Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

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.