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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.”
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.