On Malls

The Dominion Post had an article recently saying how K Mart, the giant US retailing store, wants to establish a branch in central Wellington. Given that K Mart stores are rather large, and Wellington CBD is rather skinny and small. It may be that they are aiming at Kilbirnie / Rongotai instead.

But it did remind me of an article by Elizabeth Farrelly, a former Kiwi now in position of architectural press power in Australia, with an Ode to the (not) pleasures of the Mall, from her recent book Blubberland – the Dangers of Happiness (MIT Press, 2008):

“The contemporary shopping mall is a classic instance, striving to ape the complexity and interest of a traditional market, but with one, overarching difference; the space is privately owned and entirely under private control. The air is cooled and conditioned and gently muzak-laced; the lighting, level changes, transparency and detail are minutely orchestrated to slow your gait within microseconds and lull you into buy-mode; and no one, other than the owner, has any right to be there. Everyone else is there on sufferance. Anyone undesirable, or homeless, or obviously poor, can be summarily shuffled out so that the mass-narcosis of consumerism never pops.


So it is interesting to note the increasing interiorisation of shopping as an activity. From the traditional street market where interiors were usually makeshift and temporary, to the modern mall where entire city blocks and precincts are interiorised to give the (usually female) shopper the illusion of being in a vast, sparkling, bejewelled, cathedral-like home. Woman like malls because they’re known, comfortable, clean and safe – from muggers and spitters, from sun, storms and mendicants. Here, at fantasy-home, women will relax, and when they relax, they will spend.

Malls titillate and relax, even while they make you feel needy, inadequate and dreamily disoriented. They’re meant to. It’s like chocolate. If you can be made to feel bad, in a small way, the more want soothing, and the more you buy. One thing you don’t see much of in a mega-wall, therefore, is social life. Whereas in a high street you might stop for a coffee, in a mall you bump into someone, you say hi and press on. This is because, from the first car-park moment, the place is designed as a disconnect, separating you from your reality and from your higher, warmer self. It’s designed to put you in a bubble – a car-like bubble – of self-gratification.

This is another reason why the mall experience begins and ends at the car park. Grey, fumy and jammed with other irritable, bubble-wrapped humans, the car park is no pleasure-dome. It’s designed to do a kind of good-cop-bad-cop routine with the mall interior, to make you more susceptible to the shopping urge. And because it is important that we come to it through the gates of hell, the mall is the first architectural type in history that has an inside but no outside. The mall has interior design, heavily themed and fantasised, but it has no street presence, no public self, no architecture.”

It is interesting to contrast that to the experience we have here on the street in Wellington. Almost alone amongst large NZ cities, because of our stubborn adherence to the natural geography, that we don’t have a major mall culture. They’ve changed that in Auckland, Christchurch, and even in Porirua and the Hutt – but not yet in Wellington, where we still brave the chills of the Southerly to walk along Willis St. What are your thoughts? We have a new opinion poll underway, just up to your right. Please feel free to add your comments.


13 responses to “On Malls”

  1. Spencer Avatar

    The mall also has no immediate sense of place. The interior design and themes attempt to compensate for that, to differentiate the mall from any other, but they fail miserably. Visiting some huge malls in North America as a child I thought they were great. Like indoor amusement parks, but now they would be a personal hell. I could be anywhere. I don’t want to feel the sense of being anywhere.

  2. The worst malled city is Hamilton, where over the last 30 years, the CBD shops have slowly moved away from streets and into malls – either in nearby streets or far away on the edge of the city. After hours, the malls are all shut off to the public, giving the downtown a weird ghost-town feeling.

  3. “Malls titillate and relax, even while they make you feel needy, inadequate and dreamily disoriented.” Quite the opposite holds true for me. My parents live in Australia, on the Gold Coast, when I go to visit them at axemas time I try to buy all the presents in NZ to spare myself from the hell of axemas shopping at a mall. Over there malls are even more insidious—they actively advertise in summer that they are air conditioned to attract those who don’t have the money to run/install air conditioning devices in their homes.

    But I doubt that we can stop the mallisation of Aotearoa. The people have spoken and they want malls. We, the readers and writers of this list, are but a tiny minority who see malls as evil, faceless, disruptive, uncaring and devoid of any social value. In my experience, however limited, most people see malls as convenient. Once again I shall return to my usual theme of education and ask this question: why don’t we teach ethics, aesthetics, economics and social sciences in our primary and secondary schools?

    Perhaps if we equipped our children with mental tools which enhanced their ability to perceive and evaluate the world in independent and critical ways then it wouldn’t be such a mess.


  4. So, we educate the dull masses to think like us, the enlightened ones…

    Sheesh, whatever happenned to live and let live…

  5. Tomek – “Quite the opposite holds true for me.” Maybe that’s just because you’re not a woman…? Note the part where it says:
    “Woman like malls because they’re known, comfortable, clean and safe – from muggers and spitters, from sun, storms and mendicants. Here, at fantasy-home, women will relax, and when they relax, they will spend.”

    How many pairs of shoes have you bought lately?

  6. Frank — I did not mean to imply that the “masses” are “dull” or that there is an “us”. I was simply suggesting an alternative to moaning, criticizing and suffering from righteous indignation.

    Perhaps I should rephrase my original statement, I believe that if philosophy, with all its major branches, was to be taught appropriately as part of primary and secondary school curriculum then we would all benefit through because there would be a higher number of people who are able to think critically and take criticism without being defensive, to debate without bigotry, to appreciate many points of view, to weight the pros and cons of a situation with respect to ethics and in particular the greater good.

    As for live and let die, would you not try to teach your own children how to make their lives better, how to deal with the world? I am not proposing to teach people _what_ to think, I am merely proposing that we teach people _how_ to think for themselves. The rest is up to them.


  7. I’ve found another quite relevant quote on malls, this time from Elizabeth Grosz, who says:

    “The spaces of the mall, ironically, are for many people precisely the spaces of the most intense pleasure. It is not simply the pleasure of consumption and acquisition (the pleasure of shopping), but also a certain pleasure in the spectacle and community interactions, even of the most commercial kinds. There is, of course, also the pleasure of the flaneur, of strolling and observing, of seeing and being seen, of browsing amongst objects and people simultaneously. Some people hate malls, but for all the people that hate them there are many, particularly the young, who are drawn to them, finding within their spaces a highly conducive milieu. The mall has become a certain condition or way of shopping that we can make highly pleasurable.”

    (p21, Architecture from the Outside – Essays on Virtual and Real Spaces by Elizabeth Grosz, pub MIT Press 2001)

  8. but with regards to Tomek’s comment: “I am merely proposing that we teach people _how_ to think for themselves.” Isn’t that really a bit of a circular argument? I don’t think that you can TEACH people to think for themselves, but you can certainly give them the possibility to learn that for themselves. Isn’t it a sort of ‘hands-off’ situation?
    Those that can, will do so, and will rise to the occasion, and those that don’t, or can’t, will continue to languish? Or, will continue to need to be led by hand?

  9. The human potential is vast and mostly untapped, in my world view anyway. I believe that people can be taught to think for themselves the same way you teach people how to read and count for themselves. Sure, most never become famous writes or scientists but at least they were shown what’s possible with the development of those skills. It is every individual’s responsibility to grow and develop but I believe that it is our collective responsibility as a society to equip people from the earliest age with some basic skills that will go a long way towards realising that vision. Those skills are not taught at schools and for some reason are expected to be developed spontaneously at universities.


  10. The proliferation of anything is never a good idea, and concerning malls I think Wellington has got about right. The central city benefits from having no malls and the northern suburbs probably benefit from having them. Maybe a mall in Rongotai etc would work in the future (25 years?) when there is more of a population to support both mall and CBD culture simultaneously.

    I personally like malls, something along the lines of Elizabeth Grosz. They are generally ugly hulking things but surely must retain someplace in the western way of life. Then again I wasn’t taught philosophy at school.

    If the curriculum could be used to influence a generation to not like malls, maybe it could work for low density sprawl and driving cars?

  11. acrosby Avatar

    Having just returned from a quick trip to Hamilton, I have to agree with Robyn.

    The flat unbounded city revels in all things automobile, with hour-long drives across the city to shop at The Base or Chartwell Square being the norm. Unfortunately, this is a result of both Hamilton’s geography and bad planning. Unlike Wellington, very few suburbs are within walking distance of the city centre. And of suburbs, there are many. The newest and most densely populated are on the northern side of the city, forming a sea of blue Coloursteel which seems to be expanding constantly.

    So I’m not convinced that malls are what people want, they’re just the natural and logical development of the car city. Given the choice, I would say the people of Hamilton would prefer to stroll into town, shop amongst a variety of chain shops and independent stores but it’s simply not an option for about 90% of the population.

  12. acrosby – how is the main drag in Hamilton looking now it has been done up? Is it working, or is it even worse than before? Last time i went there (late summer) it was nice, and oddly romantic – as they were having what appeared to be a power cut, and there was no street lighting, just glowing shop windows. Eventually, long after sunset, they turned some more lights on. But it (Victoria St?) was, briefly, the Paris of the Waikato….

  13. acrosby Avatar

    Wow, I feel flattered on Hamilton’s behalf. Funnily enough I had a similar experience several years ago, early summer, balmy. Something vaguely romantic.

    There is nothing particularly wrong with Hamilton’s CBD except that it is highly underutilised. It can be nice, there are some fantastic spaces about, but like Robyn said, it can be a ghost town.

    To illustrate this point, for the week or so that I was up there I didn’t even step foot on Victoria St. I did however go to the Base and another mall. So I can’t comment on any recent development, last time I was up there they’d just completed the Hood Street redevelopment (by Wraight and Associates)which was incredibly expensive, but it does work well.

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