Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

I'll Miss You, Design Bots

A weekday, workaday afternoon. The endless scroll: News photos, airbrush artworks, animated GIFs,and – what is that? Peacock-blue satin, a regal flare. Click to still the image. It’s a chair, folded-back quilted fabric over a flared red base. It looks like the standup collar of a frock coat. It looks like the skirt of a princess dress. It looks like a parka.

It’s Gaetano Pesce’s Feltri armchair, designed in 1987 for Cassina and tweeted into my consciousness by slam_decorative, a Twitter bot created by Twitter user andrei that automatically shares objects from the St. Louis Art Museum Decorative Arts and Design department. The museum doesn’t run it.

Twitter bots like slam_decorative crawl public records and public collections and tweet historic, anarchic, and beautiful images and texts into your everyday feed. They provide an escape from the influencers, an escape from the algorithm, an escape from 2023 – or they will until February 9, because TwitterDev announced yesterday that the service will stop supporting free access to Twitter API and start charging, reportedly $99 per month for the basic tier.

Santa Claus, the Spirit of the Mall, Is Back

Santa Claus with a client at the King of Prussia Mall, December 2022. Mark Makela/Getty Images North America

Santa arrives at the Grove, the outdoor luxury shopping center in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District, in dramatic fashion: His red sleigh, with eight tiny reindeer, arcs over the mall’s central fountain, framing the 100-foot-tall Christmas tree. Reservations are recommended for Santa’s Workshop, decorated to look like the gooiest of gingerbread houses. And despite December temperatures hitting the 60s in LA, faux snow falls nightly at 7 and 8 p.m.

As Americans mark their return to in-person shopping this holiday season, they are also coming back to the mall, where Mariah Carey still reigns, giant baubles hang from the rafters, and Santa presides over his village. Santa, after all, is the spirit of the mall — a little bit nostalgic, a little bit exciting, and a whole lot commercial, with photo sessions starting (at least at the Grove) at $50 for the Holly Jolly package.

This combination of community and commerce has been part of the mall’s DNA since its birth. Southdale, America’s first indoor mall, created a jingle advertising “Southdale’s Wonderland” in 1956, its first year. And yet the mall Santa can also seem entirely now: What could be more 2022 than an immersive Yuletide selfie station?

Mask Optional! It's the 2022 Architecture + Design Awards

By Alexandra Lange, Mark Lamster & Carolina A. Miranda

There are big changes here at Awards Central as we deliver our 13th consecutive annual prizes: We are pleased to announce that the most eminent Carolina A. Miranda of the Los Angeles Times has joined our esteemed panel. What does that mean for you? More awards. More geographic diversity. More hilarity. Welcome Carolina!

Moving on to the business at hand: It has been yet another busy, dispiriting, ridiculous, racist, sexist, anti-semitic, and all around stupid year. Which is to say, a lot of material for us. And so….on to the fake awards:

The 2022 Architecture and Design Awards

Golden Anniversary Chalice: The Kimbell Museum, Gund Hall, and Pentagram all hit the big five-oh. Many happy returns.

The Golden Carbuncle Trophy: Charles III is now the literal king of the trads. Will he relocate to Poundbury?

Bye-Bye Birdie Badge: We would have preferred it if Elon Musk immolated his tunnel business, rather than our favorite place to post buildings we can’t stop thinking about. How will architects make friends without Twitter?

Bruno Taut Award: To Miles Bron, Glass Onion’s Musk-esque bro, who decided architecture should resemble an allium.

The Brooklyn Condominium That’s Reinventing Outdoor Common Space

Photo: Iwan Baan / Illustration: Stephanie Davidson

Courtyard apartments have a long history in the US, particularly in temperate climes, where shaded outdoor corridors and centralized playspaces can be year-round amenities. New York City, however, has only selectively embraced this approach, with private yards and public parks taking up the slack. A new 18-unit condominium, 450 Warren — one of four planned Brooklyn collaborations between architects SO-IL and developers Tankhouse — aims to change that relationship, while also twisting the idea of common outdoor space into something that gets used.

Rather than creating one large courtyard, with the open space protected from the street by an L-shaped plan, SO-IL chopped up the outdoor amenities, betting that smaller, more carefully shaped and planted terraces would be more popular than a large undifferentiated expanse of grass. The building’s plan reads as three towers connected by curvy concrete walkways.

Exposing the messy, technologized, and undervalued nature of reproductive labor

Ani Liu, Untitled (feeding through space and time). Photo by Celeste Sloman

Messy coils of plastic tubing sprawl across the gallery’s concrete floor. The liquid inside—opaque, white with a yellowish tinge—pulses once, twice, and the eye tracks its progress thanks to the air bubbles cycling through the loops. Could that be … milk? Follow the tubing back to an unassuming rectangular box. If it is milk, a panicked brain might ask, where is the mother?

At this moment the mother, artist Ani Liu, is standing by the door of the pocket-­size Cuchifritos Gallery + Project Space in Lower Manhattan, wrapped in a tie-dyed T-shirt dress for tonight’s opening of her solo exhibition, “Ecologies of Care.” But she has also sat, pumping milk, in the broom closet next to her classroom at the University of Pennsylvania; in her basement studio in Queens; on trains and in cars. The volume of milk circulating through Untitled (pumping) and Untitled (feeding through space and time) represents a week of such sessions, or 5.85 gallons—some of the invisible labor of motherhood. It also represents modern breastfeeding technology—specifically, the Spectra pump that allowed Liu the alleged freedom to return to the workplace just weeks after having her first child. After headlines about a national formula shortage earlier this year, the liquid seems even more precious.

KQED Forum: Get In Loser, We're Going to the Mall

A very fun conversation with some of the best mall memories from callers I have heard yet. Stay to the end for a Chuck E. Cheese cameo.

“The mall is personal,” writes design critic Alexandra Lange in her latest book Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall. For denizens of the suburbs, the mall is the place where people got their first jobs, got their first taste of independence goofing around with middle school friends, or bought their first hot dog on a stick. And while often derided by design critics, the mall in its heyday has been immortalized in movies like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Clueless,” “Mean Girls,” and more recently “Stranger Things.” With the rise in the online economy, many have heralded the demise of these temples of commerce but malls continue to reinvent themselves. Mina Kim talks to Alexandra about the cultural and design history of malls and we hear from you about your favorite mall memory.

Decoder Ring: The Mall is Dead (Long Live the Mall)

I spoke to host Willa Paskin about all things mall. Listen to the end for an amazing Victor Gruen haunting!

What do we lose if we lose the mall? 70 years into their existence, these hulking temples to commerce are surprisingly resilient and filled with contradictions. In this episode, Alexandra Lange, the author of the new book Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall walks us through the atriums, escalators, and food courts of this singular suburban space. We also hear from mall-goers whose personal experiences help us make sense of this disdained yet beloved, disappearing yet surviving place.

Meeting Zombies by the fountain: George Romero's shopping mall

The Monroeville Mall, location for Dawn of the Dead, in 2001. © Brett McBean

A fresh excerpt from Meet Me by the Fountain on the undead shoppers of Dawn of the Dead, at Recessed Space.

Why do zombies go to the mall?

This question is asked and answered in George Romero’s 1978 cult classic Dawn of the Dead, the second part of a planned horror trilogy. Four survivors of a zombie attack steal a TV helicopter and head north, making for Canada. As they chopper over fields and roads, they find that the virus has spread past the bounds of the city. Every open space includes dark figures that stagger toward some undefined goal. Low on fuel and sleep, the escapees reach a vast, empty parking lot. “What the hell is it?” someone asks, as if encountering the ruin of an ancient civilization. “Looks like a shopping center, one of those big indoor malls” is the reply.

Although the mall was unrecognizable from the air, once they land the helicopter on the roof and get inside, they know what to do: shop. “It’s Christmastime down there, buddy,” both in the real world they have left behind and the refuge in which they now play. The empty J. C. Penney provides a television, a radio, lighter fluid, chocolate. They turn on the lights, the music, the fountains. A prerecorded announcement breaks into the Muzak: “Why pay more when the sales are popping here?” Why pay more indeed? In the zombie apocalypse, everything is free.

99PI: 99% Vernacular

It was an honor to contribute to this anthology episode, talking about my first favorite house.

For the 500th episode of 99% Invisible, we started thinking about the kinds of designs that we love from the places we have lived — and even some regional vernacular we love from places we haven’t lived, but just admire. 99% Invisible is all about who we are through the lens of the things we build. We often tell stories about how people shape the built world, but these are more about how the built world has shaped us.

More press for Meet Me By the Fountain

A few more press mentions before I take a brief break from promotion. Summer vacation waits for no publication schedule!

I spoke to Marketplace: Rumors of the death of the American mall may have been greatly exaggerated

I toured City Point with Curbed: Walking the Mall With Alexandra Lange

Eva Hagberg (wonderfully) reviewed the book for The Architect’s Newspaper: Shopping is a Feeling

And I added a new in-person event, August 4 at the Boston Public Library.