Longer Live the Mall

A competition suggests design CPR for the country’s dying shopping centers.

When the Dutchess Mall opened in 1974 in Fishkill, New York, it was as beautiful a standard dumbbell-configured mall as you could imagine. Fieldstone cladding and a rustic port cochere reminded shoppers of barns in the nearby countryside. But population growth moved north, and consumers patronized the big boxes that followed them there. Like many regional malls, the Dutchess fell ill, officially closing its doors about five years ago.

In 2001 PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 20 percent of American malls—as many as 400 enclosed shopping centers—could reach economic obsolescence by 2004. Sensing a condition in need of shock therapy, the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design devised “Dead Malls,” an ideas competition to reanimate a fading but prevalent building type. “Postwar shopping centers are ubiquitous, yet most high-design architects weren’t thinking about such sites—and still aren’t despite the buzz about shopping and branding,” says former L.A. Forum board member Pat Morton, who conceived of the competition. Morton also notes that shuttered malls are keen urban-design problems because they’re typically disconnected from their surroundings.

In March the competition, headed up by board member Warren Techentin and cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, named five winning resurrection schemes, one of which breathes life into the Dutchess Mall. A group of recent Harvard Design School grads calling itself Interboro reprograms the mall for small businesses, artists, and a day-care center. “Our retail builds off small-scale urban things that already happen there, such as the flea market,” team member Christine Williams says, naming a summer stage and a beer garden as possible seasonal additions.

Pierre De Angelis and Carmen Suero recommend more permanent changes that would reinvent the way we shop. Their entry proposes demolishing North Hollywood’s Valley Plaza and rebuilding a fraction of the original square footage as a series of modules, then grouping them by product (a pants section, for example). “We reduced the redundancy typically associated with malls,” De Angelis says. “All the storefronts are gone; we got rid of repetitive cashiers.” That opens up space for a farmers market and linear park. Architecture firm Stoner Meek also opts for demolition, partially flooding another California mall, Vallejo Plaza, to expand a nearby estuary, with remaining land devoted to recreation, a wind farm, and an electric-car dealership.

Central Office of Architecture (COA) and the team of Elizabeth Meyer and Anne Rosenberg hyperbolize the current state of American shopping. COA’s plan for Hawthorne Mall, in Southern California, would include zones for different consumer behaviors, such as big-box shopping or teenage loitering. Meyer and Rosenberg envision dismantling L.A.’s Eagle Rock Mall and reintegrating it into the curvilinear streetscape of adjacent subdivisions. Retail would sprawl along that infrastructure arranged by lifestyle: California surfer dudes here and Martha Stewart wannabes there. Despite the tongue-in-cheek attitude, all of the entries are earnest about bringing public life within the walls of the semiprivate mall.

Mark London (“The Mall Doctor,” May 1999), however, thinks none of the schemes are for this lifetime. “I’ve seen churches, I’ve seen offices, I’ve seen all kinds of things happen,” London says, but he doubts that the winning concepts of this competition could generate profit. The L.A. Forum wants the people to judge: a traveling exhibition has just closed in Las Vegas and travels next to Austin and New York.

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