Bad customer experience is out of fashion, not bricks and mortar

In March 1954, a 990,000-square-foot shopping mall opened in suburban Detroit, built around landscaped outdoor courtyards, inspired by Italian piazzas. The first floor was all glass, the better to see the wares; above that, brick panels framed in concrete. A Hudson’s department store anchored the center. You could get a bite at the snack bar or candy store, or shop for dinner at the supermarket while your kids worked up an appetite at the playground. 

“A mall is a public space … committed to intensive urban activity,” said its European architect, where the shopper would have “new experience, new surprises, a change of pace, and a change of atmosphere,” denigrating the surroundings as “seventeen suburbs in search of a city.” 


Piano isn’t the only capital-A architect working on the American mall. SHoP Architects has three mall (or mall-ish) projects underway in New York right now: Empire Outlets, on Staten Island, the Market Line, part of the Essex Crossing megadevelopment, and Pier 17, where ground-floor retail and food by David Chang and Jean-Georges mingle with public waterfront (a combination like the old mall, but less fishy). There’s Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus, too, a shopping mall disguised as a transit hub. Design sites are filled with photographs of extreme shopping in other countries. The U.S. is just catching up. 

Museum-ing the mall only seems strange in the short term. When Gruen was working on Northland, the future of shopping, and the future of suburbia, were tasks that occupied the best architectural minds in America. While Northland, enclosed in the 1970s and demolished last year, has gone to mall heaven, a few of its contemporaries remain successful 60 years after completion, thanks to their operators’ ability to maintain what Gruen described as “new experience, new surprises, a change of pace, and a change of atmosphere.” 


“In the new projects we are doing, it is hard to see where the city stops and the shopping center starts,” says Matt Billerbeck, senior vice president at CallisonRTKL, an international design and planning firm that has worked on the Ala Moana Shopping Center, Tysons Corner Center, the King of Prussia, and many more high-performing malls.

“There’s an inherent sense of community when you live there, work there, there’s an entertainment component. You can be a better neighbor to city in which you sit.” Billerbeck points to the East Harbour project in Toronto, where a new mixed-use neighborhood is being planned for the former Unilever factory site, with a million-and-a-half square feet of retail spread between buildings and around a brand-new transit hub. Although born of the suburbs, the mall today is being reabsorbed by the city, internalizing parking and orienting itself to transit, even future transit like autonomous vehicles. 

However you remix the words “city” and “center”, however many public functions you invite in, however your sustainable landscape encourages walking (or hides the parking), it still isn’t the city. It’s a version of the city edited for the audience the owner and retailers want to attract. 

All the mockery of the idea of Apple Stores as “town squares” multiplies tenfold—though malls, at least, must incorporate public bathrooms. No loitering policies, parental escort policies, and curfews explicitly exclude homeless people and teenagers from the mall. The economic mix of stores and the food options presents an implicit form of exclusion, as does the presence or absence of seating. The new urban malls must be responsible about the semi-public part of the equation.