The History of the Mid Century Shopping Mall
The central market must go back to the earliest times in the development of human civilization, a central place where trade and exchange of services was essential for the maintenance of agricultural production. Of course, this includes pottery, clothes and many other items which people made as the result of and for the purpose of processing or storage of agricultural products. Since a central location facilitates economic exchanges, central markets quickly spread throughout human civilization. The notion of a central market, therefore, is nothing new.
The mall shares with the ancient market the same ideas of a wider number of goods and services all in one place. Even the concept of many goods under one roof is not a modern concept. The development of department stores came a long time before the shopping mall. The modern shopping mall is the result of an invention that changed the nature of cities in very dramatic ways. This invention is the automobile.
The automobile lead to suburbs, a detachment from the central city. People no longer relied on horses or trolleys to shop, or to work for that matter. Regional shopping areas became more convenient and fully stocked with goods only centrally available before. Generally, people get to malls in cars. One of the most noticeable features of the shopping mall is the parking structures. No auto, no mall!
The Country Club Plaza, Kansas City, Missouri, was the first shopping center specifically designed for use of the automobile. It was established in 1922 by J C Nichols with an architectural style like that of Spain. Replete with murals and sculptures, this shopping area attempts to reconstruct the feeling of a southern European city from time gone by. Interestingly, this concept of recreating another place and time persisted up until present, even though this concept has fallen, as with the mall itself, out of favor.
With the rise of mail order stores branching out to suburban locations and the beginning of supermarkets and discount grocers, the movement to locate large shopping facilities outside the central city grew in momentum throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This also followed the rise of the national retailer over the small, family owned business. An example of this sort of shopping center during this period is Westwood Village in Los Angeles.
Shopping arcades existed in various places such as London, Paris, Milan and Moscow. Many were developed by covering existing structures already in place. Some go back even further in time. So what is a modern shopping mall? A covered shopping area will not provide a sufficient definition to exclude markets going far back in history. What would distinguish Trajan’s Market, for instance, from the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota
Forget that Trajan’s Market was built around 2000 years ago and most likely did not have air conditioning and escalators. The intention of the designers of these two complexes had the exact same purpose, to provide a place where people could purchase sundry goods all in one place and in a controlled environment. Trajan’s Market attests to the high level of civil development among the Romans during the Imperial Period, much like stadiums today are the great grand-children of the amphitheaters scattered throughout the empire.
However marvelous the interior of the great markets of old, those of the mid century are equally fantastic. We may not have this view today, in the year 2015, but when the shopping mall exploded across the US, one of the great draws was the awe inspiring open spaces and courtyards. This effect was intentional in the same way that gothic people were inspired by the immense volumes of space in cathedrals.
The amazing spaces contained in modern malls are without precedent. Even the Pantheon in Rome seems lame compared to the huge expanses engulfed by modern architecture in the largest malls. These malls are not just a testament to the power and facility of capitalism, but also to the level of ability of human endeavor in the modern age.
A “dead” mall is one that has commercially failed and is in limbo.
One must remember that public art in market areas is also not new. Think back to Trajan’s Market where exists Trajan’s Column.
The above is only a small representation of the vast number of mall art, from murals to whimsical seating, the mall was more than finding a coat for the winter or a glove for a baseball game.
The mid century produced mainly modern designs when it came to malls. They were meant to portray a technically progressive future, a future where humanity’s control over nature and the environment is complete, also a celebration of the wonders of modern, industrial capitalism and to show an image of a clean, ordered world where desires are fulfilled. The simple, linear geometry of much of Mid Century Modern design is mostly rejected in the exuberance of mall decoration. This mall architectural ideal continues today, even though most construction these days is in restoration and redesign rather than actual construction. Especially in the contemporary, architecture is much like the Baroque is to the Renaissance; curves, twists and undulations are seen as delightful affectations.
This is the end of Part One. Part Two will simply feature images of malls with modern design. In fact, Part Two will feature images I will use for an ebook about the artwork of the modern shopping mall.