In the seventy years that have passed since Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck first published their essay ‘Shopping Center’ in Architectural Forum, much has been written about this peculiar commercial typology; commonly depicting the shopping centre as a capitalist, consumerist shopping machine, depleted of any of the social or communal rewards that Gruen and Krummeck had originally envisioned. As a result, shopping centres have rarely entered the canonical histories of architecture, while the North American dumbbell mall has become the paradigmatic pars pro toto. This symposium aims for a more fine-grained, region-specific reading of the shopping centre, as well for a reassessment of its vital characteristics and crucial contributions to post-war built environments and architectural culture. We invite contributions that focus on one of the following four themes:

From Node to Stitch: Shopping centres and urban (re-)development

Victor Gruen’s initial shopping centre proposals had clear urban ambitions. He envisaged the shopping centre to become a ‘suburban crystallization point’ or ‘satellite downtown’, which would not only conserve the viability of the (traditional) city centres by reducing the pressure inflicted by increased motorized traffic, but which would – when combined on a large scale – also develop into a network of nodes, able to protect the American population in the event of nuclear attack. Conversely, when the shopping centre was introduced to Western Europe in the post-war period, it was not only used as an urban expansion model (or a model for structuring suburbanisation), but it was also employed as a tool to stitch war-torn urban fabrics back together – as exemplified in De Lijnbaan by van den Broek and Bakema in the Netherlands. This theme invites papers that address the role that the shopping centre has played in urban planning from 1943 to today; connecting its development to urban reconstruction and revitalization efforts on the one hand and exploring the role that this commercial typology assumed in (post-war) urban expansion and structured suburbanization on the other.

Acculturating the Shopping Centre: Timeless global phenomenon or local (time- and place bound) idiom?

Shopping centres vary enormously; from small urban entities made up of a cluster of retail stores to intensely fortified suburban big-box leviathans. However, despite their differences, scholars have qualified shopping centres as if they are essentially the same: enclosed spaces characterized by comprehensive surveillance, security and social segregation. Much of the literature seems to suggest that this typology of the shopping centre has hovered over geographies and cultures, without losing its prime characteristics. Can shopping centres therefore be treated as a global phenomenon? Or should they rather be understood as geographically-bound expressions of a negotiation between mall developers (representatives of a global logic of capitalist accumulation) on the one hand and local actors (architects/ governments/ citizens) on the other? The question then becomes: Did ‘hybrids’ develop as the shopping centre concept encountered radically different socio-cultural climates, and if so, what region-specific typologies of this assumed ‘ubiquitous’ commercial paradigm can be identified? Finally, as societies changed over the course of six decades, did the concept – in a true Darwinistic fashion – also evolve over time?

Building Collectives and Communities: Shopping centres and the reform of the masses

When the American-born shopping centre concept washed ashore in Western Europe, it encountered a peculiar socio-political climate. In the decades following the Second World War, and in part in response to the Cold War, governments across Western Europe had set out ambitious programmes for social welfare that aimed at improving the everyday lives of their citizens, thus facilitating the formation of a modern, socially responsible, culturally educated and politically responsive community. The construction of schools, cultural centres, sports facilities, holiday infrastructure, etc. was an important building block of this project. All these facilities provided spatial centrality, public focus and human density; characteristic that the shopping centre typology also possessed. This theme departs from the hypothesis that when Gruen’s commercial typology – the quintessential modern environment – was introduced to Western Europe, its underlying design principles were often consciously oriented towards eliciting a specific type of modern behaviour and building a modern community. Contrary to common belief – also in mid-century America, the shopping centre succeeded in creating such a reformative, modern environment. In an article published in June 2014, the Guardian posited that ‘for mid-century Americans, these gleaming marketplaces provided an almost utopian alternative to the urban commercial district, an artificial downtown with less crime and fewer vermin … they were a place to see and be seen, something shoppers have craved since the days of the Greek agora .… it used to be where [the] young, middle-class[es] …, wearing their Sunday best, would come for weekend outings.’ This theme invites contributions that study the reformist underpinnings (or reality?) and socio-cultural ambitions (or functioning?) of shopping centres. It aims to question the role of shopping centres as new figures of collectivity in the post-war urban realm.

The Afterlife of Post-war Shopping Centres: From tumorous growth to the dawn of the dead

In 1977, George A. Romero shot sequences of ‘Dawn of the Dead’, a film that would soon become one of the great cult horror zombie movie, in a deserted mall. Shorn of life and light, the shopping centre’s great echoing chambers of commerce took on a very eerie tone. Curiously, Romero’s set design has much in common with the steadily growing number of photographs of abandoned malls strewn across the United States. As Americans return downtown and online shopping popularizes, they leave behind well over a hundred lifeless concrete and steel leviathans; relics of the post-war era, when Americans with cars and fat wallets fled to the suburbs. Thus far, this phenomenon oddly enough seems limited to the United States alone. The situation that many shopping centres (built in the 1960s and 1970s) appear to be facing elsewhere, is tumorous growth. The need to compete has led many shopping centres to expand beyond recognition, adding wings, floors, entries and exits without much consideration for the overall legibility of the complex. The result: an amorphous shopping maze. This theme seeks to set out strategies for (contemporary) shopping centre redevelopment, identify ‘best practices’ and explore if for the American shopping centres – like for the zombies in Romero’s film – there is (a new) life after death?

This symposium is organised by the Chair of Methods and Analysis at the TUDelft Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment, with the generous support of the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

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