Dead or destination? Shopping malls in the 21st century

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Dead or destination? Shopping malls in the 21st century

Shopping malls changed retail as we know it and became iconic places to meet up and hang out, especially in the US. But now the golden times for shopping malls seem to be over. Online shopping threatens the brick and mortar shopping experience, so the question is: How can shopping malls survive?

Before we explore how designers are tackling this existential issue, first let’s take a look at how shopping malls came to be.

A city under a roof

The way shopping malls are designed was heavily influenced by the Austrian architect Victor Gruen. He left Vienna in 1938 for New York City, where he made a name for himself designing retail spaces.

His concept centred around the idea of building a communal space inspired by European town squares. A place not just for shopping, but to socialise and feel connected.

Gruen imagined a miniature “city under a roof”. Fully enclosed from the outside world, but covered in natural skylight, the climate-controlled environments should mimic actual city centres. He was aiming for a lively plaza with statues, fountains, greenery and shops. They would invite visitors to spend time strolling around marvelling at the colourful window displays.

His vision manifested in the Southdale Center, which opened in 1956:


It was America’s first example of a large-scale indoor mall, with two levels of retail space and 75 individual shops. And its success was instantaneous. Customers valued the mall as social meeting point and so did retailers.

The way it was constructed created plenty of opportunities to get lost and distracted by the variety of products., and the windowless maze of stores lead visitors to give into impulse buys more easily. This feeling of “pleasant disorientation” became known as the Gruen effect.

The death of shopping malls

 However, in the 21st century, this design may not be working anymore. The rise of online shopping has heavily disrupted the retail industry.

 Amazon now dominates consumer spending in the US. Between 2010 and 2016, sales on the giant online marketplace rose from $16 billion to $80 billion. Meanwhile mall visits declined by 50% between 2010 and 2013 alone and have been free-falling ever since.

As a result, hundreds of malls have shuttered in the past two decades. Plenty of them have fallen into disrepair. As infamous dead malls they sit abandoned, only to be visited by the occasional urban explorer.


Some spaces have been reinvented and repurposed, granting dead malls a new life as churches, apartment complexes or indoor farms.

But the remaining shopping malls are forced to transform and redevelop to attract customers that are getting more and more used to the convenience of e-commerce.

Go big or go home: The destination mall

The American Dream Meadowlands presents a solution to this challenge in the form of a gigantic mega-mall project in New Jersey.


Set to open in 2018, the mall will include over 450 luxury brand retail stores and high-end restaurants. But the key selling point is not going to be its size, but its spectacular attractions.

“You can’t go to a water park on Amazon” is Don Ghermezian’s motto for the American Dream. More than anything the mall will feature advanced entertainment facilities. This includes cinemas, theatres, a theme park, an aquarium, an observation wheel and even an indoor ski slope, which will be the first of its kind in North America.

This mall is set to be a destination for visitors from all over the region. Unlike traditional shopping centres that are aimed at local shoppers, destination malls attract millions of residents and tourists who are willing to drive miles for a unique experience.

Yet there are many who have opposed the billion-dollar project. The opening date had to be pushed back several times due to financial problems and changing developers. And residents are voicing concerns about increasing traffic and the environmental consequences of the excessive climate control systems.

A shopping mall in disguise: The community centre

A totally different approach to reconceptualising shopping malls are community or lifestyle centres. They are corporate retail spaces that strongly resemble public parks or urban promenades.

These concepts are a lot closer to the traditional town centres, which inspired shopping malls in the first place. They are small and local and full of greenery. But unlike Gruen’s indoor cities they are not shielded from the outside world by glass and concrete.

A lot of community centres are open air, with umbrella-like structures to hold back rain and direct sunlight. This design integrates community centres much more seamlessly into the social fabric of a city. It also means a significant cut in energy use for air-conditioning, thanks to the outdoor spaces and the improved shading.


The Commons in Bangkok visualises an example for this style of malls. The architect Vicharee Vichit-Vadakan wanted to create “a space that would allow people to spend time outdoors, outside of an air-conditioned room”. She achieved that by incorporating a lot of greenery in her design, as well as a grass lawn on the rooftop.

Community centres are getting more and more popular. But even though they are presented as fully-integrated and accessible public spaces, they are still primarily retail environments. As such they are strategically targeted to middle- and upper-class customers from better neighbourhoods.

Physical space as an asset

As it stands, shopping malls must seriously step up their game, if they want to compete with the convenience of e-commerce.

Gruen’s shopping malls focused on the idea that the physical space of retail can provide more than just a product display. Now we can see how modern developers are updating this approach by offering places for entertainment, recreation and social interaction.

Emphasis is now placed on ensuring developments are energy-efficient and delivered using sustainable architecture, and there is also a need to involve city stakeholders and citizens throughout the planning process.

However, if executed successfully, retail locations may be able to add value to the customer experience in a way that digital shopping experiences never can.

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