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Mallville

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A December 2020 Yahoo Finance article [thanks Mark!] said that about 30% of US malls were in financial trouble and that those that survive might have their anchor stores demolished and housing constructed instead. Since then I’ve read predictions of as much as 80% are in trouble but that was the first time I’d read of how housing could actually be combined with malls, even if partially demolishing them and rebuilding isn’t really combining but demolition and co-location. I imagined apartment blocks instead of the blue bits in this image last seen in Mall World.

I’m not surprised the decision was made to demolish the anchor stores and build apartments as cheap as allowable because it’s almost certainly easier and quicker to do that than convert a department store into housing. It’s probably for the best, given how poorly office buildings in the UK converted into housing, even though you’d think it’d be easier to convert office buildings into housing as they don’t tend to have internal spaces more than 15 meters from an external wall.

Even if it’s true that the performance of anchor stores wasn’t great (and I’m sure it wasn’t, even pre-pandemic) the footfall of the specialty stores and food and drink outlets can’t be that great either, and can’t be expected to improve once the so-called “anchor” stores go. If they do, then that particular economic model of a mall – which is all it was anyway – is no longer valid. Different or, some may say, “alternative” economic models for malls exist inj other coutries. In the Mall World post I described one such model as a community hub catering to those two Chinese priorities of 1) Food & Drink and 2) Childrens’ Activities & Education.

But if the only thing that’s changed is that there are now apartment blocks instead of anchor stores, then existing walkways, escalators, elevators and air conditioning will also remain. There is however the advantage of it being possible to build apartment buildings of any size at the extremities but a big negative is that what’s left is no longer a mall but some strange type of urban unit in the middle of a car park much larger than it needs to be. This will enable the periphery to be sold and used for more apartment blocks.

Mr. Gruen’s idea did away with city centers as social centers, with small local stores as community centers, and independent retailers offering a diversity of goods whether vegetables, books or coffee. It centralized shops and forced shoppers to come to it. Inhabiting a shopping mall puts people at a greatly reduced mall if it can be said to still be one at all. Mr. Gruen’s invention revolutionized retail but only for some places and for some people, and only for about 50 years. It’s a combination of building typology and economic model that has outlived its usefulness.

One of the problems here is that the Western-style shopping mall was a creature that had evolved in response to very specific criteria such as how to contain and entertain people inside a closed environment for as long as possible so as to encourage maximum spend. They weren’t really designed to be good for anything else and so it’s no surprise that, like any other overspecialized structure such as aircraft carriers (that are only good at being artificial land in the middle of an ocean), they can’t be adapted to a changed set of circumstances. There’s not much you can do with a disused aircraft carrier other than scrap it and this is what we are beginning to see with shopping malls.

Both aircraft carriers and shopping malls come in various sizes, but my feeling is that they’re both about 300-350 meters long and about ten storys high. This may be coincidence.

Milan’s Galerie Vittorio Emanuele II is often said to be a precursor to the modern shopping mall. The main north-south street is an important pedestrian thoroughfare in Milan and is lined with shops with apartments above.

Less picturesquely and less usefully, the same typology exists unarcaded at Dubai’s Citywalk with its eight storys of apartments above ground floor retail and underground car parking.

We’re gradually working our way back to what cities were before the advent of shopping malls and their distorted retail patterns.

Conversations about what to do with dead or dying malls have been happening for about seven or eight years now and, for the unlucky ones in the wrong locations, the outlook is not good. Almost a year has passed since an article posing the question “Will Abandoned Shopping Malls Soon Become Residential Buildings?” popped up on ArchDaily. I didn’t read it but for some reason I’m sure the answer was yes. I’d like to give it a try.

Define

I’d like to see what happens if we take a shopping mall and attempt to adaptively re-use it as housing. It might find application one day. Were I to make it a design studio project however, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of research. The variables are all the standard housing ones of access, privacy, daylighting, ventilation, fire safety and fire escape. We don’t need an algorithm to link them because we know already what compromise looks like. It’s not going to be data-driven. There’s no data anyway.

Analyse

It’s uncharted territory. There are no precedents and no case studies, although businesses and consultancies are springing up to advise mall owners on how to convert their malls into studio apartments (by putting in individual hot water systems etc.) It’s still early days. I’ve mentioned Providence’s Providence Arcade before. It’s the US’s oldest indoor shopping mall built in 1859 and turned into 48 hotel-sized apartments in 2013. Bathrooms and hot water systems have been added but the job can’t be said to be done when living rooms open directly off of a pubic walkway.

In the end, the only techniques to draw upon are inexpensive and readily available materials and construction processes, and the increasingly low expectations people have of housing with respect to spatial standards and convenience in addition to factors such as access, privacy, daylighting, ventilation, fire safety and fire escape which are regulated by building code.

I did find this next example and there will probably be other early implementers. Like the example I first mentioned, it’s a mall conversion of sorts but until I see some plans and how it’s done I can’t say if it’s a good or a useful example. Judging by those convenient upper level story heights, I suspect this is a vertical extension rather than adaptive re-use or conversion. That it’s being promoted as a successful example of adaptive re-use shows how desperate mall owners, the construction industry, the economy and investors all are for mall conversions to work.

Converting a multi-level, concrete column and slab shopping mall into housing isn’t something I expect to ever happen because, if you had a choice, you simply wouldn’t choose such a structure if you were designing housing from scratch. It’s something that would be driven only by necessity. Nor would you choose a structure like this if you were designing a vertical farm, even though these structures could be used for that too. The exercise I propose is an exercise in adaptive re-use but, even then, the only situation I can imagine one ever wanting to repurpose a shopping mall as housing is if making concrete structures was for some reason no longer possible and we had to make the best possible use of now disused concrete structures. In other words, it would be a post semi-apocalyptic scenario of the kind fashionable in architecture schools some time back, but one in which persons with sufficient non-concrete building materials and no desire to waste them, decided to occupy and reconfigure an abandoned shopping mall because it made the most sense to do so.

Synthesise

I’m going to take my local mall from the Mall World post as my candidate for adaptive re-use, even though it works perfectly as a mall, is always busy, is in no financial difficulty and nobody needs or wants it to be anything else than what it is. In other words, this is an academic exercise.

To start, I’ve imported and scaled the plans from the level directories for each floor. I’ll leave the 6th floor bar, restaurant and rooftop garden as amenity space for the residents – it’s not the point of the exercise. I’ll try to get equal numbers of apartments and car parking spaces, not because people will still be driving cars in this scenario but because the internal volume is a function of the number of car parking spaces (and vice-versa). If car parking spaces/space can be converted into residences then so well and good. We will see. Maybe a summer project.