By ANDREW O’HAGAN
I once drove to Forest Lawn Memorial Park. It was before Michael Jackson had his crypt there, but I remember finding Walt Disney’s grave and that of Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. A few writers are there too: Theodore Dreiser, who wrote well about department stores in Sister Carrie, and Clifford Odets, who believed shopping was one of America’s chronic diseases. After seeing the graves and spending an hour in the sweltering heat I went to the Glendale Galleria, not only a shopping mall of epic proportions but a space of infinite reprieve, with the world’s best air-conditioning.
‘The nature of these vast retail combinations,’ Dreiser wrote in 1900, ‘should they ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation.’ Ray Bradbury saw the shopping strip as a ‘flowering out of a modest trade principle’, and his influence on the architects of the Glendale Galleria (built in 1976) was acknowledged by Jon Jerde, its principal designer, who was also responsible for the Mall of America in Minnesota (1992), the largest in the Western hemisphere, and the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (1998). Jerde asked Bradbury to help him think about a project in San Diego, and he replied with a manifesto called ‘The Aesthetics of Lostness’, which still provides the best definition of the ambience of shopping malls, a feeling of comforting distraction and exciting misplacedness akin to foreign travel. ‘Jerde’s strongest precedent,’ Alexandra Lange writes in Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall (Bloomsbury, £23), ‘came from the same environments for which Bradbury had already written scenarios: world’s fairs and theme parks, which shamelessly mashed up countries, decades, architectural styles and artificial topography in the interest of creating the most exciting visual narrative in the minimum quantity of space.’ ‘Artificial topography’ is very good; it precisely describes so many postwar built environments, from retail plazas to new towns, all of them founded on an idea of the way we might live if we were much better at living.
The Galleria had that silence-on-the-cusp-of-hysteria vibe you find only in the very best shopping malls. Walking round it, I really knew I was in California, and I began to see among the commercial hieroglyphics what Joan Didion meant when she called these places ‘pyramids to the boom years’. On certain days, Didion is quite a nice accompaniment to one’s nervous system. When she was young and working for Vogue, she took a correspondence course in ‘shopping-centre theory’. She was a good student and a dab hand at parking ratios. It was part of her dream life. (‘My interest in shopping centres was in no way casual.’) There was a Didionesque atmosphere in the Glendale Galleria that day. I think I bought a pair of jeans – this was in the days when the boys who sold you jeans, especially in America, shocked you with their exposed chests and their perfect teeth. I found then, as I still do, that malls are a strong sedative and a brutal awakening at the same time. If you’re made a certain way, you can drift round them first thing in the morning and feel totally alive.
Apart from having the best title in history, Anthony Wolf’s book Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall? (1991) describes what teenagers understand by social success. Basically, it means killing your parents and killing it at the mall, or it used to, before Covid and stay-at-home-ness entered the picture, accompanied by the descent of shopping centres into a quagmire of consumer uncertainty. I look back with a certain nostalgia to the days of the teen icon Tiffany, the person responsible for the deathless ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ of 1987. I know what you’re all thinking: that was a big year for Prince and the Pet Shop Boys, and the Smiths split up, but it was the red-haired Tiffany Darwish who took metaphysics to the people. ‘The Beautiful You: Celebrating the Good Life Shopping Mall Tour ’87’ doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves. The tour kicked off at the Bergen Mall (1957) in the bedroom community of Paramus, New Jersey. Tiffany always stood between the escalator and the Value City department store, waving her arm over a crowd of wannabe Tiffs, all singing ‘the beating of our hearts is the only sound.’ The video for ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ features the Ogden City Mall (1980) in downtown Ogden, once described as ‘the armpit of Utah’. Tiffany embodied a notion of suburban desire that was chirpily pre-millennial, skyrocketing on surplus fuel, as if only in the malls did young people know how to be, their anxiety flattening out like the last few steps on an escalator. The mall rats of the 1980s became the soccer moms of the 2000s, devoted, like Sarah Palin, not only to guns and the ‘sanctity of life’ but to coloured pop socks. In September 2008, during her vice-presidential campaign, it was reported that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 of campaign donations on clothes, hairdos and make-up for Palin and her people.
Lange makes an interesting point about the patriotism of shopping. ‘During World War Two, female consumers were encouraged to plant victory gardens, cook with less meat, collect their scraps and save their pennies. In the postwar era, they were the target of a very different message: the patriotic thing to do was to spend.’ By the 1980s, this was a religion that included religion itself, but to focus too much on consumption would be to miss the special ambience of malls, where the form is so much more fun than the function. As with high flats or holiday camps, we begin to see the essence of these places only in the moment of their passing. Malls are playgrounds with parking. They are nightclubs without drinks and with muzak for music. They are billboards of aspiration and churches of boredom. You don’t wander round a shopping mall in order to be thrilled, but to overcome the wish to be thrilled; if you buy something, that’s fine, but you belong there just as much when you don’t. (To say you’re only shopping when you’re buying stuff is like saying you’re only a sexual person when you’re having sex.) That’s what teenagers understood: the mall was freedom with walls, a habitat much closer to their wants and not-wants than anything built by their parents.
Non-fans say they get lost in them, but getting lost is part of the point. You find your way back to the big stores, or you meet at the fountain. When a child is abducted, the mall can suddenly seem part of the abduction, having failed to protect those passing through its human engineering. That was the feeling in 1993 when the Merseyside toddler James Bulger was taken from the Strand Shopping Centre, as if the building itself was guilty of some terrible anomie. If you liked malls as much as I did as a teenager – Rivergate Mall in Irvine New Town, eat your heart out, and the shopping centre in the ‘plug-in city’ of Cumbernauld, now set to be demolished – you find it quite hard to admit all the bad things about them. ‘Go to the mall!’ the Jack Black character in the film of High Fidelity tells a naff customer who asks for an uncool record. That stung, but I knew what he meant. Malls had rubbish record shops. Malls had rubbish shops, full stop, but the shops were pretty much irrelevant. Malls are closing now, one after the other, but Lange is right when she tells us that the US is ‘over malled: the country has approximately 24 square feet of retail space for every American compared with ... 4.6 in the UK and 2.8 in China.’ As that space shrinks in real time, it grows in the imagination, and we think of Amazon aisles that stretch out beyond an invisible horizon, even as shopping malls become the industrial wastelands of the post-Trump era.
And so we look back. ‘During the 1970s,’ Lange writes, ‘a widening split developed between the commercial and academic branches of architecture. Malls ended up on the wrong side of the tracks: good architects design museums; bad architects design malls.’ That was the prevailing attitude, and Rem Koolhaas once referred to Jon Jerde, the Glendale architect, as Frank Gehry’s ‘evil twin’. This was just snobbery, of course: people who go to museums are thought to engage with the building they are in, while shoppers are thought not to notice they’re in a big shed or a bad copy of an Italian village. First: fuck off. Second: Gehry in fact was happy to design a mall in his early days, Santa Monica Place (1980), before the Disneyfying of ‘significant’ public buildings became a cultural cliché. Pop culture has an admirable ability to make its own monuments, and from Dawn of the Dead and Fast Times at Ridgemont High through Mean Girls to The OC, the shopping mall is a place where human beings can be spotted at their most inscrutably social, their most poignantly alone, their most desirous and their most innocent. When the chips are down, I make my way to Westfield Shepherd’s Bush early in the morning, when the car park is emptier than emptiness itself and the cleaners are still out with their dusters. I hardly ever buy anything. I just like the clouds scudding overhead and the sense of peace. There’s no noise at that hour, just the hum of possibility – the sense of waiting – and an echo of Tiffany singing ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’.