The Most American Form of Architecture Isn’t Going Anywhere

The American mall has supposedly been dying for years. The Guardian announced its death in 2014, in an article featuring Seph Lawless’s photography of abandoned malls, their once-lively atriums gone to seed. In 2015, The New York Times published its own photography of eerily empty buildings in Ohio and Maryland. Then came a string of stories in 2017 and 2018, when Time, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN declared the end of the mall anew, all citing a Credit Suisse report anticipating that about one in four would close by 2022.

The cause of death was variously chalked up to the growth of e-commerce, the demise of the department store, and the fact that our country has been overmalled since the 1990s, when developers saturated the suburbs, building new shopping meccas just miles from old ones. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the forecasts have grown only more dire: In June 2020, a former department-store executive predicted that a third of malls would close by the next year.

As the design critic Alexandra Lange writes in her consummate study Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, “Malls have been dying for the past forty years. Every decade rewrites the obituary in its own terms.” Lange considers how, since the 1978 movie Dawn of the Dead, we have been using “the apocalyptic scale, the language and imagery of civilizational collapse” to describe the state of this most American form of architecture. “And yet,” she writes, “the majority of malls survive. And yet, people keep shopping.” (A 2021 study found that as of June of last year, the number of mall visitors across the country was actually 5 percent higher than before the pandemic.)

Meet Me by the Fountain challenges the dominant narrative. Lange wants us to consider how in prematurely writing off the mall as dead, or in thinking of it as “a little bit embarrassing as the object of serious study, ” we neglect the important role these buildings have played in our lives. At their best, malls have always been more than just sites of conspicuous consumption and leisure, but places for communities to gather, to see and be seen, fulfilling a “basic human need.” Lange’s book reminds us that the mall has helped shape American society, and has evolved with our country since the 1950s. And she posits that there’s still a place for malls in our society, as long as they adapt to better serve their communities.

Malls grew alongside—and because of—the federally subsidized postwar expansion of the suburbs. “The late-twentieth-century United States doesn’t make sense without the mall,” Lange writes. If the American dream was owning a detached house for your nuclear family, the mall was where you bought the goods to fill your home and clothe your kids. Malls became the suburban equivalent of downtown shopping districts. But while malls, like their city counterparts, serve as public spaces, they are privately owned and policed, and any sense of community that one gets from spending time at them is always secondary to the primary pursuit of consumption.

[Read: When malls saved the suburbs from despair]

Lange smartly examines these tensions. She begins with the architect Victor Gruen, who in 1956 created the climate-controlled, enclosed space that we know today when Southdale Center opened in a Minneapolis suburb. Gruen wanted middle-class white housewives—the target demographic of malls for decades to come—to be able to park once and shop all day, and to experience what came to be known as the “Gruen transfer”: the moment when shopping tips from chore “into a pleasure in itself.” As Lange writes, Gruen and the developers who followed dictated “art curation, landscape design, store selection, security, and transportation,” all of which granted them more control over the shopping experience, down to what kinds of people were welcome to enjoy it.

This privately funded oversight of spaces serving the public would remain a constant over the coming decades. In the 1960s, architects and designers perfected the garden mall, which had plant-filled, sunlight-drenched atriums that invited shoppers to linger. In the 1970s, the developer James Rouse pioneered the “festival marketplace” in two urban malls at Boston’s Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, betting that European-style galleries would entice middle-class shoppers to American downtowns. Over the next two decades, the desire to wrest the mall back from teenage mall rats—who were seen as loiterers rather than lingerers—and the related “arcade panic” over teenagers gathering in large groups to play video games at mall arcades spurred the expansion of private-security-guard ranks, which Lange notes grew 300 percent from 1969 to 1988. This dawn of the mall cop only furthered the control and exclusion that was baked into the architecture from the start.

And yet, despite these problems, Lange reminds us what the mall gave us in the past and explains why she sees in its form hope for a future of adaptive reuse, in which these spaces will “embrace their public role” rather than try to privately control who can use them and how. Lange argues that malls should be repurposed for walkable mixed-use developments that combine the residential, commercial, and public. The behemoth shells of anchor stores—the department stores that sat at the ends of corridors—could enclose food halls, entertainment-centered businesses like trampoline parks, or public libraries; parking lots could be repurposed for senior-housing units. These places would still be malls, but ones that are more experience-driven and less shopping-centric.

[Read: A new life for dead malls]

Perhaps we continue to declare the death of the mall because doing so allows us to occupy two attitudes at once: disdain and nostalgia. As Lange writes, malls have always been looked down on in her field—“‘looks like a shopping mall’ is considered an architectural insult.” But on the flip side, malls tend to be viewed nostalgically—I bet you’re thinking about your mall memories reading this. It is possible both to recall fondly teenage afternoons spent wandering with friends from PacSun to the food court and to disavow the idea that shopping is a worthwhile shaper of relationships. After all, I was initially drawn to Meet Me by the Fountain because of these conflicting feelings for my mall: Roosevelt Field in Garden City, New York.

I kept waiting for Lange to mention Roosevelt Field—its history epitomizes much of what she traces in the book, from the way malls shaped the postwar suburbs to the fact that many of the centers that survive and thrive today are those that “sell an aura of exclusivity” with luxury stores. Like Southland, Roosevelt Field opened in 1956, though it was originally built as a modernist open-air pavilion designed by I. M. Pei that would be enclosed and eclipsed by expansions a decade later. It flourished thanks to highway development—Robert Moses built a new branch of the Meadowbrook Parkway in the mid-1950s that fed directly to the complex.

black and white photo of a crowd of people at the mall
A Macy’s opening at Roosevelt Field, in Garden City, New York, 1956 (Ike Eichorn/Newsday RM/Getty)

I am fixated on Roosevelt Field because its history parallels my mom’s history on Long Island. Her family left Brooklyn in 1956, in a G.I. Bill–sponsored flight to Nassau County, where they bought a Levittown-style Cape Cod. I grew up in that same house, and spent many a Saturday with my mom at Roosevelt Field. It was the mall she had known her whole conscious life, that by the 1990s was a colossus she could navigate without consulting a map. Our shopping trips were opportunities to connect. Now I wish I could talk to her about how shopping made her feel, if trying on outfits was like picking versions of her future self.  

My nostalgia for Roosevelt Field is tinged with ambivalence, born of the understanding that the suburban dream it was built to promote was always illusory. It’s also marked by grief: My mom died 20 years ago, when I was 12, but Roosevelt Field lives on. Her death punctured the dream of the suburbs for me, but the mall we shopped at is still selling it.

This kind of ambivalence is all over Meet Me by the Fountain. Lange’s ultimate vision for reusing the space of malls might be one that largely repudiates a singular focus on commercialism, but she doesn’t discount shopping and what it can do for us. She argues that we “find freedom in shopping” for our “true selves,” and that malls have given us more than just self-expression. They are what Ray Bradbury, in a 1970 essay in West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, called “Somewhere To Go”: a place that draws people together, that creates a de facto community.

[Read: Do yourself a favor and go find a ‘third place’]

This concept of “Somewhere To Go” reminded me of what the mall did for me after my mom died. Going to Roosevelt Field was a way to get out of the house where she was both everywhere and nowhere. My aunts often took me there for retail therapy. Sometimes we would talk about what was going on back at home—it was easier to be honest about how I felt while browsing racks of Billabong T-shirts than it was in our living room. It was an imperfect way to connect, but all these years later, I look back and am thankful that the mall gave us that space.

I probably shop more now than I did then, but online shopping doesn’t give me what Roosevelt Field did—a way to be with other people, an escape from how hard life had become, a reminder that I was still alive and still evolving. Maybe that’s why I find myself nostalgic for the flawed ways that malls brought me back to myself. Maybe that’s why my mom liked them too.