Late at night, the Mall of America is one exquisitely creepy place. In the center of its seven-acre atrium hulks a giant Snoopy. Across from Snoopy, an equally mammoth ax—part of a dormant amusement ride—stands bolt upright. The general aesthetic can best be described as slasher film meets airplane hangar, with hints of Pompidou. Above Camp Snoopy stretch miles of exposed piping. Below, the roving tweens and teens who buzzed through the mall during the day are gone, and an adult crowd, in search of nightlife, breaks an otherwise cavernous silence. They're heading to the so-called "Upper East Side" on the fourth and top floor of the shopping mecca in Bloomington, Minnesota, across from its massive multiplex. The Upper East Side is fully innocuous, if vaguely sinful. It's filled with arcades, a piano bar, a sports bar, a comedy club, and a Hooters. Bands of men and women, clad in what look like the spoils of a day shopping on the mezzanines below—Gap, J. Crew, and Guess—are heading toward the up escalator. Listen carefully, though, and you will hear more than Midwestern American English being spoken. Posh English accents mix in with Brooklynese and bursts of French, German, Hindi, and Korean.
I've always loved malls, because the contradictions of a place designed to be all things to all people are so manifestly absurd. At the Mall of America—or MOA, as it refers to itself—the contradictions are on vivid display these days. MOA is just the classic American mall on steroids. In industry parlance, it's a double dumbbell, four massive anchor stores connected by four equally massive pavilions. And there's more to come: a size-doubling expansion is currently under way. Aside from sheer scale, it does not look or feel substantially different from the concourses at the airport. And yet it now markets itself as an international tourist destination. Unless you're willing to believe that Cinnabon and Glamour Shots are to America what the Pantheon or Sistine Chapel are to Rome, this will no doubt strike you as slightly comical. But MOA is only falling in line with the paradigm shift now overtaking the entire mall industry. "As one of the most visited destinations in the United States," the promotional materials read, MOA "works hard to maintain its reputation as a unique shopping and entertainment destination." As a family vacation destination, MOA says it rates higher than New York City, Chicago, and Las Vegas. The magic word, in case you missed it, is destination.
The latest bit of industry jargon, destination crops up everywhere in the world of global malldom. Berjaya Times Square Kuala Lumpur, a 7.5 million-square-foot jumbo mall in Malaysia, is "set to propel Kuala Lumpur into a regional and international destination for shopping and entertainment." At the planned Dubai Mall, "the shopping will be without equal, [but] restaurants and movie theaters will make Dubai Mall an entertainment destination that has something for everyone." This signals a move away from community as the marketing buzzword of choice. Big-box retailers and their various architects and developers—no doubt sincerely, but also to help make something entirely private-spirited appear entirely public-spirited—once argued that malls were the new community spaces, modern equivalents of the piazza, town square, or village green. From this new community, however, customers were not supposed to notice anything missing—say, urban spontaneity, a devotion to pedestrian life and historical preservation, or any of the traditional rights associated with public spaces, such as the right to assemble or to protest. Accordingly, intellectuals and urban planners have disdained malls as scourges of the earth, as manufacturers of narcotized zombies. "One moves for a while in aqueous suspension, not only of light, but of judgment, not only of judgment, but of personality," Joan Didion wrote in the sixties about California's new shopping centers.
From the opening of the Northgate Mall outside Seattle in 1950, the communal ideal espoused by developers has conflicted with a basic economic reality: the closer you live to a mall, the less time and money you are likely to spend there. Conversely, the farther you travel to get to a mall, the more lucre you are likely to shed to justify the trip. Not surprisingly, malls love travelers. As malls have become ubiquitous and competition between them intense, the principal claim in their favor has shifted. No longer town squares providing comfort and belonging to those who live near them, malls are now sold to their prospective communities on their potential ability to draw visitors from far-flung places. No wonder "destination" now trumps "community." While malls have always been categorized by geographic reach—from neighborhood malls, drawing on a two-mile radius, to superregionalmalls, serving a 100-mile radius—the era of the global mall is dawning. Mammoth, sleek mega-emporia, designed in some instances as surrogate downtowns, are sprouting up across Asia and the Middle East: Villa Moda in Kuwait City, Three on the Bund in Shanghai. A new, transnational consumer, able to take advantage of cheap airfares and fluctuating currencies, is responding to their obvious allure.
All of this occurs to me as I gaze across the atrium upon Camp Snoopy. Next to its distant Asian and Middle Eastern cousins, MOA is a provincial American dinosaur, caught between identities. It would like to be both a cozy, surrogate downtown and an enticing global destination. In the struggle to brand itself in the new era, MOA resorts to three tactics: scale, variety, and novelty. MOA may be just a couple of dumbbells, but it is big—I mean big, the biggest shopping mall in the United States. It can therefore contain multitudes, well over 500 shops, from every brand known to man (Coach, Williams-Sonoma, Banana Republic, Victoria's Secret—you name it, it's here) to every oddity (the Endangered Species Store, Aquamassage) to every niche purveyor (Sox Appeal, the Garlic Shoppe) imaginable. It also features 50 or so restaurants, whose offerings range from food-court fare to the creations of the Napa Valley Grille, an upscale California bistro with $25 entrées and an impressive wine list. And finally, it has "attractions," or the stuff you probably won't find at home. I visited the aquarium—in its underwater acrylic tunnel you are surrounded by exotic fish and sharks—rode in the NASCAR simulator, and ate a gourmet pressed-panini sandwich.
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.
A brief history
1784 The Palais-Royal arcades in Paris expand to include theaters, cafés, and stores, creating one of the world's first multi-entertainment shopping centers.
1862 Entrepreneur Alexander Turney Stewart creates the U.S.'s first true department store in Manhattan.
1878 The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, the original glass-covered shopping arcade, opens in Milan.
1922 The Country Club Plaza, the first planned suburban shopping center, opens in Kansas City, Missouri.
1956 Southdale Center opens in Edina, Minnesota. A fully enclosed, climate-controlled, bi-level shopping center, it becomes a model for regional malls.
1962 Discount retailers Target, Wal-Mart, and Kmart begin operations. Wal-Mart later expands to 5,000 stores worldwide.
1974 The first outlet shopping center opens in Reading, Pennsylvania. By 2000, factory outlet stores will account for $14 billion in sales.
1981 The 5.3 million-square-foot West Edmonton Mall in Edmonton, Alberta, opens, ushering in the megamall era.
1985 The first Cinnabon appears at the food court in Seattle's SeaTac Mall. Over 500 million served since then.
1992 Minnesota's Mall of America opens with 10,000 employees on hand, attracting visitors from around the world. It remains the largest mall in the U.S.
1999 The original Sherman Oaks Galleria shopping mall in L.A., immortalized in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), closes, a victim of dissipating interest in traditional malls. It will soon reopen as a mixed-use retail-and-office complex, the new model for large shopping centers.
2004 A taste of suburbia comes to the big city. When the Shops at Columbus Circle open in New York they include not only a luxury hotel but also restaurants Masa, Café Gray, and Per Se—elevating the food court to its highest level to date.
Malls around the world
Although the United States is the indisputable birthplace of the 20th-century mall, shopping centers internationally are being taken to new levels of sophistication, especially in Asia and the Middle East. Here's a sampling of global malldom in all its glory, from the cutting-edge architecture of Avenue K to the innovative retail-entertainment environment at Villa Moda.
Avenue K, Kuala Lumpur This high-design mall, near the Petronas Towers, has an innovative mix of soaring architecture, futuristic technology, and local touches, such as the Oriental Bazaar. www.avenuek.com.my
Golden Resources Shopping Mall, Beijing The most recent of China's megamalls is a 13.6 million-square-foot giant with 1,200 stores, a rooftop garden, a karaoke bar, and a spa.
Mega Khimki, Moscow The next frontier in shopping centers is serving Russia's nouveaux riches. Swedish company Ikea is leading the charge with several large-scale projects (the Khimki outpost is currently Europe's biggest mall), anchored by its famous housewares stores. khimki.megamall.ru/en
Mall of Arabia, Dubai Part of the ambitious project Dubailand, a city unto itself that will be complete in 2018, this massive mall and entertainment complex is expected to span 45 million square feet and hold the title of world's largest—a feat in a region full of large-scale shopping developments. www.dubailand.ae
Roppongi Hills, Tokyo One among Asia's growing ranks of skyscraper malls (such as Taipei 101 and Kuala Lumpur's Berjaya Times Square KL), Roppongi Hills is housed in the Mori Tower alongside a Richard Gluckman-designed modern art museum and numerous restaurants and shops, including a Yohji Yamamoto flagship store. www.roppongihills.com/en
Villa Moda, Kuwait Opened in 2002, this sleek society playground-cum-mall is known for its exclusive "de-packing" parties when new merchandise arrives, and for providing personal electronic scanners, which eliminate the need to stand in checkout lines. The company has an outpost in Dubai and future plans for Mumbai and Singapore. www.villa-moda.com