Egyptians one generation more ancient than the ones we usually call Ancient Egyptians perhaps thought the pyramids to be detestable eyesores on the desert skyline, and Greeks old enough to remember the good old days before poetry, medicine and architecture might have had a Prince-Charles-like disdain for the doric ‘carbuncles’ clunking up the Acropolises of their once fair country.
But age becomes architecture, and the triangularity of Egyptian and Hellenic architecture is now considered ‘classic’. Similarly, many of the buildings we now find hideous might one day seem so precious that we’ll end up protecting them. No such luck so far for that great American contribution to suburban architecture, the shopping mall, which is still too ubiquitous to be considered salvage-worthy.
A shopping mall can be defined as a conglomeration of retail shops, usually under one roof, with an ironic twist to its accessability: typically only reached by car, as attested by the huge parking areas surrounding it, the attraction of a mall consists of its pedestrians-only policy indoors.
One unconfirmed piece of shopping mall trivia holds that the US has more malls than high schools. While these must include many tiny malls, there are also more than 1,100 ‘regional shopping malls‘, targeting potential customers as far away as 25 miles and often extending to a million square feet.
The shopping mall has been one of the US’s most succesful export products, mushrooming in every corner of the Free World. But in its homeland, boom seems to have turned to bust, with shoppers now being drawn in droves to open-air ‘lifestyle centres‘ or doing their browsing and buying online. Many malls are now abandoned to decay, much like the boomtowns turned ghost towns of the nineteenth century.
Whole websites are dedicated to shopping mall postmortems, which detail the afterlife of these palaces of retail. Malls are intended to be cheery rather than leery, to induce consumption rather than consternation, but they nonetheless have a macabre quality, especially obvious when they’re defunct (as on www.deadmalls.com), serving as a refuge against man-eating zombies (as in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), or otherwise closed for business.
Consumers have a love-hate relationship with malls: we go to them because we love to shop, or just hang out there, but also because there’s nowhere else to go. Malls are convenient, but also monotonous – any mall is just a reconfiguration of the same store brands you’ll find in any other mall.
Something of that annoyance with the mall-induced Gleichschaltung is expressed in this cartoon, presenting America as one giant mall, completely covered by just over a dozen of brand names. From Starbuck’s over WaldenBooks to Walmart, the shopping needs covered by this relatively short list are so diverse that one could imagine living at the mall without ever leaving it. And why would you? Mr Romero’s zombies sure seemed to like it…
This cartoon, ‘America the Mall’, was sent in by Josh Bloom, who scanned it from the Boston Globe, in which it appeared in August of 2000 – still very much the heyday of the shopping mall.