Just shop till you drop. ''Meet Me by the Fountain : An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange.''

Like people and clouds and cars, malls come in many shapes and colors. But malls have certain bedrock commonalities. A handful of these are physical : food courts, escalators, kiosks, benches, plants, restrooms, parking. Others are intangible.

Malls are an ambiguous blend of public and private space - open to all in theory but inaccessible to many in practise. They are recreational zones, community hubs, surveillance centers, temples to consumerism, places where loitering is encouraged until the mall cops kick you out for loitering too much or in the wrong fashion.

Alexandra Lange's ''Meet Me by the Fountain'' is a well-researched introduction to the rise and fall and dicey future of an American institution. Perhaps the signature, American institution.

In a 1966 issue of The American Historical review, Kenneth T. Jackson wrote that ''the Egyptians have pyramids, the Chinese have a great wall, the British have immaculate lawns, the German have Castles, the Dutch have canals, the Italians have grand churches. And Americans have shopping centers.''

Jackson may have been stretching the case to make a [brutal] point, but it's hard to argue against a mall as a ubiquitous feature of postwar America.

Lange, a design critic, writes in her introduction about her anxiety that malls were ''potentially a lit bit embarrassing as the object of serious study.'' The fear diminished when she discovered how responsive people were when she mentioned the project. The response was nearly always ''Oh, let me tell you about my mall.''

Despite being ''a compromised and often architecturally despised form, an ersatz version of a more ancient high street,'' malls have much to offer.

Lange writes : an air-conditioned respite on hot days, a location where the isolated can get a taste of social life and all-day seating [as long as you abide by mall rules].

Might there be a world, Lange wonders, in which malls might reverse their decline and serve a civic function? Could malls of the future minimize their environmental footprint and peacefully coexist with online shopping?

The father of American malls was Victor Gruen, who studied architecture in his native Austria before fleeing in 1938. Upon landing in New York, Gruen quickly set his sights on retail.

When Architectural Forum magazine solicited ideas for the city of Syracuse, N.Y., in 1942, Gruen and the designer Elsie Krummeck suggested a vast shopping center that included a ''post office, circulating library, doctors' and dentists' offices, and rooms for club activities in addition to the usual shopping facilities.''

It was an ambitious vision of the enclosed retail, planned from the top down and functioning almost as a miniature town.

That pitch never came to pass - it might have been narrowly ahead of its time -but a bigger and better successor came to fruition in 1956, when Gruen's Southdale complex opened outside Minneapolis.

The center boasted 810,000 square feet of shops, 5,200 parking spaces, Harry Bertola sculptures, glass mosaic morals, a cylindrical cage containing 50 birds, a fish pond, a cafe and an indoor forest of magnolia and eucalyptus trees.

If you squinted, you could see Gruen's European tastes in Southdale : his love of gardens and promenades, and his belief that walking was a superior mode of transportation - even if you had to travel by car to get to his endlessly walkable passages.

In his planning stage, Gruen made both aesthetic and economic arguments on behalf of his scheme. Containing a bevy of shops within a single climate-controlled space would offer convenience to shoppers while eliminating the risk faced by store owners of losing sales to bad weather.

It would also deliver to smaller retail establishments the gift of collateral foot traffic. Think of the omnipresent mall pretzel kiosk: not a destination on its own, but awfully tempting to a shopper passing by.

And, this book is a useful survey, and Lange opens plenty of avenues for readers to to wander down, from the curious micro-genre of ''mallwave'' music to the devious ways in which developers have rendered malls hostile to so-called undesirable customers.

The Esquire issue in which Didion's essay appeared was devoted to '' Great American Things, '' and included paeans to apple pie, bluejeans, baseball, bourbon and television.

The rest of those things are still going strong. Whether malls will abide - whether they should - remains to be seen.

The World Students Society thanks review author Molly Young.


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!