Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

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.

Meet Me by the Fountain in the news

I’ve been so gratified by the initial response to Meet Me by the Fountain. Reviewers, interviewers, audience members and podcasters are getting what I was trying to do with the book as a whole, and enjoying the numerous quirky personalities and details encountered during the mall’s 70-year lifespan.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of my favorites from the last two weeks.
And there’s more to come!

Carolina Miranda in the Los Angeles Times: How to make malls great again

Kristen Martin in The Atlantic: The Most American Form of Architecture Isn’t Going Anywhere

Aryn Braun in The Economist: Alexandra Lange explores the history of American malls

Olly Wainwright in The Guardian: ‘Those bastard developments’ — why the inventor of the shopping mall denounced his dream

CBC Spark: How malls and freeways helped segregate America

And a reminder: On June 30, I will be in virtual conversation with Dan Haar, sponsored by the Mark Twain House & Museum, at 7PM. This event is free, and you can register here

Longform Podcast #492: Alexandra Lange

A podcast interview at Longform about my book, my career in journalism, and how the architecture critic’s mind works.

“I really like to write about things that I can hold and experience. I’m not that interested in biography, but I am very interested in the biography of an object. … Like I feel about the objects, I think, how most people feel about people. So what I’m always trying to do is communicate that enthusiasm and that understanding to my reader, because these objects really have a lot of speaking to do.”

How the New York Loft Reclaimed Industrial Grit as Urban Luxury

Artists took over loft spaces in what came to be known as SoHo. (Orbon Alija/E+ via Getty Images)

In the decade after World War II, a two-block-long street called Coenties Slip in Manhattan’s financial district was the center of the art world.

Chryssa, Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin, Lenore Tawney and Robert Indiana lived in narrow brick walk-up buildings on Coenties, its name a relic from when some waterfront streets had actually been boat slips. Barnett Newman lived nearby on Front Street, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were around the corner on Pearl. Weavers, painters and sculptors whose work is now hung cheek by jowl at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art once dwelled in almost equal proximity, occupying unfinished spaces that sometimes still held the inspirational detritus of departed industries.

Other agglomerations of artists lived uptown, relatively speaking, on the Bowery or near Washington Square Park. But the relentless rise of the postwar economy didn’t leave such enclaves alone for long. New skyscrapers downtown, and the expansion of New York University around the park, created a litany of displacement: evicted 1952, to be torn down; lease terminated; jeopardized by highway.

As the skyline modernized, artists who had not yet found success had to find more space — space with light, space that didn’t need to be kept pristine, space grand enough to hold the oversize canvases and welded constructions that were increasingly au courant. One sculptor, whose tools of choice were scrap steel and an oxyacetylene torch, told The New York Times in 1962, “Who was it that said, ‘First we shape the building and then the building shapes us?’ My loft has turned out the best sculpture I’ve ever done. It’s demanded more of me.”

Why Do Teens Perpetually Love Shopping Malls?

On Literary Hub, a second excerpt from Meet Me by the Fountain focused on this totally important question.

A stepped, centralized seating area appears, in one form or another, in most malls built in the 1980s. Sometimes there’s a fountain. Sometimes there are plants. Sometimes there is a sculpture. If the mall is multilevel, skylights illuminate the space from above. Escalators traveling between floors make for easy, surreptitious people-watching. Is my friend hanging out at the mall? Is my crush? This is the atrium, the most important interior space of the mall for the adolescent both architecturally and psychologically.

The earliest indoor shopping malls, with their I-shaped, bowling-alley forms, had no centralized place where groups could gather, nor much need for one. But by the early 1970s, and the advent of more complexly laid-out malls in T-, X-, or O-shapes, patrons might wander forever, missing each other in the long, low-ceilinged identical halls. Hence the atrium, which has its own storied architectural history: Ancient Roman houses were centered on open-air or skylit spaces, which provided daylight and breezes to the rooms surrounding them.

These courts often had an impluvium, or fountain, to catch rainwater from the roof, as well as furnishings for outdoor entertaining. In the shopping mall, the atrium serves a similar function, opening up the middle of a building lined with windowless shops; letting in light, water, and plants; and furnished like a living room. The atrium was the center of the social life of the Roman domus and so, too, has it been the center of mall sociability.

Gruen envisioned Southdale as an ersatz town green and, indeed, some of that civic sensibility remains in the symmetry and greenery of mall atriums. But the theatrical aspect of circumnavigating, posing, or performing in that centralized space makes this green seem more like the gossipy New England of Peyton Place than the buttoned-up town squares of earlier American depictions.

99PI: Meet Us by the Fountain

It was a ton of fun to talk to Roman Mars about all things mall, and this episode provides a great primer on my book.

Like it or not, no teenager in America in the 1980s could avoid the gravitational pull of the mall, not even author Alexandra Lange. In her new book, Lange writes about how malls were conceptually born out of a lack of space for people to convene in American suburbs. Despite the fact indoor shopping malls are no longer in their heyday, malls have not gone away completely. Lange writes about the history of mall culture, and how the mall became a ubiquitous part of American life.

So are malls responsible for killing the downtown? Where did the rise of big entertainment malls come from? What will happen to the mall in a post-pandemic world? And what happens when malls begin to serve as de facto public spaces? To help us answer these questions, we spoke with Alexandra Lange, design critic and longtime friend of the show. Her book, Meet Me by the Fountain, is great, and is out today!

Get In, We’re Going to Save the Mall

Illustration by Ege Soyuer.

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.