Why We Should Give Malls a Chance
I think malls are important and I think they are special. It’s strange to be perceived as naïve and uninformed when I profess my faith in them, as if I have been beguiled by the ruses laid out by mall designers to enchant me.
“Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect. Not the obvious way…but another, more tolerant way; that is, to question how we look at things…There is a perversity in the learning process… we can look downward to go upward. And withholding judgment may be used as a tool to make later judgment more sensitive. This is a way of learning from everything.”1
So I’m encouraged. I decided to look at the mall as a special space of inquiry, a place to learn from, because even though we complain about them, they serve to delineate the unique facets of the local in the hallmark of the ubiquitous, global Malls are places of hyper-relevance and hyper-dependence on what is in vogue. It’s a place that not only captures the things, the images, the people that is of the now, but they are also places that constantly projects what could be the new now. As a space that is created with the intent of constantly updating itself to remain relevant, the mall hovers between temporality and permanence. The time frame of interest is therefore of a moment, contrary to the elongated sense of time that we tend to desire for. We obsess over a miniscule duration of time.
The malls are also places that needs to be accepted in order to validate its existence. It’s a built typology that can, quite frankly, just be ignored without having any consequences. So, contrary to what many claim, malls don’t impose, they entice. And, there are layers of excess in the spaces of the mall because everything is deployed to warrant attention and response, and ideally acceptance The mall is a fragile space, somewhat like a beautiful sculpted existence fraught with insecurities. It’s a stagnant architectural construct but defies being just that with its personality and inherent controversies. There is much to be unveiled here.
I’m looking at a specific mall: The Greenbelt—a mall owned and operated by a single family corporation—the Ayala Corporation—in a city that is home to the family’s land bank—the Makati City—in a country that is emerging – the Philippines. The malls in this region of the world are somewhat different from the malls that we are commonly acquainted with in the primarily western context. They are situated in the world’s densest locations but resemble the sprawl and spatial voids often found in western suburbs and closely resemble these suburban aesthetics. But of course they are completely different from their earlier iterations with their implantations into the city fabric and the sheer number of people that occupy them. These malls transform the urban fabric completely to offer a form of everyday life that is unique to their place. The quotidian experience of the mall needs to be remembered as much as its aesthetic principles, in order to understand how each mall functions as a unique place and entity.
“Question by author: Why do you think malls are important in the local context of Manila, while it’s so readily controversial here in the American context?”
“Mark Taylor: It’s evolved to be a community environment type of thing. The American suburban mall is stale and class-oriented. Malls in the US are considered to being pushed out to the suburban landscape. Different people frequent the mall and the mall provides a different lifestyle. Sorkin shows how in the US, the private places is a place where you can’t freely express yourself and a place that can reject you any time. But this is an American culture. In the Middle East and Southeast Asia, in the Philippines there’s a different culture. The culture invites crafted environments much more willingly. These cultures are much more optimistic and flexible about crafted environments. [Specifically] Greenbelt is about creating a place to stop and linger. Everything is geared for incidental consumption here. These are public spaces in the city. The design is deployed [for anyone to] come out and be in. The public and private here are a dynamic duo. Especially with consumption now moving to an online platform, the malls need to redefine themselves as a different type of space for consumption. Malls are now more for their “environments”, they are spaces to be in. They may start as private developments but they are constantly redefining themselves as public spaces when used. The precedents for malls such as Greenbelt should be Central Park or Bryant Park more than the regional malls when it comes to looking for similar constructs in the US.”2
Many points of controversy surface when presenting a privately owned mall space such as Greenbelt. I fully acknowledge the concerns behind persisting social segregation based on class distinction, conscious strategies to encourage excessive consumption, aggressively capitalistic and neoliberalist pursuits and values, as well as a blinding optimism for noblesse oblige upon large-scale private ownership, which this discussion may not fully encompass. Again, I return to Venturi, Scott Browne, and Izenour who argued that design morals should not keep us from investigating spaces of use and consumption.
“The morality of commercial advertising … and the competitive instinct is not at issue here, although, indeed we believe it should be in the architect’s broader, synthetic tasks of which an analysis such as this is but one aspect… Analysis of one of the architectural variables in isolation from the others is a respectable scientific and humanistic activity, so long as all are resynthesized in design.”3
While ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ unveiled a new manifesto responding to the anchors of purist modernism, this inquiry is much less ambitious. It is developed to highlight the mall and try to represent the spatial intrigues that this typology has to offer. The discussion constantly links the mall to the larger city context, specifically the Southeast Asian region as the malls that I want to highlight are so engrained in its city fabric. Eventually I arrive at a mini-theory of architecture prioritizing the surface condition—Superficial architecture. Perhaps this is what comes of the “Junkspace, this Bermuda Triangle of concepts, this fuzzy empire of blur [that] fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.”4
1 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, “Learning from Las Vegas:
The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form” (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1977), 3.
2 Mark Taylor, interview and transciption by author, February 12, 2015.
3 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, “Learning from Las Vegas:
The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form” (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1977).
4 Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October, Vol.100, Obsolescence (Spring, 2002): 176.