Friday, April 08, 2005

The Mall is a Place

In his provocative and often insightful new book, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, John Thackara advocates for more attention to the behavior and feelings and states of mind prompted by the spaces we are so blithely building, like shopping malls and airports (which, as he brilliantly describes, are themselves mostly shopping malls, especially since the airport's profit depends on its retail sales).

He's surely right, as are others, that the design and nature of the mall changes our experience of time and space and place. But I stop short of agreeing with those who insist that shopping malls can't really be "places."

Maybe I'm guilty of being in that chorus of critics, since in THE MALLING OF AMERICA I do refer to malls as "placeless spaces." But that was to make a specific point, and there's lots of evidence that major design objectives plus the evolution of shopping malls have emphasized manipulating the space rather than growing a place.

The apparent placelessness is encouraged most of all by sameness. These days there is more variation in the design of malls than there was even a decade ago, but there's no getting around their basic similarities, and especially their repeated contents. It's the same chain stores from coast to coast, and now virtually around the world.

The scale is another problem. The shops have gotten larger, as the big box mentality spreads to the mall. Now there are malls within malls. But even where the shops maintain a single focus, they are part of a national or international chain, not only of supply, but of style. Nobody local gets to decide very much about what the place looks like. Thanks to computerized inventory, customers have more power over what gets sold, but only in terms of numbers and time. If you want a pink shirt when everyone else is buying white, or even a week after the local pink shirt craze, you may be out of luck. And no use complaining to the clerks or managers or "associates," because they can't do anything about it--that is, if you can get their attention away from their headsets.

So the corner store is gone, the drug store that sells ice cream, the bookstore where somebody has read the books. The mall is not the same place as Main Street, but it is still a place. If for no other reason but people.

People make the difference. Maybe the junior high girls go by the Gap instead of Old Navy because of the cute guy who works there. Or you always go to the Orange Julius at the mini-food court on the second floor after school instead of the Orange Julius at the big food court on the first floor, because the girl there gives you more drink and less ice.

People still shop at stores where somebody knows them and their tastes, because a certain percentage of the shopping high---I'd say at least half---comes from the experience. Sure, some stores give better shopping because they train their people better, but sometimes it comes down to individuals.

What makes a place a place is what defines anything else: difference, and choice. The differences aren't always big, but if the mall is what you've got, you learn the differences and you make the choices. Sometimes you find something special. I recall a little space near a small fountain at a mall, surrounded by plants (which were either plastic, or the kind that looks and feels like plastic) with a comfortable bench, where it was actually possible to sit and read.

At this point, malls have become places within places, and you can scroll down this blog to the comments on Greengate to see what I mean. Greengate Mall had a history, and that history is in the experiences and memories of a generation of people. After all, malls are places where some children took their first steps, saw their first Santa; where couples met and even married; where old friends may still meet every Thursday for coffee.

You only have to listen to people talk in the mall to know that for them, it is a place. They may comment on the condition of the flowerbed out front, which is better or worse than last year, possibly because of that new manager.

Malls have gotten better at letting in natural light, and varying their design beyond the enclosed box. Malls---and even worse, big box stores---may be lousy places, with terrible lighting, lots of noise, crowded with products, and nowhere you'd like to be for very long. But once you learn where the restrooms are, and you've got areas that you go to and areas you don't, it's become a place in your life.

Sure, it doesn't have the same kind of complexity that natural places have, and we're deluding ourselves about our own planet by spending too much time in these overdetermined built environments. There's a cost to that, and discussions to be joined. But it's a little insulting to people and how they live their lives, which usually is to make the best of it, to deny that they are still people who are still creating and being in places.

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