The Mauling of America

Even if you're one of the naysayers. Even if you're proud of the fact that in the five years it's been open you've never visited. Even if you develop a gigantic blind spot every time you pass the hulking, fortress-like structure looming over the intersection of Cedar Avenue and Interstate 494, you can't help being fascinated by the facts.

Some 42 million people visit the Mall of America every year, more people than go to Disneyland. This year, more tourists visited the mall than visited our national parks and monuments. "For foreigners," says one French academic, "the Mall of America is already a national monument."

But for many Mallphobes, observing the shopping center's success is something like a terrible auto accident that occurs in front of you. In a state of disbelief you stare--even though you don't want to--dazzled and slightly nauseated. "It's been the unexpected [phenomenon] of the 20th century that shopping has become the ultimate human experience," notes Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect and the director of the Harvard Project on the City.

Koolhaas was the keynote speaker last week at a gathering of a multinational group of academics, design and architecture professionals, and scholars of urban and cultural studies at the University of Minnesota. At the four-day workshop titled "Learning From The Mall of America: The Design of Consumer Culture, Public Life and the Metropolis at the End of the Century," the academics puzzled over just how, why, and what the Mall of America means.

That the attendees agreed that the Mall of America and its theme-based mix of entertainment and retail has had an effect on our cities goes without saying. But for all of the mall's success in drawing the curious, the workshop painted a sketchy picture of America's retail future, a future even mall designers have admitted remains a challenge. American retail is overbuilt, they say, which means that in the next 10 years the number of vacant storefronts across the country will skyrocket as the industry continues to consolidate.

And as retail experiences its death throes, the effect is paradoxical: Malls themselves remain a good investment. That's because developers are going to ever-greater heights to find new ways of capturing shoppers' attention. Only the glitziest will survive. The megamall itself is a case in point. With its fifth anniversary barely over, and even with dire market predictions, mall administrators are still discussing adding phase two to the Mall of America: another 2.5 to 3 million square feet of leasable space.

That the conference should be scheduled here seems a natural. The indoor shopping mall was born at Southdale in Edina in 1956. It was the first multilevel enclosed mall in the country and made Victor Gruen, its creator, the authority on mall building. There's even a shopping theory named after Gruen.

"The Gruen Effect" is what happens when a clever 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 visitors to cross. "We want people to get lost in the mall," explains Tim Magill of Jerde Partnerships, the group that designed the Bloomington complex. "We want to tweak your perceptions so you'll be exposed to areas you would regularly pass by."

That there should be a formal theory encouraging people to get lost at the Mall of America seems absurd and perhaps even a little scary. But it's an example of how exaggerated retailing's response to encountering its own limits is, according to Koolhaas. "Look at shopping as a dying elephant that in its death struggle gets rather wild," he says.

In 1996, shopping centers accounted for 25 percent of all new construction in the United States. But within a decade 75 percent of American retail is expected to be extinct, Koolhaas' Harvard research group found. During the same time, half of all Canadian retail is expected to die out. Six hundred of our nation's 2,000 or so retail centers are expected to be changed or converted by the year 2000, he says, although to what no one knows.

In its death throes, Koolhaas insists, shopping is insinuating itself into every part of our lives. For instance, as it looks for ways to entrap the consumer, retailing is becoming more prevalent in places that used to be served by retail partners, such as airports. Airports used to contract with retailers to run souvenir shops and newsstands, Koolhaas says by way of example.

"Airports used to be serviced by their shopping. Now that relationship has been inverted and airport commissions are more in the business of running shopping and only incidentally involved in running airports." He points to the British Air Authority, which runs Heathrow and other airports in Britain and elsewhere. At its Philadelphia facility, British Air Authority runs a two-story shopping arcade complete with a Nature Company outlet.

The planes are almost incidental, there seemingly to drag customers past the stores. "Airport space is space that systematically bolts all its exits," he explains. "You have to get through the maze to get to your destination and it is shamefully clear malls are becoming more and more like this.

"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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