Reading the Shopping Mall City
If the shopping mall is a text, and specifically an encoded text of a city, how shall we read it? As a seemingly endless concatenation of crass, vulgar displays urging consumerism and overspending: as dystopia reified? To Joan Didion, for example, malls are "toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes..." (179). Or shall we see this text, these malls, as the representation of an idealized city, a contemporary fabrication of the mythical, utopian city? And is it a city advanced beyond words, a city relying on images to express the structure within, that urban structure which is, as Ihab Hassan once said, "invisible, imaginary, made of dream and desire, agent of all our transformations" (94)? An understanding of this dependence on images is crucial to an appreciation of the traditional semiotics of the mall-as-city. Concurrent with the development of the mall, a concept with a coherent genealogy dating from the mid-nineteenth century, is the movement toward visual language as a prime transmitter of culture. In Western societies today, for instance, films, videos, and television are the primary bearers of narrative form. The panoply of the shopping mall provides an experience more active and direct than those filtered through a camera; it contains the visual media--the signs--for subjects to manipulate into the terms of their own texts. This manipulation results in a poetics and theatre emanating from the people, the shoppers, since anyone is free to play with the images and create a personal story, however brief, ephemeral, or surreal. Cities, of course, can be read as texts. Their topographies reflect, among other things, the economic stratification of urban life. But just as communities and neighborhoods within cities bind, so do they isolate and limit: witness the desolation of so many of our inner cities. Boundaries among groups in cities tend to be rigid, the demarcations sharp and unyielding. The mall, on the other hand, with its recombinant properties, its reduction to basic forms not unlike those of abstract art, offers a more democratic hope and possibility, despite its connection to private enterprise. This democratic impulse owes itself in part to the ease with which the visual language is acquired and, secondly, to the fact that it is an aspect of mass culture associated primarily with the feminine. Mass culture itself--traditionally denigrated because of this association with the feminine--implies conditions of accessibility and inclusion.[ 1] The shopping mall's tale of a city, despite its minimalist components, can be more multifaceted and more challenging to read than that of a traditional city.
I return to my question: What is the nature of this mall city, if city it is? How shall we decipher its code? Much has been written of the carefully calculated design of malls: the scientifically determined mix of shops, the necessity of appropriate department store anchors, the awareness of Reilly's Law of Retail Gravitation (people generally will patronize the largest mall in the area), and the understanding of the Gruen Transfer (the metamorphosis of a goal-oriented shopper into the more welcome aimless browser, named after Victor Gruen, architect of the first enclosed mall in 1956 at Southdale in Edina, Minnesota). Surrender and disorientation of shoppers, calculated succumbing to white noise and "architectural transparency" (Olalquiaga 2): no wonder critics see mall visitors as duped, doped, lulled! Is it just possible, though, that these visitors are liberated at least as much as they are drugged? What can be made of the willingness of real people to seek such a seemingly passive experience, and to court it happily, repeatedly, often? Mall critics tend to see only the manipulation of consumers through the careful creation of false needs and desires. Yet mall planners, for all their sophisticated formulae of store mix and analyses of consumption patterns,...
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