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Mall World

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Victor Gruen’s original shopping mall concept assumed private car ownership that allowed malls to be located on cheap but well-connected land on the edge of town. I’m told that in Tehran Bazaar you can buy anything you want but, in 2009, I was involved with an initial pitch for Tehran’s first American-style shopping mall. We weren’t being paid to re-imagine the mall so we produced what we were expected to produce and followed the accepted rules. This is the site we identified.

We didn’t set the size of the car park but it was going to surround a mall having the classic configuration that maximized footfall by having anchor stores at extremities connected by pedestrian streets. It’s called the “dumbbell model”. Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor, Michigan US is a double-dumbell. As it has a small Macy’s and Sears it must be or have been a fairly upmarket mall.

Dubai Mall has a Bloomingdales on one front corner and a Galeries Layfayette on the other but it’s been a long time since department stores with ground floor perfume and cosmetics counters were seen as a modern and convenient way to shop. Their value as anchor tenants in malls has fallen accordingly and preferred anchor tenants are now all-purpose stores such as Walmart in the US, Marks & Spencer’s in the UK, and large grocery stores such as Coles in Australia.

The classic mall is a mostly windowless environment reliant on toplight to maximize internal display area and to keep people focussed on spending money undistracted by views, the weather, and the time of day – much as casinos are designed to do. Malls are also like casinos in offering a variety of attractions and activities so visitors can spend more time inside deciding and spending. The top-lit atriums of multi-level malls facilitate wayfinding while showcasing events and other things to see, do and buy People around the world like sitting down with a drink to watch people going about their business and, in perfect illustration of the maxim “if it’s free then the product is you”, malls offer free attractions to populate the spaces overlooked by and monetized by peripheral cafés and restaurants. All this is standard practice.

Another is to make malls easy to navigate but not traverse. In multi-level malls you may be able to see where you want to go but the escalator you need to take might be behind you. Elevators are usually recessed and not in plain sight. Escalators are rarely stacked as that would mean people could bypass entire floors. Yet another standard practice is to group like stores with like. A shopping mall may have a food court with many fast food chains represented but there will be independent restaurants and cafés elsewhere.

All this activity takes place in multi-storey concrete structures with floor plates approximately 50 metres wide split by walkways around atriums that link to other atriums. This arrangement of twenty-meter deep shops linked by irregularly placed escalators has evolved to suit a very specific mode of retail that’s now facing an uncertain future.

Malls were in trouble well before online shopping suddenly became as attractive and necessary as it did. A quick google finds me “Mall Redevelopment Strategies: Keeping Today’s Malls Competitive” from 2016. “One of the goals of the redevelopment is to connect to the surrounding neighborhoods through the pedestrian plan and the architecture, as well as through amenities and retail resources that can benefit the community,” explains Tom Perkins, a design director for Gensler.” [link] Suddenly everyone was talking about connectivity despite disconnectivity having been baked into the original concept. This new connectivity is for the same old reasons.

Something similar is happening with what’s on offer. A McKinsey & Co. report from 2014 has sentences such as this. “Increase productivity and efficiency of the current mall base through a strategic review of the tenant mix, taking into account consumer needs and retailer economics. This analysis should guide the management of rent pricing and overall commercial planning. On the cost front, the focus should be on strict management of direct and indirect costs, combined with operational efficiency, which is critical for successful customer experience transformations.” [link] Ugh!

in April 2018 wrote “The evolution of the retaildential centers will have elements of the values centers, as they will be focused to cater to a specific lifestage or lifestyle consumer with shared needs and interests, but will be buttressed by residential housing to make the CES more than a place to visit, but a place to live. The need for affordable housing is great among maturing baby boomers, looking to downsize and gain convenient access to various services, as well as among young professionals attracted to CESs that offer retail stores, restaurants and theaters, work-play offerings, gyms and spas.” [link]

It’s difficult to believe it was only February last year when CURBED wrote “Dying malls seek second life as entertainment destinations. As Americans increasingly shop online and stay at home, can malls find new community appeal?” [link]

The pandemic brought an added sense of urgency to finding solutions to these problems. Sometime, but probably early this year, Deloitte published a study containing recommendations for what the mall of the future will need to be like, if malls are to remain relevant. [link] Food is the new fashion, they say.

The strategies identified by these reports all propose ways for these structures to continue providing return on investment and prevent them becoming derelict. The mix of tenant/public space [is] moving from the current 70/30 to 60/40, or even 50/50 and, when this happens, these expanded public spaces will need to be planned and programed over the year much like an exhibition, and managed more like content and media instead of real estate. Here it’s just the language that’s changed but elsewhere the means have also changed. Instead of direct mail we now have apps that assist mall navigation, and provide news on special offers, deals, and limited-time discounts. Instead of loyalty cards we now have “face recognition, location-based mobile ads, and beacons applied to identify and establish targeted contact with repeat customers. Such technologies are also valuable for gathering consumer behavioral data from which malls can glean useful insights.

There’s a desperation to squeeze every last bit of profit out of the 116,000 [2017] or so shopping malls in the US before as many as 80,000 go full dinosaur within five years.

• • • 

On Christmas Day 2020, a new mall opened close to where I live.

The mall surely took several years to design and construct so what we see assumed a pre-pandemic world. Online shopping has been in China for about fifteen years now so what we see is designed and managed for a post-online shopping world. The linear configuration has a long central atrium bridged to form five smaller ones, and also follows standard practice by having escalators mostly dispersed around its atriums. I say mostly because three of those atriums have partially stacked escalators and you don’t normally see this.

A long up-only escalator breaks the rule about not bypassing by taking you directly from second to fifth floor, but you’ll pass through levels three and four on the way down.

Another unusual feature is the external escalators that link outdoor terraces midway along the mall’s length to enable direct access to levels 3 and above.

This enables the microbrewery on the third floor and the bar on the rooftop to have extended business hours.

This mall completely disregards the drivers of the Victor Gruen model.

  1. The mall is not not out of town and dependent on customers coming and going by private car. It’s located in a fairly dense residential neighbourhood that’s about to become much denser on the eastern side where a new housing complex is almost completed.
  2. Circulation into and around the mall isn’t designed to thwart people but to help people get to where they want to go. The mall is seen as an extension of the street. This is only possible because there is a street and not a surface car park.

This is deliberate because the side of the mall facing that new housing development is three levels of exposed walkways with three sets of external elevators and escalators, and a further 70 retail spaces and an additional seven mall access points per level. I expect this portion of the mall will fully open to coincide with the opening of the housing complex. I’ve never seen a mall wear its shops on the outside before.

The intent is clear. This could be the birth of a completely new type of mall.

Underground are two levels of car parking, B1 of which connects to the basement.

Inside, there are no cinemas, no food court, no anchor stores. The level information displays list anchor stores as a category but one is a gym and another an ice-skating rink so these are high-rent tenants rather than anchors that generate huge footfall. A large supermarket in the basement comes closest to being a traditional anchor store but it’s in the wrong place to function as one. Not shown are 12 more food and beverage outlets on the first-floor street frontage and two more restaurants on the 6th floor roof.

I’ve summarized the directory information into this table that gives the numbers* of different types of tenant.

FOOD & BEVERAGE1817532327295
* I don’t expect this distribution to be that different from the distribution by mall area rented and the distribution by rental income received.

Some 95 out of 273 tenants are Food & Beverage – roughly a third. Together, Clothing and Clothing & Accessories are another third. The non-F&B categories are approximate and a bit vague as included in Household are three car showrooms. The Children’s category has clothing and toys but includes a piano school, an English school, two children’s gyms and a swimming school. Probably one third of the Children’s category is clothing, another third toys and amusements, and another third is educational, importantly.

Categories blur across floors but the general breakdown is Clothing on levels 1 and 2, Children’s on Level 3, and Food & Beverage on levels B1, 4, 5 and 6. You can buy an iPhone, work out or get your hair colored but the mall is basically a children’s activity centre and local restaurant complex. Included in Food & Beverage are one Pizza Hut, one Burger King, one MacDonalds, one KFC and two Starbucks which are the only coffee outlets. The 89 other outlets include takeaway bread and cakes and so on but the mall’s main attraction is Food & Beverage – restaurants, and plenty of them. There’s restaurants for Shanghai food, Hainan food, Beijing food, Sichuan food, Hong Kong food, seafood, Korean barbecue, Japanese barbecue, sushi, Lanzhou noodles, Dalian hotpot … Even the microbrewery and rooftop bar offer full menus for lunch and dinner. There’s no food court. The idea of a family or friends not getting together to share the same food is unthinkable.

Another characteristic of these restaurants is the range of customers. Whether it’s a Lanzhou noodle shop or a microbrewery music pub, on one table there’ll be some work celebration, on another a girls’ night out, two more will have couples on dates and others will have extended families having dinner. This suggests that food and company are more important than the decor or clientele. The only experience on offer is of people eating and drinking together. An interior designer friend says, “No matter what type of place it wants to be or what you design it to be, in the end you always get a Chinese restaurant.” This is not a bad thing. It suggests the future of malls is already here, and doesn’t lie in data-analyzing and tailoring experiences and entertainments, or “curating the content” of public space by filling it with new monetize-able attractors.

As they would be anywhere else, the atrium spaces are used for promotions, shows, exhibitions and events and many of these cater to children.

Outside, on three sides is a large space that’s the mall’s interface with the neighbourhood. This mall is called Wuyue Guangchang where guangchang [广场] means square – as in public square. Me, I’m so accustomed to looking at things that’ve been over-designed it took me a while to recognize this expanse of paving as the square it is. It doesn’t look “designed” but it’s no accident because a length of canal had to be covered over to create it. It doesn’t matter if its presence was imposed as a planning condition, offered as a deal sweetener, or proposed as a low-cost, low-maintenance attraction, whoever thought of it is a genius.

Is “invisible design” an oxymoron? I’m having trouble imagining a design that doesn’t look like design yet delivers an expected benefit and delivers it more efficiently because of the absence of design. It might be because the purpose of design is often mistaken for making something look like it’s been designed (i.e. a representation of the act of designing a.k.a. that post-modern malaise), instead of thinking about the what the design is supposed to achieve. This of course raises thorny questions of what is a (genuine) design goal and whether design is always the value-adding activity we like to think it is. Some other time.

This square works and it works all the better for not having been “designed” to have amphitheaters, landscaping, level changes, curves and all those things that indicate design intent but only serve to limit potential.

Other than being stacked over seven levels and having a single management entity, the mall itself is no different from other parts of town where you might see an entire street of restaurants or a building with every tenant a restaurant. This mall became part of the neighbourhood easily and organically, without trauma, hand-wringing, or consultants. It’s probably everything a mall ever needed to be.



  • Fascinating to parlay your observations to malls I know well. And even more mystifying why the original and biggest mall in Athens Greece charges hefty fees for parking, increasing by the hour. I never understood why they don’t focus on encouraging customers to linger. However, it is attached to a metro station, so perhaps the downside is that commuters would appropriate the carpark. Swings and roundabouts of easy access.