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Opinion | Get In. We’re Going to Save the Mall. – The New York Times

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Ms. Lange is the author of the forthcoming “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall,” from which this essay is adapted.
It is easy to think of indoor and even outdoor malls as anti-landscape: big asphalt parking lots, blank walls, artificial lighting, manufactured scents, digital sounds. But the origin of mall architecture was in the European 19th-century conservatory, where cast-iron and glass roofs covered expensive, nonnative plants. Early mall innovators like Victor Gruen emphasized the year-round good weather of indoor shopping, and leading landscape architects like Lawrence Halprin made sure the plantings were as up-to-date as the goods for sale.
As America contemplates mass mall die-off — analysts predict that a quarter of the United States’ roughly 1,000 malls will close in the next three to five years — reminding ourselves of the mall’s garden origins offers clues as to how they might be transformed. Some should be demolished and returned to nature, but more should be rethought from an ecological point of view. While malls are a wasteful use of land, replacement with new stand-alone buildings with space-hogging parking lots only compounds that wastefulness: Better to add (perimeter buildings, solar panels, trees) and to swap (markets for department stores, classrooms for boutiques).
Ground cleared and buildings constructed for one kind of community benefit — shopping — could be reduced, reused and recycled to serve a broader and greener community purpose, with pedestrian open space as part of a mix of public uses. While the mall was designed to showcase products intended for obsolescence, in the best-case scenario it is also a building designed to change.
Malls represent heavy investments in infrastructure, construction materials and place making that should not be discarded. The popularity of dead malls as sites for Covid testing and eventually vaccinations underlines these essential qualities: Easy road access, unencumbered indoor space, instant name recognition. Contemplating the mall’s roots in the garden is an opportunity not for picturesque nostalgia but for new solutions.
The most famous conservatory of all wasn’t labeled as such, but the designer of London’s Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851, the English architect Joseph Paxton, had cut his teeth on lightweight, all-weather architecture in the gardens at Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. The Crystal Palace’s barrel-vaulted glass roof sheltered elm trees, as well as natural and human-made goods from around the world exhibited in booths and browsed by six million visitors.
The connection between glass architecture, plants and shopping was further developed by the department stores that proliferated in European and American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The grandest of these were organized around central light courts, where plants would soften the lines of iron staircases and, eventually, escalators.
The history of American gardens is also deeply entwined with the mall. At Southdale in Edina, Minn., the first enclosed mall in America, which opened in 1956, Mr. Gruen named the central court the Garden of Perpetual Spring, to underline the luxury of climate control, and topped the plants, water feature and aviary with fraternal twin “Golden Trees” sculptures by Harry Bertoia. Mr. Halprin, better known for the weathered, hippie modern style of Sea Ranch, in Sonoma County, Calif., cut his teeth bringing curves, water and casual plantings to shopping malls, from Old Orchard Shopping Center in Skokie, Ill. to NorthPark Center in Dallas, an outdoor mall where children still treat his and his associate Richard Vignola’s 1965 tiled fountain as a giant climbing structure and turtles and ducks still find a home.
Tending community has been the impetus behind many malls’ longstanding walking programs, considered so important for public health that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a booklet to encourage the practice. Just as teenagers taste adult freedom in the food court, older Americans use malls as a softened version of the city park, with flatter terrain, more benches, more bathrooms and less traffic.
Privatizing the garden isn’t an unmixed blessing, however. The Crystal Palace was a colonial project, gathering the fruits (and in later exhibitions, the people) from the British Empire under one industrialized roof as a show of power. So, too, have shopping malls historically cultivated specific audiences by virtue of their locations sometimes in segregated suburbs and, later, by codes of conduct designed to limit the impact of groups of teenagers.
A series of U.S. and state Supreme Court cases, from 1968 on, have sought to limit free speech protections in malls by claiming them as private property; the plaintiffs in these cases have been union members and antiwar and anti-fur demonstrators. In Amalgamated Food Employees Union Local 590 v. Logan Valley Plaza Inc. in 1968, one of the first of these cases, Justice Thurgood Marshall, writing for the majority, argued that “businesses situated in the suburbs could largely immunize themselves” from criticism — which went against the public interest in a suburbanizing nation.
The whiteness of malls, at least, is changing. The geographer Wei Li coined the term “ethnoburb” in 1997, studying the rise of majority-Asian American suburbs. Willow Lung-Amam has chronicled the rise of shopping centers and malls curated for this demographic, and formerly white-serving malls across the South have been reborn as mercados offering Latinx food, fashion and entertainment and fulfilling other community service functions.
What these Asian and Latin American projects have in common is a responsiveness to changing residential patterns and a willingness to support local businesses — displays of creative management beyond attracting the latest hot national brand. The approach of these culturally responsive mall managers is more akin to the revolution promised by the festival marketplaces of the 1970s than of the peak mall 1990s. The architect Ben Thompson — a creator, with his wife, Jane Thompson, and the developer James Rouse of the urban marketplaces Faneuil Hall, Harborplace and South Street Seaport — wrote, “Everything we build must inject the affirmative values human beings need as much as food — the pleasure of tactile and visual things, assurance of physical security and freedom, variety of stimulating impressions and experience.”
Ethnocentric mall revamps are only one of a bouquet of strategies deployed in successful retrofits, resurfacings and replacements of malls. June Williamson and Ellen Dunham-Jones have been chronicling suburban reuse for more than a decade. Their database and 2021 book, “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia,” includes malls that have become civic centers, schools, churches and medical facilities — sometimes in tandem, reversing the single-use zoning common to the postwar burb.
The more uses added to the sites, the more likely they are to have added green space, whether those are the outdoor courtyards on the former parking lot at Austin Community College’s Highland Campus in Texas or the great lawn at the Promenade of Wayzata in Minnesota, which combines senior housing, a hotel and offices. Renderings for the Rise, the under-construction redevelopment of Vallco Shopping Mall in California, designed by Rafael Vinoly Architects, hype the 29-acre green roof as “the world’s largest” and claim it “restores the predevelopment character of the Cupertino landscape.”
Some have even become parks. The second wave of mall building in the 1970s often targeted low-lying areas that were difficult to develop for residential or other uses, and rightly so, as they were bottoms, or stream beds prone to flooding. Meriden Hub Mall in Meriden, Conn., was one such site. In 2007 the city began working on a plan, using local, state and federal funds, to replace the mall with a 14-acre park, opening access to Harbor Creek, creating a public space that also functions as a water retention basin and building a bridge and amphitheater. Mixed-income housing and an upgraded transit center now front the park, known as Meriden Green.
My favorite rebirth-of-the-mall story comes from Detroit. Before Mr. Gruen designed Southdale, he worked out some of his ideas for the new suburban Main Street in Southfield, Mich., just north of the city. Northland, which opened in 1954, had landscaped outdoor courtyards with modern sculptures connecting rows of shops and a branch of the city’s leading department store, J.L. Hudson. The planted spaces offered room for women and children or anyone else isolated in their homes to come together and shop, chat and play.
In 2021 a developer, Contour Companies, bought the dead mall from the city for $11.1 million. Published plans show 1,500 housing units in new buildings on the parking lots, with lofts, shops and offices in the old mall’s ground-level retail spaces and a market in the old department store.
While most of the post-1950s additions will be torn down, the 1954 core, exemplifying Mr. Gruen’s dream of bringing downtown to the edge of town, will stay. Oh, and so will the gardens. In 2022 people still need spaces — between errands or Zooms or classes or meals — to stop and touch grass.
Alexandra Lange (@LangeAlexandra) is an architecture critic and the author of the forthcoming “Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall,” from which this essay is adapted.
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