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Its always wonderful to see ourselves and our lives through other perceptions-and this interesting piece in the The Guardian describes the experience of the West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton Alberta. In much the same way that Howard Schultz thought that every urban street corner could do with a coffee shop and came up with Starbucks, the Ghermezian brothers came up with another big idea. In Edmonton a place that had  a heck of a lot of winter, and in the 80’s, when big hair, big shoulder pads, and consumerism was king the idea of a mall that covered 48 blocks, included a hotel, a wave pool, and a hockey rink that could be used by an NHL team was inspirational. It also sounded like it would work.
The first phase of the mall opened in 1981 and  at 1.14 million square feet was just slightly smaller than the Tsawwassen Mills Mega Mall (1.2 million square feet) . Two more phases were added on in the 1980’s bringing the mall to mighty mega size, over 5.2 million square feet with 800 stores and services employing 24,000 people.  Over 32 million visitors shop here annually. Price Tags has just described Xanadu Meadowlands in this article. Xanadu Meadowlands is also owned by the Edmonton Ghermezian brothers. They  also happen to own  the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota . One family-three mega malls.

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As The Guardian states:  “The North American enclosed mall emerged to make the onerous tasks of domestic hunting and gathering convenient and enjoyable. Since opening in 1981, Edmonton’s mall has strived to add “wondrous” to that list, landing somewhere between grand and garish.In an era when about a third of US malls are expected to close because of failing department stores and lapsing consumer interest, West Edmonton Mall appears to thrive”.

“The fact is, West Edmonton Mall fulfils a need in the city as a vast expanse of quasi-public space. It is, at certain times of the year, an easy access biosphere in inhospitable terrain. Apart from the rare treat of a visit to the water park, the kids and I rarely spend a penny on the attractions; there’s no need. Instead, we watch skaters glide across the Olympic-sized rink, visit forlorn-looking puppies at the pet store, eat cheap doughnuts. We merge in and out of a meandering crowd of shoppers, and participate as fully as one can in a community united only by big name brands and the bizarreness of the surroundings”.

The mall is the place for an individual to selflessly delve into consumerism without outside distraction. The success of huge vast malls is that they cut consumers off from the actual world, recreating what the West Edmonton Mall calls “an entertainment and retail city”. 

Is the mega mall a uniquely 20th century phenomenon? As consumer patterns go to online retailing and lifestyles change will malls  continue to dominate on the consumer front?

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Comments

  1. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, Italy built in the 1870’s is often considered the forerunner of the modern mall. There are earlier example going all the way back to ancient Roman times.
    The shopping mall is a spaceship in a hostile environment, it’s attractions are numerous and its socializing potential is alluring. I expect that it will survive as a communal experience.

    1. Except for the fact the majority of malls are private landscapes that lock their doors in the evening and maintain a laughably cartoonish image of real streets with imagined 19th century facades and history that measures one millimetre in depth.
      Malls should never replace genuine walkable neighbourhoods.

  2. There’s nothing wrong with patronizing private shopping centres versus public streets.
    They offer different environments.
    Even if you walk into an old school department store, it’s tantamount to entering a mall – but with a much more obvious “one owner/proprietor” structure..
    Even department stores have compartmentalized themselves into mini-malls with high end luxury “concessions” – just walk through the new Nordstrom and you’ll see each high end designer in its own alcove. Those spaces are rented (like in a mall) to the designer companies.
    Even public markets are cousins of malls – themselves establishing a specific look and feel to their environments.
    In terms of shallow shopping appeal – Amazon seems to have that well in hand as its portals on your monitor are also 1mm in depth.

    1. There is nothing at all similar to private suburban malls about the Granville Island Public Market, or the entire island for that matter. I lived a block away from GI for a decade and loved this great piece of authentic Vancouver urbanism, an urban design and architectural response based on the actual history of the site and city, and which delved heavily into adaptive reuse instead of demolition. I still visit it often even though several malls are closer. The public market food retail activity was more than double per m2 than the highest grossing private Safeway in the region, as documented in an older study I once read.
      Downtown Granville Street never really recovered after the Pacific Centre mall sucked millions of people a year underground. It’s doing better with the higher levels of foot traffic from transit, but it’s not there yet. At least the PCM doesn’t rely on comic book facadism, but the cheapness of the finishes in the circulation areas belies its economic success. This is another story where quality gives way to mediocrity in architecture.
      What I find most annoying about malls (mainly in suburbia) is their utter lack of authenticity. They are so bad in their cheesy attempt to “copy” the walkable streets of our older established neighbourhoods that they are in fact working against that it they become painfully laughable. They will also completely fail without the majority of the real estate being entirely devoted to low value dead storage space for cars.
      This is not to say there isn’t hope. Malls will increasingly become the nucleus of communities as their outdated and discredited 60’s and 70’s planning and design falls away. As we’ve seen here, that will have everything to do with access to high-quality transit amenities and denser development. What is still lacking, though, is the political courage to conduct urban design consultation with the residents who surround malls in inappropriately low-density subdivisions.
      In addition, private malls can be enlivened with public uses, such as public squares and parks, and this can be done in part by creating public covered streets and building libraries, healthcare facilities, schools, care facilities, community and recreation centres and other public facilities within the bounds of a formerly private mall holding. The standards of urban design and architecture need to be far higher if malls are to evolve into marketplace squares and social focal points (i.e. the ‘downtown’) in given communities. Why not bring rapid transit into the indoor heart of a mall-to-town-centre redevelopment instead of to the edge, and make generous pedestrian plazas the heart?

  3. I’m certain indoor shopping malls are a hit in Dubai and Saudi Arabia where the climate is harder to wander for long at peak heat…the opposite of Edmonton’s winters.
    Vancouver/Lower Mainland have very mild winters. Be honest with yourself, if you want to walk at -25 degrees C across snow and ice as you grow old / fragile … in and out shops ? That’s what it’s like Edmonton and Calgary. My partner and I stared in wonder at a lone cyclist …on bike path @ -40 degrees C one winter day 2 yrs. ago… We were just walking 15 min. to a liveable/walkable neighbourhood nearby for a coffee.
    Indoor shopping malls are convenient if one plots in advance which stores to visit…which can be unnecessariy time consuming to walk length of a mall, to find a specialty shop.
    If combined with frequent walks, jogs and bike rides outdoors, it’s not the worst. The awful thing, is many suburban malls have some heavy car traffic roads to get to them, etc.

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