Saturday, February 28, 2004

3. Virtuality in Concrete
mall as symbol and as place

For the next several hours I explored this mega-mall, from East Broadway to West Market, from South Avenue to North Garden. For those who regard malls as non-places, this would seem silly, or perhaps an affront, but certainly futile. They aren't real places, but living symbols of sameness.

Especially in the journalism of the past decade, the mall has been frequently used as a quick and clever symbol for uniformity ("stadiums seem as alike as shopping malls"; Richard Ford in a piece on baseball, New York Times Magazine) and other characteristics it shares with our age: aridity of soul ("If Peretz has the congested soul of a kibbutz, Kinsley has the air-conditioned heart of a shopping mall": James Wolcott, Vanity Fair), materialist values ("And is power just a beast in a bureaucracy, a monster in a mall?" Michael Levensen, Lingua Franca) and just general soullessness ("Perhaps the first cruise ship with the soul of a yacht instead of a shopping mall"- an ad for Club Med1.) In a more literary context, it is a symbol of contemporary materialism versus the past of more agrarian values in Anne Tyler's novel, Back When We Were Grownups, when an elderly grandmother declares: "After they built that mall where the duck farm used to be, why, seems we just got hollow at the center."

Though sometimes an apparently value-free symbol of the suburban middle class ("the theory of middle class decline has crossed over-from left to right, and from the campus to the shopping mall" James Lardner, New Yorker review of a Kevin Phillips book,) contemporary teenagers(baseball may recapture "its lost mall-rat audience" Roger Angell, New Yorker) or society ("At the Orange County Register, journalism for the age of the mall," headline in the New York Times), it is typically a symbol of cultural decline, as art critic Suzi Gablik makes explicit in her book, The Reenchantment of Art: "Other civilizations have created Altamira, Stonehenge, the Pyramids and Chartres; ours has produced the shopping mall and the cooling tank. "

At the same time that the mall has become the same old symbol for sameness, a clichéd metaphor of cliché, it has become a model, a meta-concept, especially in cyberspace. Electronic shopping might not have caught on without this concept firmly rooted for easy reference in the minds of potential customers. Now the Internet is replete with everything from the Sleep Mall to Porn Star Mall.

It's true the experience of perusing the Mall of America's shops and malls was partly a stroll through images and ideas, a walk through virtuality in concrete. It goes far beyond the same old stores (for one thing, there are so many shops here that a high proportion are not found in most other malls.) For me, walking this mall was an unexpected tour of the concepts I'd learned are the basis for shopping mall success, mostly because those elements are done so well here that they became visible again. This truly is the mall of malls: its physicality determined by concepts, its concepts express in physical terms.

Eventually I found myself back near the East entrance, in the first level Sears Court at the corner of East Broadway and North Garden. Had I headed this way when I first arrived instead of straight ahead to Camp Snoopy, I would have begun the day with an almost eerie recapitulation of shopping mall history. This area looks pretty much like a typical suburban mall built in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of Sears in the mall business, and what I called the Bread and Butter mall, serving the basic needs of every suburbanite---the lawn mowers, washer-dryers, school clothes and housewares, plus cute shops and a city department store branch. It has the same style of hard tile in grays and browns, the same florescent feel to the relatively bright lighting, and the same faint concrete swimming pool smell as those first malls.

These days, such are the characteristics of lower to middle-middle class malls or sections in malls, and sure enough, near Sears there is a big discount drug store, and today in the court itself, tables laden with off-price sweatshirts. Directly above on the third level, across from Marshalls (a basic juniors department store) there was Nail Trix and Alpaca Connections, with the furry equivalent of velvet paintings.

But the Nordstrom court is different. The lighting is more subdued, and slender, graceful trees poke up through the three-level opening. The first level court is carpeted, and carpeted lanes lead to it on other levels; the architecture is both more subtle and more ornate: a gold clock stands nearby. Many of its neighbors are upscale: Benneton, Cache, Progressive Aveda Salon, several jewelry stores and Godiva Chocolatier. New malls began to go upscale by the 1980s, with similar decors. Nordstrom, the fashionable department store success story of the 90s, is an appropriate representative.

These stylistic differences are less consistently carried out here than in other malls I've seen, especially those that have lived the history by adding a second level of high fashion over the original bread and butter mall. There the distinctions (right down to what shoppers are wearing) can be so pronounced that an archeologist unearthing such a mall might conclude that like succeeding cities, one had simply been built on top of the ruins of the other. But even more striking that these historical recapitulations is the Mall of America's grasp of the basic mall technology: how the mall creates what one mall trade magazine article called "the retail drama."

You can see it all here. In general, the lighting is dimmer in the mall courts, and much brighter inside the shops. The entrances are open, there are no doors, and the shop facades are smaller than they would be on the street-the formula adapted from the highly successful Main Street of Disneyland is three-quarters size. All of this is to make the shops alluring and inviting. The courts are meant to soothe, even to mesmerize. The shops are meant to attract and incite. It is the clear and intended equivalent of the brightly lit stage and the audience in the dark.

The mall makes the retail drama possible in the same way a theatre enables its performances: by enclosing the stage and audience and separating them from the outside world, by protecting that world from dangers and distractions (from crime and rain, cars, noise and snow), and by controlling what happens inside it. So the mall is walled, even if these days it is partially open to selected views and access points. It is protected by its own security, maintenance and its hype of safety. And it controls the show: the shops have certain design rules, the mall "common areas" are maintained to keep the mood of a never-never land that is always the same, yet always new.

There is a kind of standard underlying theater space common to all malls, directly derived from the Disney model of Main Street-the quaint (but not too quaint) shops along the friendly, pleasant, quiet promenade, with trees and flowers, the plash of a fountain, the homey smell of cinnamon buns baking, and maybe a little concert in the band shell. There are a lot of other fantasies that can be layered on this one to vary the mood, either with permanent design features (although permanence is a relative term in the mall) or temporary decor.

Once the basic structure of the theater is in place, the show can be composed of almost anything, but it's always the retail drama, and it plays all the time. The seats are all on stage, because the audience members are also actors.
And there's always a new show in town-a new look, new shops, a new promotion, a new event. Here at the Mall of America, it might be the charity telethon broadcast from a mall court while I was there, or one of the other March attractions: Twin Cities Youth Symphonies Play-a-thon, Minnesota Vikings cheerleading tryouts, American Liver Foundation walk, a trick pony performance and autograph signing.

Meanwhile the mall is kept very clean and shiny, with fresh plants replacing the dead ones, and new flowers for seasonal "color spots." It inspires confidence, it exudes the bright feeling of possibility, the serene aura of perpetual hope. It is always morning in the malls of America.

The success of the mall as a theatrical environment has been followed by a major marketing trend, known variously as experiential marketing or the entertainment or experience economy, in which "the customer is the product" (according to consultants Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, in The Experience Economy.) "The economy is being transformed from a giant factory to a grand theater," writes Jeremy Rifkin in his book, The Age of Access.

These are among the standard operating principles, carried out adequately or abominably in various malls. All the variations, the contours of fantasies, depend on them. At the Mall of America, they are enacted with textbook precision and flair.

Most malls are amalgams of fantasies, from Main Street to starship, simulations of celebrity landscapes to pointed variations on the landscape just outside the strong mall walls. Being bigger, Mall of America can layer more fantasies one on the other. At many malls, this juxtaposition appears giddily haphazard and improvised, and at others-like West Edmonton Mall-it is part of the design. West Edmonton by and large does it badly, with clunky design and gauche combinations, like the ornate Venice street replicant hovering above the miniature golf course. Within the mall world, Mall of America is a vast improvement.

Borrowing from European urban models but also from new mall design that has replaced the uniform long boxes that malls had become, Jerde has provided variations in sight lines and paths, with short, curving lanes and jutting nooks, occasionally breaking out into large spaces and dramatic views. There are cozy skylights, and crossing walkways straight out of the science fiction film Metropolis; solitary benches on isolated side courts, and a particularly striking, long, straight expanse under metal grill arches that quotes the old grand rail stations and arcades of Europe.

It is an arena of color, from cartoonish and bright, to the muted tones suggesting age and substance. It is a circus of light, shapes and textures, a series of head-on collisions of images suggesting different times and places, remembered and imagined, copied and quoted, like an LSD trip in a time machine. But it can become overwhelming, and as the senses shut down and fatigue clouds your vision, walking this mall becomes like one of those urgent searches in a dream, when you hurry down weird streets, confronting and trying to account for the inexplicable, but what you're so intently searching for is never clear. After awhile, it's just a lot of florescent lit shops and zombie people in a big noisy gym. That's when the headaches start.

But malls have always been electrically eclectic, if not this stylishly. For several decades before postmodernism became a fashionable concept in America, it was being routinely enacted in the American shopping mall. Within its faux-modernist fortress walls, a riot of clashing images was absorbed into an ordered, sedate environment. The shops reconfigured old categories, in some cases to better conform with the realities of middle class life (everything that could conceivably furnish a suburban bathroom got grouped in Bath Trends and similar shops, for instance.) The mall combined the shops into a unit, with the aforementioned shopping mall art and science.

In the recently translated and published Harvard University Press edition of The Arcades Project , Walter Benjamin builds an intellectual edifice based on the meaning and history of the Paris arcades, which featured the first modern shops and were the forerunners of the department store. According to Benjamin, the arcades of early nineteenth century Paris helped that relatively new creature, the private individual, furnish a life and particularly a home that was newly constituted as a place for self-expression and self-creation separate from the workplace.

The private dwelling was the passion of 1950s suburbia, and was the first link leading to the shopping mall. Young former soldiers and their new wives nestled in the secure routines and known frustrations of army-like corporations, and settled for homes in army camp-like early suburbs, in order to take command of the interiors- to enact their common dream of home and children. As prosperity took hold, the homes became bigger and more autonomous, each with its own appliances, and bigger lawns to mow between neighbors. Soon suburbs were little more than separate mini-estates, connected to highways. But while mostly men drove to jobs in the city, young mothers were stuck with nowhere near enough to shop, and no place to go to get away from the house and kids. They needed their own arcades.

The arcades were made possible in the 1830s, Benjamin writes, because of a boom in the textile trade and the debut of iron, the first "artificial building material," in large scale constructions. Later the invention of photography flooded the marketplace with images for sale, attracting a middle class patron who could not afford to patronize painters or even buy paintings, and linking mass produced imagery with the mass of products the arcades displayed and sold in the heart of the city. The availability of images of distant places and times past helped the private individual furnish an interior that became both an expression of identity and a perspective on what was outside. "His living room is a box in the theater of the world," Benjamin writes.

Today there is a box that brings the theatre and the world into the living room. No new materials were needed to build malls in the 1950s, except for the machinery of comfort control, but the technology of images was once again crucial. Federal highway and housing programs enabled suburbia, and the highways became both magnets for development (as railroads and subway lines had been before them) and a means of moving goods to more places faster.

Even through the early snow and the flipping vertical hold, and even with low definition pictures, television was able to instantly bring home whole systems of images spun out over many glossy magazine pages and motion pictures, while adding its own potent visual myths in the happy family sitcoms of the 1950s or the glitter melodramas of the 80s and ironic mambos of the 90s, along with the compressed adventures of commercials. Television linked the nation in a grand concert of images, most of them linked to products, soon available in a mall near you. What television proposes, the mall disposes. In the mall now, TV ad images are reproduced on giant posters in the shops or shown on video monitors. The mall became the direct delivery system that turned agitated electrons into clothes and tires, Buffy the Vampire Slayer lunchboxes, Michael Jordan cologne, Farah and Madonna and Diana hairstyles, and the jewels of Alexis.

Today it's more than a partnership-it's integrated circuitry. MTV became an empire by playing music video commercials for the cassettes and CDs in the mall stores. Now movies playing at the mall cinemas or available in its video stores advertise on TV and occasionally create mall promotions. Movie and TV tie-in merchandise now forming entire stores as well as crowding out any non-movie or TV inspired toys from the kids' shelves in all-purpose stores. The Warner Brothers Studio Store was already dominated by Harry Potter merchandise when I visited Mall of America, months before that company's first movie based on the incredibly popular book series even came out.

Mall of America has several shops directly related to television shows, but the basic message is most clearly conveyed in the store called simply As Seen on TV, where you can get your Egg Wave microwave egg cooker, Gourmet Chopper, contour leg pillow and-yes-the original Ginsu knives, without paying that postage and handling. And the inevitable next step was already on the way: a store full of merchandise based entirely on products, and the characters that appear nowhere but in their commercials. There were posters announcing Cereal Adventure, "where your favorite cereals come to life," and where you can get your own face on a Wheaties box, coming in June to Mall of America.

The postmodern orchestration of images to create a separate fantasy reality may be artificial, but then, so is suburbia. Even the early suburbs were responses to the imagination-the picket fence, fresh air and green spaces. But the suburban fantasy got complicated by engine fumes and land too valuable to remain green, so it moved indoors to the mall, soon to be joined by fantasy versions of cities left behind, and other fabled places it was easier to re-create than visit, while making them over as suburbia would want them to be.

Yet for all the ideas that the mall enacts, all the concepts that it carries out and embodies, it is not abstract-it is not only "the mall." It is also this mall. Just as the suburbs it is so easy to abstract are places to the people who live there, so each mall is a place to the people who go there.

The regional malls are the places where people who live in particular suburbs shop and socialize. Mom knows the best times to shop without getting crowded at Williams Sonoma or to find bargains at Stride Rite. She'll shop at Bloomies but only when that snotty clerk in cosmetics isn't there. Dad has a favorite parking lot, with the fastest access and the least problem finding a space. Bud meets his buds at Gamestop, Princess checks out that cute assistant manager at Big Dog Sportswear, and Kitten searches desperately for books at Atlantic Book Warehouse that will explain why she is so unhappy. Once a week they all go to Albert's Family Restaurant-though sometimes the Great Steak and Fry Co. wins out-and the kids all like the Orange Julius at Mall X but not at Mall Y, where they fill the cup with too much ice. If this particular Anderson family is Vietnamese and living in Orange County, California, they might do much of their shopping and socializing at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster.

I'm sure that people coming to even this Minnesota behemoth have favorite places, even between shops with identical merchandise. Sam Goodys is among the businesses at Mall of America that have two outlets on different floors, in different parts of the mall. I'll bet there are teenagers who prefer to shop in one and not the other, and they have reasons.

For myself, I can jump ahead in my story and say that after two full days, I had my favorite places at Mall of America. Some of them for the view, some for people-watching, some for browsing, some for staying put. If you go, they have these interesting muffins with a hint of anise at Caribou Coffee, and you've got to try some gelato at Tucci Benucch, the American crème for sure, maybe with a nice espresso.

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