Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

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.

“A Resource of Semi-Public Community Space”

Dayton's Department Store at Southdale, 1956 (courtesy Gruen Associates).

An interview about the book with Martin C. Pederson, one of my first editors (at Graphis and later Metropolis).

Alexandra Lange’s new book, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, is aptly titled. For a book clocking in at a brisk 263 pages, it’s an engaging, elegantly written, and deceptively comprehensive work. Lange is a wonderful critic, so one of the consistent pleasures of the book is the rigor she brings to the mall, as both an architectural idea and a cultural phenomenon. She likes them, even with their very obvious flaws and shortcomings. Recently I talked to Lange about the book, whether malls are a dying building type, and what becomes of them in the future.

MCP: Let’s start where I usually start: the origin story for the book. Tell me why you wanted to write about…a dying building type.

AL: I think “dying building type” is up for debate. That said, there are two different origin stories. One of them is that when I finished my last book, The Design of Childhood, which ends with kids at around 12 years old, I realized that I was starting to get interested in teenagers. I wrote a couple of articles for Curbed about teenagers in public space and teenagers and the public library. The logical third space after that is teenagers and the mall. So that was on my mind. How are we providing for teenagers? Where do teenagers go? Why is there this black hole in the literature about teenagers, even more so than there had been for children, which is why I wrote my other book?

The second part was, I was the architecture critic for Curbed at the time, and I started noticing that people seemed to be building things that were in my mind shopping malls, but they weren’t calling them shopping malls. The most notable example being Renzo Piano’s City Center Bishop Ranch, which is in the greater Bay Area. Of course, Renzo, whenever he does a project, goes on and on about the piazza. And it sounds perfect in his accent.

So he was talking about City Center Bishop Ranch. The architecture was all very tasteful and high end. It’s a wealthy area that doesn’t have a main street. I was looking at the plans and I thought: This is a shopping mall.

Lessons From the Golden Age of the Mall Walkers

The Winter Garden in Manhattan (courtesy Pelli Clarke & Partners).

I’m so excited to start sharing content from Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall with you leading up to its June 14 publication day. This first excerpt is from Chapter 5: Whose Mall Is It Anyway?

When Caroline Knutson began walking laps at the Lancaster Mall in Salem, Oregon, in 1982, she felt like she was onto something. She had signed up for TOPS — Take Off Pounds Sensibly, a nationwide nonprofit wellness group — and it provided new friends as well as a new routine. She chatted, shopped and exercised, on dark winter mornings as well as light summer ones. Back then she drove herself to the mall and walked without assistance. By 2013, when the The Statesman Journal caught up with her, she was vision impaired and using a rolling walker. Her daughter had to drop her off, but she still showed up most weekday mornings at the mall. Now she made one half-mile loop of the mall rather than six to eight.

“Asked how she navigates the mall with such poor vision, she chuckles through her response: ‘I’ve walked there since 1982. I know that mall,’” reads the Journal profile. After heart surgery in 2003, a doctor suggested she get on a treadmill. “I’m a mall walker!” Knutson’s daughter remembers her mother proclaiming.

The Future of Public Parks

The Emerald Necklace in Boston. Marcus Baker / Alamy.

The landscape architect Sara Zewde met me at the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Central Park North, a busy intersection that overlooks both the Harlem Meer and a Dunkin’ Donuts, the park and the city. Her home and her office are nearby, but there’s a deeper meaning in this location for Zewde, who is one of a small number of Black women licensed in landscape architecture in the United States. Glancing at Central Park, which is considered the crowning achievement of Frederick Law Olmsted (and his collaborator Calvert Vaux), Zewde told me how Olmsted’s writing had been “formational” for Malcolm X during his time in prison, when the civil-rights leader was searching, as he later recounted, for texts that spoke “the truth about the black man’s role.” He found part of that truth in Olmsted’s account of his travels through the South before the Civil War, collected in “The Cotton Kingdom.” “Books like the one by Frederick Olmstead,” Malcolm X said, “opened my eyes to the horrors suffered when the slave was landed in the United States.”

In 2019, Zewde, a native of the South, embarked on a four-month-long project retracing Olmsted’s journey from D.C. to Louisiana. She regards Olmsted’s Southern travels and, indeed, his way with words, as a core yet understudied aspect of his career. “Obviously, Olmsted could not have seen the future and his influence on Malcolm X, but I reflect on this intersection a lot,” Zewde said. “Olmsted did talk about the value of Black people gathering,” she continued. “He didn’t foresee Harlem becoming the mecca that it is for the global Black diaspora, but here we are.”

99PI: Murder Most Fowl

The fine folks at 99 Percent Invisible turned my piece on bird-safe building design into an audio story, and also spoke to Kaitlyn Parkins at New York City Audubon for much more on the avian side of the equation.

“The surprising uptake of birding as a pandemic hobby,” writes design critic Alexandra Lange, “has created new visibility for bird collisions with glass, which kill as many as 1 billion birds in the U.S. per year.” In a piece for Bloomberg’s CityLab, she traces the connection between open spaces, contemporary building design strategies, and bird deaths.

Open spaces in big cities, like urban parks, are great for migrating birds, but what surrounds them often isn’t. “A new generation of urban parks has given birds more places to roost in highly populated areas. But something else has followed these parks as well: real estate capital. The vogue for urban parks creates more economic impetus to build shiny buildings with big windows opposite those urban wetlands, glades and groves.” Bird collisions are common with these buildings because birds don’t perceive glass the same way people do, and will crash into all glass facades while on their migration route. These collisions are part of the reason North America has three billion fewer birds today than in the 1970s, according to a recent study.

A Bookstore Revival Channels Nostalgia for Big Box Chains

A children's section at a Los Angeles Barnes & Noble. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times.

When the final Harry Potter installment was published on July 21, 2007, bookstores across the U.S. celebrated with midnight release parties — some with booze, befitting a series whose earliest readers were now in their 20s. These parties took place at thousands of bookstores at a time that was, in retrospect, Peak Bookstore.

“That era, 1997 to 2007, was truly a sweet spot for readers,” Jenna Amatulli reminisced in HuffPost in 2017. “They watched the fandom bloom from nothing, lined up willingly outside of a physical store — oftentimes without a celebrity-sighting incentive — and read without the fear of a push-alert or Twitter spoiler.”

Turnout for the same release today would be lower, because of Inc., because of dying malls, because of J.K. Rowling’s support for gender essentialism — and because there are simply fewer bookstores. Between 1991 and 2011, the U.S. lost 1,000 chain bookstores. A story in The Bulwark checking in on Borders locations 10 years after its 2011 bankruptcy revealed that some had become Books-A-Million, but many more of their “medium-box” locations now sold food, furniture or clothes.

Even so, that HuffPost story, now five years old, may have played taps for the chain bookstore too soon.