Dawn of the dead mall: will we follow the US and dump the shopping centre?

An abandoned shopping mall in Harvey, Illinois, once the scene of the car chase in iconic movie The Blues Brothers. Flickr/Kenfagerdotcom

The shopping mall - it’s an essential part of American culture - the quintessential US shopping experience. And Australia isn’t far behind. More and more of us are ditching local stores for the convenience of the one-stop shop. But only a third of regional malls in the US are financially viable, and those in Australia could soon follow suit.

The first mall

In the newly created American suburbs of the early 1950s, a problem emerged about how to make shopping more convenient when cars were the dominant form of transport.

Designer Victor Gruen envisioned a fully enclosed shopping center that would be “the nucleus of a utopian experiment.”

He wanted to create a space that would be something more than simply a place to buy essentials.

His goal was to design an enclosed interior pedestrian city surrounded by ample parking that would encourage the consumer to linger longer, thus extending the possibilities of socialisation and community.

The first fully enclosed mall, Southdale Mall in Edina Minnesota, opened in 1952. Free from the perils of car traffic, Gruen’s dream of an internal pedestrian city was realised.

A model mall

Gruen’s design called for expansive, windowless cement exteriors, punctuated by “big blocks of color and inviting entrance arcades.”

The mute exterior of the mall offered nothing to the sidewalks and parking areas and created a distinct divide between the private shop and the cityscape.

Instead, the entire streetscape was brought indoors, into the more easily managed interior mall space.

The Southdale shopping mall design was so successful that it became the standard for retail construction in America for over fifty years.

The impact of the mass reproduction of this centrally controlled, privatised marketplace has been vast.

Temples of consumerism

Shopping malls have become more than just places to shop. Flickr

The success of Southdale was a catalyst for retail change. Hundreds of shopping malls copied its model across the country. It contributed to the decline of Main Street America and many inner cities across the country.

The enclosed shopping mall has proved to re-define the concept of a “town centre” by stripping away the sense of authentic community and freedom that existed in the traditional town centres of rural and urban areas across America.

Despite the negative connotations associated with the shopping mall, however, it has been referred to as a “temple of consumerism” and is discussed as offering a replacement for traditional temples of worship in an increasingly secular population.

Although the privatised and controlled nature of a shopping mall has led to the homogenisation of public space, the mall has engendered a sense of community amongst specific demographic groups, such as adolescents and the elderly, who use the space as a primary site for identity creation, companionship and social interaction.

The enclosed shopping mall has also become a symbol of American culture, and is frequently used as a backdrop for films and popular media depicting the American condition.

And the model has been replicated in suburban and urban environments throughout the world.

Australian malls

Australia adapted this model very early on, building the first suburban shopping centre, Chermside, in Brisbane in 1957.

Myers completed the design for the Chadstone shopping centre in the suburbs of Melbourne around the same period, and so the die was cast: suburban enclosed shopping malls started popping up across the country.

According to the Shopping Centre Council of Australia, currently there are 1,338 shopping centres in this country.

And, it says, “some of the larger centres attract well over 15 million shopper visits per year. Across Australia, there are 1.75 billion shopper visits each year. That means, on average, each Australian visits a shopping centre twice a week.”

Following the US

Shopping trends in Australia are often directly tied to the United States. Research by Morgan Stanley relays that Australia lags behind the US by about five years in their adoption of shopping trends.

According to the Wall Street Journal, in the United States “developers have been moving away from the enclosed-mall format in favor of "big box centres” anchored by free-standing giants such as WalMart.“

On the decline

Are empty malls the future for Australia? Flickr

The International Council of Shopping Centres says that only a third of a total 1,100 enclosed regional shopping malls in the United States are currently viable.

Similar factors may be influencing the Australian retail environment as a shift in spending online as well as the entry into the Australian market of the large big box retailer, Costco in 2009 have begun to noticeably effect local retail.

The recent bankruptcies of the Colorado Group and the REDgroup may signal a potential downturn in the viability of the enclosed shopping mall environment in Australia.

Big box boom?

How the big box store will affect suburban public space in Australia is an issue that will need to be addressed in coming years with the increasing popularity retailers such as Costco.

Big Box centres have replaced enclosed shopping malls in many areas across the US and pose a threat to public space in urban and social areas, as these environments do not provide the same elements found in an enclosed shopping center.

Although the Big Box offers some form of seating (a small amount of indoor or outdoor park benches) and in some stores, a small food area, a community space akin to a mall atrium or food court is lacking in the store design layouts of Big Box outlets such as WalMart.

This disrupts the availability of public space to primary user groups, elderly and teenagers, and is a cause for concern.

Like it or not, shopping malls are part of our culture, and if we don’t start shopping in them, we may just lose them.