The Purpose Of The “Mall”

Community as a Framework for the Mall

September 26, 2017

To frame the discussion on the second day of our Mall Plus+ design charrette, our designers started by asking themselves what the purpose and function of the mall is today. Citing and drawing inspiration from ancient Roman towns where social attractors fostered community connectivity, our designers reflected on the fact that, “community generates retail, not the other way around.” – David Stavros, Senior Design Principal | Executive Vice President, Asia. A similar analogy referenced a village in rural India where the installation of a single lightbulb allowed local women to gather nightly to sew and share stories. The addition of a second lightbulb doubled the gathering and ultimately, cultivated a public market. While exchanging stories, our designers were inspired to further discuss the role and function of retail within the larger context of the community.

The first “mall” as we know it today opened in 1956 in Edina, Minnesota. Designed by Austrian architect Victor Gruen, Southdale Shopping Center was intended to inspire the community feeling of a European arcade in a North American suburb. Originally conceived as a locus of atriums where the community could feel comfortable to chat and mull over life while sipping coffee and shopping, the mall experience was meant to mimic the laid-back setting of a visit to a European piazza. However, upon a later visit to the mall, Gruen observed that, what was originally intended to bring people together through common spaces, became sprawling developments. Doing the exact opposite they instead, promoted suburban sprawl by serving car culture through extensive seas of parking and attracted and benefitted developers that were only interested in making profit.

Malls have been a mainstay for over half a century and are built on the legacy of an antiquated model that has no viability in today’s world, particularly when considering the disruptive forces on the horizon – many of which remain to be seen. Designed around an anchor tenant, the success of today’s mall has relied on finding a major retailer that draws people into a manufactured environment – devoid of the forces of nature and anything other than the character of its individual vendors. As disruptors transform the face of retail, in-person shopping experiences have been largely replaced by the convenience of online shopping – leaving purchasers wanting more authentic, engaging, and community-oriented experiences when they do choose to go to a traditional brick and mortar store. The mall simply doesn’t cut it anymore.

“Community generates retail, not the other way around.” – David Stavros, Senior Design Principal | Executive Vice President, Asia.

When we place the current design of the mall within the framework of what defines strong communities, we begin to flesh out what’s missing: a well-knit community isn’t simply a destination you go to, to do something. By owning a distinct character, a strong community creates a sense of belonging or membership that attracts and welcomes the very type of people that resonate with its essence. Through this sense of belonging, members of a community are looking to employ some level of influence on it. They want to feel like their needs are being heard, understood, and met by contributing to how the community is shaped and through its ongoing growth and evolution.

As a community continues to respond to the needs of its people, it can better attend to the group by reflecting the needs of individuals through the lens of each as a whole person by fulfilling a rounded set of requirements. As a result, communities become multi-faceted hubs that serve a variety of needs through a curated collection of services and amenities that create a shared emotional connection and join people through common experiences. As communities evolve organically in response to the needs of its members, they take on a life of their own and reorganize as required to support the whole. Communities begin to embody their own aesthetic and style, making them distinct from others – they become original and unique within themselves.

When we look at the characteristics of the mall today, we can see that this type of community feeling has been lost – replaced by environments that are rigid and leave people feeling disconnected from each other and out of touch with the world around them. The reason today’s malls are failing is because they’ve lost their purpose – the reason why they exist in the first place. It’s only when the mall becomes what it was once intended to be – a meeting place for people to connect in a space that authentically reflects who they are and moves flexibly into the future – that we will begin to see the revival of the institution. And this led our designers to their next question, “do we even need malls?”

Stay tuned to hear more about what they think.