronouncement on the matter — “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments” — one imagines he would applaud the shopping mall's present day devolution.
"Where is the gracious Muzak’ed trance of yore?" asks Coupland as he surveys America's blighted mallscape today. "Where is the civility? The calm covered with plywood sheeting and graffiti, and filled with dead tropical plants and shopping carts missing wheels, they’ve basically entered the realm of backdrops for science fiction novels and movies and I’m OK with that. Change happens." Change, in the form of thorough remodeling and modernization, has also happened to the Southdale Center, but the mall that started it all remains in business today, all rumors of its own imminent demise seemingly exaggerated.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.