New Malls, Old Ideas

With a handful of new retail projects, several major architects are attempting to bring the much derided mall into the 21st century. But is good design enough?

Regardless of what you think of his work, you have to admit that Frank Gehry has a great midlife-crisis story. It’s 1980, and the 51-year-old architect is hosting a dinner at his house, a traditional California bungalow that, two years earlier, he had outfitted with a series of dramatic triangular skylights and bizarre industrial outcroppings. His latest project, however, is Santa Monica Place, a bland suburban-style shopping mall a couple of miles away. Attending the dinner is the president of the mall’s developer, who points out the obvious discrepancy. If you like this, he says of the house, you can’t possibly like that mall. Gehry admits as much, but says, hey, he’s got to make a living. “Stop it,” the developer tells him. “You should stop it. Don’t do that.”

We all know how the story ends. Gehry recognizes that he is squandering his talent, dumps the malls, embraces his avant-garde tendencies, and goes on to conquer the architectural world. His Santa Monica home has since been called one of the most influential residences of the 20th century. And malls? Ha!

But now, almost three decades later, the humble shopping mall is no longer an automatic stand-in for architectural compromise and mere eco­nomic necessity. Architects—successful ones, famous ones—suddenly want to do malls. Just this month there are two new examples. On Octo­ber 8, the Westside Shopping and Leisure Center, in Bern, Switzerland, opens its doors. This design is by Daniel Libeskind, fresh off major museum projects in Denver, Toronto, and San Francisco. And, at the end of the month, the 1.6-million-square-foot Westfield London will open in Shepherd’s Bush, with a luxury-retail outpost—a sort of appendage mall—by Michael Gabellini, the New York architect best known for his sleek, minimalist interiors for fashion houses like Jil Sander and Giorgio Armani.

Meanwhile, the Italian architect Massimiliano Fuksas has a shopping mall in Frankfurt, Germany, set to open early next year—noteworthy, at the very least, for a dramatic escalator that will whisk pedestrians from ground level directly to a fifth-floor plaza beneath a swooping glass roof. In the United States, David Rockwell’s firm consulted on the design of the Meadowlands Xanadu, a 4.5-million-square-foot megamall currently under construction in New Jersey, which is poised to become the biggest in the country and the third largest in the world. Last year, London’s Foreign Office Architects completed a remarkable shopping center in Istanbul, Turkey, with a broad public square surrounded by a series of rolling green roofs. And, a few years ago, the Pritzker Prize winner Tadao Ando replaced a 1927 Bauhaus-inspired apartment complex with a massive shopping mall in the same Tokyo neighborhood where the Dutch firm MVRDV has since built another luxury mall.

Noted architects designing high-end retail spaces is hardly a new phenomenon. But those projects—Rem Koolhaas’s stores for Prada, Gehry’s shop for Issey Miyake—tend to be jewel boxes with the aura of an art gallery; they are exercises in branding more than attempts to move goods. The recent designer shopping centers, by contrast, are noteworthy for just how mall-like they are. There are escalators, skylights, food courts, movie theaters, even water parks. These are mall malls.

Of course, the architects themselves might disagree. “We’ve never, ever used the word mall,” Gabellini says of West Village, his 150,000-square-foot luxury emporium attached to one end of the Westfield London. “It’s the opposite, in the sense that it’s trying to create a very grand public space, but a space that is absolutely textural and intimate and dynamic.”

Indeed, at West Village, Gabellini has vigorously eliminated the trappings of the typical mall. Rather than providing blank storefronts for retailers to occupy, he has designed a continuous undulating glass wall that forces the branding to happen at a remove. There is almost no natural light; instead, artificial lighting reflects, disco-ball-style, off of a series of bejeweled doughnut-shaped sculptures suspended from the ceiling. Throughout, the emphasis is on materials and textures: the floors are terrazzo streaked with bands of stainless steel. Instead of a food court, there is a champagne bar. Gabellini’s office even worked with the developer to create the proper mix of retailers so that, he says, “it did not feel like it was put together overnight and have any sense of a traditional mall environment.”

Gabellini is right: West Village is not really a tra­­ditional mall, although it is an interesting case study of what happens when you apply the jewel-box aesthetic to a multistory shopping center. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that all the déclassé amenities are steps away in the adjacent megamall.) In Switzerland, Libeskind has tackled an entire 1.5-million-square-foot mall—the largest private construction project in the country’s history—and he makes no bones about it. Libeskind says that he approached the Bern project in exactly the same way as he would a museum. “Just as cultural institutions want to be commercially successful,” he says, “so do commercial institutions want to be culturally successful.” Thus, his Westside Center gets an unusual wooden facade streaked with diagonal bands of glass; grand interiors with spectacular angu­lar skylights; and a huge swimming center that rivals the ancient Roman baths in scale.

Libeskind says he was inspired by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, in Milan, a 19th-century arcade with a vaulted glass roof. “You don’t think of it as a shopping center,” he says. “You think of it as one of the great, iconic structures of Europe. And that’s exactly the ambition in this project. It’s no longer just, ‘Here are some shops,’ even if they are, you know, fantastic shops. It’s about a civic experience on an urban level. And it’s about sustainability, creating something that is truly sustain­able, memorable—not just some more boxes on the highway.”

The idea of creating an urban space inside the shopping mall seems to be de rigueur these days. But what is striking about these projects is how backward-looking they are; the 19th-century arcade is, apparently, the preferred model for the 21st-century mall. Of West Village, Gabellini says: “For us, it was a contemporary interpretation of a traditional urban shopping typology—if you want, the 19th-century galleries of London, Milan, or Paris.” Fuksas also brings up the Milan Galleria, although his design is a far cry from its neo­classicism. Fuksas’s glass roof is punctured with several holes that become dramatic funnels into the mall. One carries light all the way down to the ground level—in renderings, it looks like a glass tornado is tearing through the interior. Beside this funnel will be a thrillingly long escalator that takes pedestrians coming from one of Frankfurt’s busiest shopping districts to a public space on the fifth level, which, unlike a tra­ditional mall, will only be closed for two hours a day. “This is not a building,” Fuksas says. “It’s an urban space.”

The irony, of course, is that malls have long been blamed for sucking the life out of traditional city centers. This is a paradox that goes back to the first example of what we now think of as “the mall,” built by the architect Victor Gruen outside Minne­apolis in 1956. One doesn’t usually think of the mall as having been invented, but that’s precisely what happened with Gruen’s Southdale Center, which set the template for countless imitators: a blank box in the middle of a parking lot, anchored by a pair of department-store tenants, with two levels connected by escalators, natural light from skylights, and a “garden court of perpetual spring.” This is the American mall in a nutshell, and it has changed very little over the subsequent decades of suburban expansion.

But Gruen had something much more ambitious in mind. He was an Austrian émigré, a socialist, and a great striver in the grand tradition of Amer­ican self-made men. Southdale was never intended to be a blank box in the middle of nowhere. Gruen envisioned the mall as the retail portion of a lovely 500-acre development, with apartment towers, a medical center, and a landscaped park featuring a man-made lake. He was essentially proposing an alternative to downtown Minneapolis, a small-scale urban center modeled on his own native Vienna. He thought it would actually halt sprawl. But, in his later years, when Gruen looked back on his career and saw what the American mall had actually become, he was horrified. He disowned his most famous creation. In a speech near the end of his life, Gruen declared, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”

In their own way, Gabellini, Libeskind, and Fuksas are each trying to revive Gruen’s dream. They’re not rejecting the premise of the mall; rather, they’re hoping to rehabilitate it through better design. And they’ve introduced substantive improvements. By catering to a luxury-only clientele, Gabellini has maintained a remarkably high level of design on a large scale; West Village should not feel anything like the usual maze of shoeboxes. Fuksas is making a convincing case for how to seamlessly connect the sidewalk to indoor public spaces, sandwiching shopping functions in intermediary levels. Libeskind’s mall includes integrated train and rail access, as well as a hotel and—this is particularly cool—retirement housing. “Instead of putting the elderly somewhere in the countryside,” he says, “bring them where there’s always young people, where there’s a lot of activity, where there’s exhibitions and shows and the vibrancy of life.”

But, ultimately, good design alone is not going to save the shopping mall. After all, even Southdale’s design was considered cutting-edge at the time. Architectural Forum described it as “an imaginative distillation of what makes downtown magnetic: the variety, the individuality, the lights, the color, even the crowds.” Gruen disowned his mall and its bastard offspring because of their woeful lack of context: instead of being the centers of new, cunningly planned minicities, they were isolated temples of commerce. (When Frank Lloyd Wright toured Southdale shortly after its grand opening, he said, “You have tried to bring downtown out here. You should have left downtown downtown.”)

So how does the new spate of designer malls measure up? To its credit, Fuksas’s plan seems tailor-made to its site: it will practically be an indoor extension of the Zeil, Frankfurt’s bustling shopping district. (This is also true of the recent Tadao Ando and MVRDV projects in the retail-saturated Omotesando neighborhood of Tokyo.) But both the Westside, in Bern, and the Westfield London engage in riskier attempts to remake neglected suburbs. The Westside sits over a highway on the outskirts of the city—an area that is, in Libeskind’s words, “sort of lonely, in the middle of nowhere, not the nicest of neighborhoods.” His mall is supposed to “become a generator of a whole new town” and create “a very urban mix that really addresses a new lifestyle.” Similarly, the Westfield London is poised to remake Shepherd’s Bush, which the Telegraph once described as “the unappetising filling sandwiched between two of West London’s priciest neighbourhoods, Holland Park and Chiswick. At its heart is the most unvillage-like green, a litter-strewn traffic island fringed by grotty pound shops.”

It’s nice to imagine that a pair of upscale shopping centers with daring designs will transform these areas into mini urban utopias—and maybe they will. But a huge shopping emporium seems more likely to provide an escape from a crummy neighborhood than to enliven it. So how could a suburban mall be anything different? In Istan­bul, Foreign Office Architects (FOA) has completed a retail complex that seems like a true evolution. The site borders several planned housing developments, so instead of following the usual blank-box model, FOA connected the center to the nearby housing blocks by a series of walking paths, which converge at the heart of the site in a broad paved plaza, surrounded by rolling green hills. At first glance, you could almost miss the fact that these hills are, in fact, green roofs—the topography is essentially engulfing a mall.

The planned housing developments around FOA’s retail complex are still under construction, but you can imagine the scene once they’re completed: shoppers mingling with strolling locals; a steady flow of foot traffic crisscrossing the central plaza. Instead of being just a retail-and-leisure destination, FOA’s shopping center should serve as a genuine civic square for the neighborhood. This is not far from what Victor Gruen imagined for the suburbs of Minneapolis five decades ago. It could even be an improvement. Ultimately, the key to the 21st-century shopping mall may not be bigger and more beautiful shopping meccas, but smaller and simpler ones: the mall not as grand 19th-century arcade but as modest market square.

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