The Mauling of America

"The Gruen Effect" is what happens when a good mall layout causes task-oriented shoppers to forget the purpose of their quick trip to the store and begin shopping aimlessly. It's also the very threshold that the designers of the Mall of America want visit

"Shopping," he concludes, "is facing a simultaneous triumph and decline."

Sitting through four days of this talk is like living temporarily with junkies. These people would never dream of trying to make money by building something besides a new mall. Even with the dire predictions, there's a sense that if you build it bigger and funner, the money will follow.

Consider the megamall's plan to keep its own excitement going: Dubbed the Hyperport, a new 2.5- to 3-million-square-foot annex to be built on the old Met Stadium site or along 24th Street, would house various "themed" interactive learning exhibits. The 18 interactive districts would include an Urban Destination and Resort Area complete with hotels, apartments, condos, a spa, water park and ice center; a virtual Town Center, a one-stop career-and-employment center; and an electronic travel-and-tour center and more. If the Mall of America is the Disney World of buying, the Hyperport would be its Epcot Center.

The Hyperport may keep the thrill in the megamall for a little while longer, but the idea of pairing entertainment with retail is already almost passé, conferees suggested. Cities are picking up on the tactic of using theme-based restaurants and retail to bring people downtown, says Robert Bruegmann, an art historian from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Minneapolis is no exception; its plan to bring people downtown to Block E entails building a diverse, themed entertainment restaurant and retail complex. (In fact, the opening of the Mall of America should have signaled the end of downtown Minneapolis's efforts to function as a retail hub. "Minneapolis played a role up until 1992," one former Dayton's exec bluntly told the conference. "They must now carve out a new role for themselves.")

All of which reflects the shrinking role of department stores, by the way. "During the 1970s, malls became the preferred tool for urban revitalization," adds Bruegmann. "The city had been based on the ailing department store, which had been ailing--if anyone cared to look--throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s. We may not have any in 10 years."

Indeed, even during the megamall's planning stages both Macy's and Bloomingdale's went through financial restructuring and the mall, which was originally planned with four main department-store anchor tenants and more than nine smaller department-store tenants, was pared back as the department store's market dominance declined.

"The biggest challenge the Mall of America has faced is consolidation of retail," says Tony Armlin, a member of the firm McLauchlin Armlin and Associates, which designed the mall. "Basically, are there enough stores to fill the space?"

That, Koolhaas concludes, will never really be a problem. Shopping has become synonymous with modernization. And because it is threatened, it has associated itself with all kinds of other activities (like flying out of airports). So even though we think we may be able to remain separate from it, it is already a part of our genetic material, Koolhaas says. "Just as you cannot be critical of oxygen, you cannot be critical of shopping. It is a programmatic lava where everything is connected to everything else. There is no stopping, but also there is no heart or identity."

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