Once inside MOA, you're enclosed within a giant Habitrail. Still, I found myself perpetually disoriented. Body-routing you past the maximum number of storefronts, exits and escalators are carefully situated to prevent any easy flow from point A to point B, and the interior space is designed so that nothing serves as a landmark that isn't a shop or an "attraction." Though enamored of its own scale—"MOA is a mall, the way Australia is an island," runs one of its original slogans—the place ratchets your visual horizon downward, narrowing your focus to those four or five blandishments immediately in front of you. Even the modestly alert pedestrian, out (or is it "in"?) for a casual afternoon stroll, will get the distinct feeling that he or she isbeing poked and prodded, if not cozened and manipulated, by a battery of scientifically tested enticements to spend. What's lost in all this is any sense of particularity or place: all of the familiar brand names begin to blur, contributing paradoxically to the perfectly generic nature of the shopping environment. Here I was in the quintessential American megamall, and I could have been anywhere in the world.
Well, not quite: I was struck by the human resilience with which the mall's users have turned it into a fairly normal, semipublic space. There were yuppie mom joggers in the mornings and cruising singles at night. I pulled up to the unprepossessing Twin City Grill, only to find inside a pleasant bar where I could eat a tasty flatbread, drink a local lager, and watch a Red Sox game.
Nonetheless, there is a limit to MOA's charms. A mall is a mall by virtue of its placelessness. When one tries to brand a mall as something unique, one falls quickly into doublespeak. My favorite example remains the promotional copy on the Berjaya Times Square KL Web site: "Another unique design featured at Berjaya Times Square KL is the 65 restaurants and cafés occupying the third and fourth floors—Gourmet Street. This design brings the alfresco concept indoors to a completely air-conditioned surrounding..." Indoor alfresco dining is only the beginning of the mall-as-destination paradox. The idea behind the department store was that it brought the world to you. Why cover vast distances to go to a department store?Put another way, a mall is simply the convenient aggregation of commodities for sale. A Parisian open-air market may also be so described, but a Parisian market is the point of sale for a nearby countryside; and every object for sale in that marketplace is redolent thereof. In the typical surburban mall, meanwhile, commodities are presented as objects shorn of place, history, locality. And unlike a Parisian market, a mall is designed to be comforting in its nearly total inability to surprise. The fondest hope of every traveler is to be something other than a tourist, or a person who merely shows up to consume. It is the real traveler, the seasoned traveler, who lingers, blends in, discriminates. Malls are capitalism at its worst, perhaps, and probably not to be taken too seriously. But they are also designed to lay waste to that distinction.
STEPHEN METCALF is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.