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density 13

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 24-May-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 918

More mall pall than Pall Mall

Elizabeth Farrelly – Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architectural issues for the Herald

FANTASISE this: for some reason – dollars a barrel, airborne particulates or, conceivably, government backbone – petrol is all but prohibited. Car use, while not banned, has shrunk to maybe one-20th of present levels. Sydneysiders drive only as absolutely necessary. For the rest, we walk, cycle or take trams. What would change?

Well, everything, really. Schools, holidays, work, densities and, most conspicuously, shopping. With driving not impossible but difficult, we would live as people do now in Paris or Berlin; owning a car but garaging it maybe 10 kilometres away on the city edge, strictly last resort.

Shopping would therefore happen in smaller, more frequent bites. The mall (which requires vast catchments) would disappear. Streets – quiet, sweet-smelling, humming now with cyclists and human commerce – would opportunistically sprout shophouses, making them porous to our experience, as a sea wall is to a crab.

Signage would persist, only dramatically reduced in scale and punch, being designed for a slow, thoughtful eye rather than a fast, hermetically sealed one. Manners would resume significance, as car-based dissociation, encouraging us to see city as rat race, gave way to constant, unavoidable human-to-human negotiation. God knows we’d probably enjoy it. Probably like each other.

OK. It’s fantasy. But it started here: try as one might, it’s impossible to imagine a shopping mall that is good or even halfway decent architecture. At best, mall architecture is gimmicky and anodyne, representing everything sad about globalism. This is mysterious. Plenty of shops are interesting design creatures. Plenty of markets, arcades, stalls, auction rooms, bourses, bazaars and department stores attest an intricate and succulent grasp of human nature. But not malls.

Malls make you feel titillated, but also needy, oppressed, disoriented and under par. They’re meant to. It’s like chocolates. The worse you feel, the more you buy. One thing you don’t see much of in a mega mall, therefore, is social life. Whereas in a high street you might stop for a coffee, in a mall you bump into someone, you say hi, press on. This is because, from the first car park moment, the place is designed as a disconnect, separating you from your reality and from your higher, warmer self. It’s designed to put you in a bubble – a car-like bubble – of self-gratification.

Which is another reason why the mall experience begins and ends at the car park. Grey, fumey and jammed with other irritable, bubble-wrapped humans, the car park is no pleasure-dome. It’s designed to do a kind of good-cop-bad-cop routine with the mall interior, making you more susceptible to the shopping urge.

There’s no architecture because there’s no outside. Unlike the grand shopping emporia of prewar years, the mall doesn’t try to look attractive. Often, indeed, it’s virtually exteriorless; an inside with no outside, a womb space. The mall relies on the selective blindness of car-based suburbia; impelled by our residual hunter-gatherer urges, we pour on in.

The first shopping mall, the Southdale Centre in Edina, Minnesota, was the brainchild of an Austrian immigrant, Victor Gruen, in 1956. Gruen used an aviary, orchestra, hanging garden and artificial trees to keep people shopping. “More people – for more hours,” he wrote in 1973, “means cash registers ringing more often and for longer periods.”

Gruen hoped to revitalise American towns by re-creating the traditional Viennese plaza. Ironically, the opposite happened. The mall, as the US State Department website notes, has become “a way of life in America” but is widely credited with destroying the physical and social fabric of American cities.

Who shops there? Everyone, but mostly women. Men shop when necessary – fast, and badly. Women, however, like shopping. As the New York retail anthropologist Paco Underhill says, “Men dart in, look around, refuse to ask for help … and split. Boom.” For women, it’s not just acquisition; the forage itself is soothing as a good massage. Recent US research suggests this gender patterning may change, that “young men now shop like young women”. But the Neanderthal factremains. Men hunt, women gather.

On shopping streets, reports Underhill, people walk at roughly 6kmh, men outpacing women. In the mall, it’s maybe half that, and women are faster. Malls now are bought and sold on their “Gruen factor”, measuring how many nanoseconds it is from entry before the purposeful gait becomes an ambling stroll. Women, though, grow purposeful as the urge-to-shop blossoms. Women’s paid employment may havereduced their shop time, but it has also increased their spending power. In mall shopping especially, women are, in Underhill’s words, “the primary actors”.

So, if the shopping-gene sits on the x-chromosome, the unaskable question becomes: how much of the mall’s urban destruction is female-led? Women like malls because they’re known, comfortable, and safe – from muggers and spitters, from sun, storms, and mendicants. It’s that womb thing. But in losing the risk element, we lose the publicness. And there’s the rub.

Commentators have lately predicted the mall’s demise, due to a mix of “e-tail” and high-street fight-back. In fact, though, while Westfield Bondi Junction gets21 million visits annually (averaging $35 a pop) and cyberspace remains littered with empty shopping carts, mall death seems another exaggerated rumour.

hich is a shame, really. Here we are, safer, fatter, richer than ever. And more-than-ever obsessed by safety, thinness and stuff; more anxious, more depressed. Underhill believes shopping malls have taught people to walk slower everywhere, all the time – thus enhancing obesity. And retail “therapy”, a recent Observer article noted, can “actually make you depressed”.

Maybe we should get out more. Take a walk, a risk, maybe even shop in the street.


Photo: Daniel O’Brien


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