(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 394: Let’s Go to the Mall!

August 3, 2022

This week we’re joined by architecture writer and journalist Alexandra Lange to talk about her book: Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall. We chat about the evolution of the mall, equity and legal implications, and of course pop culture.

Listen to this episode at Streetsblog USA or on our hosting page.

Below is a full unedited transcript of the episode:

Jeff Wood (1m 24s):
Alexandra Lange. Welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.

Alexandra Lange (1m 54s):
Thank you for having me.

Jeff Wood (1m 55s):
Well, thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Alexandra Lange (1m 58s):
So I’m an architecture and design critic, and I just wrote a book called meet me by the fountain and inside history of the mall and my previous book, which I feel like might come up as we talk was the design of childhood, how the material world shapes independent kids. So basically I’m interested in the kind of popular architecture that everyone experiences, but may not realize has a long intellectual and cultural history.

Jeff Wood (2m 26s):
When was your first experience with architecture? Like what was your first inclination that this was something that was of interest to you?

Alexandra Lange (2m 32s):
Well, I guess the origin story that I usually tell is that in eighth grade I took a class at the Durham arts council in architecture with somebody who was a professor at the North Carolina state college of design. And the first day they gave us, he gave us each an architectural plan, a plan of a house and said, can you extrapolate from this plan, what the house looks like? And everyone else in the class got a fairly normal house plan, but I got a plan that just looked like a bunch of dots with very thin lines between them. And then I could tell whether there was a front door, but I, you know, took it back to the teacher and said, where are the walls?

Alexandra Lange (3m 20s):
And he said, what if there aren’t any walls? And it turned out it was the plan of Philip Johnson’s glass house. So in fact there weren’t any walls,

Jeff Wood (3m 29s):
It was all glass, it

Alexandra Lange (3m 29s):
Was all glass. So that was, I think, a really important introduction to modern architecture and kind of like how far you can take it. And after that, I was interested in being an architect and writing about architecture and kind of went back between those two things for quite a while.

Jeff Wood (3m 45s):
Did you know, after that, that you were gonna go be a, a critic and, you know, extrapolate that even further?

Alexandra Lange (3m 51s):
I actually wanted to be an architect myself for a long time. I specifically applied to a number of colleges that had architecture programs and I was an architecture major as an undergraduate at Yale, but I also started being a writer and then an editor for the Yale daily news, the college paper at that time. So I feel like I was kind of double tracking, writing and designing for a long time. And ultimately I decided that I was a better writer than I was a designer.

Jeff Wood (4m 22s):
Oh, I wish I was a better writer and designer. So you have written a book about the mall, meet me by the fountain. What brings you to write a book about malls?

Alexandra Lange (4m 33s):
Well, I grew up with malls. I grew up in Durham, North Carolina. And so I had a lot of really formative experiences. And that was where I went as a teenager to go to the movies. That was where I shop. They were kind of a big deal in my area and there weren’t a lot of other places to hang out. So I had that personal background, but then I got more interested in the topic circa 2018. When I read that the architect Renzo piano was designing a mall called city center, Bishop branch in the greater bay area. And there was all this incredulity about such a famous architect, designing a mall.

Alexandra Lange (5m 14s):
And I was like, wait a second. I seem to recall that lots of famous architects design malls, and he didn’t really wanna call it a mall because that was somehow day class a and I was like, but what’s wrong with the mall. I remember malls being really fun. And I think that, you know, malls provide an important pedestrian environment in the suburbs and all the rest of it. So I, I started writing pieces that were basically like staking a claim for both the importance of the mall and the goodness of the mall at a time when I think a lot of people were ready to treat that project as kind of a joke.

Jeff Wood (5m 49s):
There’s a lot of critiques of malls by the urban set, I guess. Why is that?

Alexandra Lange (5m 54s):
Well, I mean, malls are a symbol of the suburbs and there is a certain amount of major critique of the suburbs in a lot of urban conversations. And I guess I wanna make sure people know that I’m not 100% a mall advocate. I think one of the things that I try to make clear in the book is that there are a lot of ironies and ambivalences around the story of the mall, but I think it’s important to take them seriously. And that’s kind of like the animating force of my book. So, I mean, why do people scoff at malls? I mean, they’re, they’re capitalists, they’re commercial. They are often, you know, kind of populated by women and children. They are definitely suburban.

Alexandra Lange (6m 36s):
And in a lot of cases, they’ve fallen on hard times. So all of these things make them not quite the bright, shiny aspirational object that they used to be.

Jeff Wood (6m 46s):
They are also a land bank to a certain extent for the future. It’s interesting to think about them that way as well.

Alexandra Lange (6m 53s):
Yeah. I think one of the things that I discovered as I went along doing the research of the book was just, I sort of grappled as just how much square footage malls encompass, both in terms of their big, empty parking lots. And also, you know, under the roof sections of malls, it’s just a tremendous amount of architectural and spacial material. And since some malls are dying and those malls are more likely to be the first and second ring suburban malls that were built in the sixties and seventies, and haven’t kept up with the times. Those also tend to be the suburbs that are more dense and more diverse than they used to be.

Alexandra Lange (7m 33s):
So now you have these dense, diverse places with a dead mall in the center of them and those dead malls seem like a perfect opportunity to do something new that better reflects what those suburbs are today and what the needs of people living there today are.

Jeff Wood (7m 49s):
Yeah. It’s just interesting to think about the evolution of the mall from where it started and where it is now in, in terms of the high end level, but also the kind of the moderate and low end levels in terms of the types of shoppers they’re trying to attract and what that means for the future of urban design and cities generally.

Alexandra Lange (8m 4s):
Yeah. Well, one of the interesting things is that sometimes people think, oh, this mall is going downhill because it has local shops rather than big national chains, but in a lot of places, that’s actually a much better business model. People are much more interested in buying locally. Those local entrepreneurs may have closer ties to different parts of the community immigrant communities. And so they’re fulfilling a need that, you know, another branch of forever 21 is never gonna fulfill

Jeff Wood (8m 36s):
Well, that’s true. And, and it goes kind of full circle too. I mean, Victor grin and LC Kruk wanted post office doctor’s offices libraries as, as part of the mall. And you know, now big box stores who are trying to reinvent themselves are kind of lucky if they get those things, you know, in the former buildings of malls.

Alexandra Lange (8m 51s):
Yeah. After one of my early stories, you know, related to the book, came out, I got contacted by the Anne Arundel library, which has quite a large branch in a Westfield mall in Maryland. And they started out as just a little pocket branch, cuz the mall didn’t have a bookstore and was interested in, you know, having some kind of book presence in the mall and that branch did so well, but now they have, I think it’s like a 50,000 square foot store, like quite a big presence. And they stock it all with fairly recent books and they do a lot of programming there because people will just, you know, walk in and go to an author event. And that’s exactly the kind of thing that grew in and other early mall designers envisioned that kind of authentic and actually public community experience happening in the mall.

Alexandra Lange (9m 42s):
And so now in a time of need, people are remixing them to include those things. But that was always in the original concept.

Jeff Wood (9m 51s):
One of my favorite things about the book is kind of taking a trip down memory lane in terms of like the pop culture and thinking about all the movies that we saw with malls and kids and those types of things. I’m wondering what the impression of malls was from pop culture. You know, we have fast times at Ridgemont high mall rats, high school movie classics from the eighties and nineties. Do you have a favorite movie related to the mall as well?

Alexandra Lange (10m 11s):
My favorite is clueless actually, which I feel like is a kind of high mall movie. And the scene I always talk about is when Cher and Christian are shopping together, she doesn’t know he’s gay yet, but he is basically her new gay best friend and shopping buddy. And both of them are looking very beautiful, very glossy. And they’re coming up the escalator under this big glass roof of the mall in Westwood. And it’s just kind of this, the architect frames them perfectly. And like that’s the kind of promenade experience that the designers of the mall intended everyone to have. And I feel like the movie is really using the mall architecture to underline this kind of moment of peak beauty for these two, which is also the pride go with before a fall moment because you know, clueless is based on Emma and Emma has to learn her lesson.

Jeff Wood (11m 3s):
Yeah. Yeah. I think my favorite is mall rats. And I think it’s partially because, and I was thinking about this through the book is that, you know, in the middle they get kicked outta the mall and they have to go to another mall and it’s a lower rent mall. And so you see this kind of evolution of malls, even back then to a certain extent they had to go to what they called the dirt mall. Yeah. Which was really fascinating, kind of thinking about how even then there was like, you know, kind of step ups and step downs in terms of this mall culture.

Alexandra Lange (11m 27s):
And that’s also a great example of the ambivalence that I referred to earlier. I mean, teens love the mall. Teens were identified with malls. We see that reflected in pop culture, but teens are also perpetually being kicked out of malls.

Jeff Wood (11m 41s):
Yeah. You, you mentioned that too is, is kind of this space for teens and where they stuck certain stores and, and the arcades, right. Like where they wanted teens to be versus where teens wanted to be.

Alexandra Lange (11m 50s):
Exactly. Right. I mean, the arcade was a perfect thing to put in one of those hallways. That’s not really prime real estate because it doesn’t need, you know, street frontage. It doesn’t need glass windows. In fact, arcades are better when they’re kind of dark and windowless and have a little bit of a, you know, RA fish aura. And I, I don’t know, I can’t remember in mall rats where the comic book store is located, but that’s also the kind of thing that might go for the lower rent storefront that is in one of the hallways before you get to the big, shiny top lit part of the mall.

Jeff Wood (12m 24s):
You also take us through a history of the us version of the mall and some international history as well for inspiration, but it seems like it’s driven a lot by personalities. I mean, you have Jody, you have Victor grin Caesar ply. What did you take from the human factor behind mall evolution?

Alexandra Lange (12m 39s):
Well, I think a lot of the great, you know, kind of mall makers who were both, some of them were designers and some of them were developers thought of themselves as salesmen. And this was definitely true for grin. A key had to convince all of these American investors and civic leaders that the mall was the wave of the future. And when he first started doing that, he was a fairly recent Vietnamese immigrant. You know, he was Jewish. He was rebuilding his career in the us. And he did that by very sadly combining really great visuals with a lot of business knowledge, his partner, Larry Smith put together extensive books, kind of convincing civic leaders that they would make more money if they moved to the suburbs and were part of a mall.

Alexandra Lange (13m 27s):
So I think that the mall as commercial architecture and is akin to some of the commercial products sold in the mall is a really important part of the narrative and that these people that were really successful in that business had to be that kind of salesperson. You know, at the time they wouldn’t have been on TV. So you wouldn’t say telegenic, but I think they were what we would today called telegenic people.

Jeff Wood (13m 51s):
It’s interesting. In the end of the book, you talk about a little bit about the transit oriented mall in a lot of international settings. And I didn’t even know that Jody was a mall designer because my introduction to him was through transit-oriented developments. Like you’d go on and you’d pipe in transit-oriented development and Google, and you’d find these fantastical designs for Asian cities and other places. And they were all, you know, journey designs. And so I didn’t even know he was a mall guy per se, right. Until I actually read your book, which is really fascinating, cuz I came to him from a different angle.

Alexandra Lange (14m 18s):
That’s really interesting. I didn’t know that that’s what popped up if you search him now, because I always kind of knew about him as the designer of the mall of America and writing this book made me, you know, appreciate his work and kind of his vision and the like lengths to which he would go to make the mall into an entertainment space even more. But it makes sense that especially as more of his business was in Asia where malls tend to be over, you know, subways and other transit that his design efforts would kind of sprawl out from a retail center to include the kind of, you know, housing and offices and everything that really malls in the us should also have.

Alexandra Lange (15m 0s):
Like, I mean that, that is definitely a direction that we should go in with our dead malls or even just malls that could support more dense residential development around them.

Jeff Wood (15m 11s):
Yeah, definitely recommend Googling J J E R D E and T OD or transition development. It’s it’s some of his designs are really cool and I was always inspired like, oh, that’d be really cool to have somewhere in the United States, but it’s always in Asia.

Alexandra Lange (15m 22s):
There’s one in Japan. Now I can’t remember what city that basically has a lazy river going through it. And it’s just so beautiful.

Jeff Wood (15m 32s):
Well, you talk about the grin transfer, the journey transfer, which is how they wanted their malls to be experienced. But what about the Lang transfer? What would that be?

Alexandra Lange (15m 39s):
You mean in a mall,

Jeff Wood (15m 41s):
In a mall? Yeah,

Alexandra Lange (15m 42s):
The Lang transfer, honestly, it would probably be starting to get very picky about what the benches were like and what the plants were like and what the materials and surfaces were like. I mean the, the second chapter of the book is about north park in Dallas, which I think is the most beautiful mall in the us. And it that’s really the mall with museum finishes and, and kind of a minimalist mall. And so that’s always my standard in terms of how nice you can make the frame for all of these different brands.

Jeff Wood (16m 17s):
Victor grin is kind of given this, you know, grandfather of the mal moniker. He didn’t really want it. He’s kind of, you know, pushed away from that. But he’s also very influential in a lot of people, including I think James Roon and in UN Walt Disney, I mean, one of Sam, Jen away found that, you know, the only book in, in Walt’s archive was the, the heart of our city’s pay Victor grin, which is really interesting when he was thinking about doing Disney world in Epcot. I’m wondering, you know, why he wanted to kind of step away from that moniker. And was it because of suburbia? Was it because of, you know, the auto centricity of it all? Was it because his designs got kind of bastardized by all these developers

Alexandra Lange (16m 53s):
It’s because his original vision didn’t take hold. I mean, if you look at Southdale, which was his first indoor mall, which opened in Edina, Minnesota in 1956, his original plans included the mall. Yes. But all of this high rise, housing, medical development office development around the mall. So he essentially visualized if not transit oriented development, at least a kind of dense mixed use city around the mall. And he also envisioned a lot more public facilities as part of the mall, like a true community center. And as his ideas took cold and other developers started building malls.

Alexandra Lange (17m 37s):
So many of those elements that he had originally had as part of his vision fell away and the mall became this, you know, big retail box in the middle of a parking lot. And he was really dismayed by how disjointed that made cities, how ugly the malls were from the outside. And so at a certain point, he really didn’t want to be associated with them anymore because they had none of the urban qualities that he had been trying to bring from Vienna to the edges of American cities.

Jeff Wood (18m 10s):
Why are we always responding to cars and bad zoning codes?

Alexandra Lange (18m 14s):
I guess that’s, that’s the million dollar question. I mean, one of the revelations for me in writing this book was thinking about the mall as this, you know, object designed to bridge between the highways that the us government was subsidizing and the single family homes that the us government was subsidizing that, you know, the us went into the post-war era, spending money on these two things that were finding of themselves, but had no provision for community space. And so I think if grin hadn’t invented and popularized the mall, the suburbs would in fact be far more dystopian than they are now.

Alexandra Lange (18m 58s):
I mean, I, I think you could write a whole alternate history. Sci-fi novel about the suburbs without the mall.

Jeff Wood (19m 3s):
That’s really interesting. Would it be a zombie movie too, like in the,

Alexandra Lange (19m 9s):
The zombies are made by shopping? I mean, that was just like, I had a lot of fun doing all of the, you know, pop culture, reading, watching, and reporting for this book. And one of the things that was most interesting to me was watching movies like Don of the dead, which is set in a mall and realizing that the zombies really aren’t the bad guys in that movie. I mean, the, you know, do Romero is commenting on how we are all programmed to shop. So the zombies are merely an exaggeration of what he saw late seventies humans doing. Anyway,

Jeff Wood (19m 46s):
Your discussion about urbanism is interesting too and suburbanization as well at the time. I mean, the demand for these malls was driven by housing. Like you said, it’s amazing how much housing was built in 1950, almost double what we built in 2019, even at a fraction of the population. And so we’re, we’re not building as much housing now, does that have any implications for what’s happening to the malls as well? Is there connection there? Like there was before?

Alexandra Lange (20m 8s):
Yeah, well, a lot of the retail experts I talked to said that the us was over Malled. So we have and have had for about 20 years, that’s a 20 term I know over, we have for, I think at least 20 years had more suburban retail than we have the people to shop in, essentially because instead of revamping malls or instead of putting malls in places that didn’t have retail opportunities, developers simply built a new mall, 10 miles out from the old mall and cannibalized all of the people who were shopping at the old mall. So it’s an incredibly wasteful way to get new shoppers and do development.

Alexandra Lange (20m 51s):
And so what we have now is less housing being built too much retail. And then that retail is isolated, you know, physically from the people who might want to shop there. So it’s just a really terrible development pattern as we sort of already knew, but the death of malls points it up because you get these kind of holes in the middle of communities where you can just see, oh, here’s this empty parking lot. Like what’s happening there? What can we do with it? And you have a lot of municipalities that have ended up buying dead malls back from their developers, just so they can keep them secure. Like they don’t have a plan for them yet, but they just want to know that they, you know, are locked up tight and that, you know, nothing bad is gonna happen to them while they wait for development cycles and the economy to pick up and have ideas of what to do with them.

Jeff Wood (21m 44s):
It’s interesting how kind of wasteful we are in that sense. I, I actually had Michael Newman on last show who wrote this book, sustainable infrastructure for cities and society. And one of the things that he kind of lament is that it’s, that we’re so wasteful and we’re not very sustainable in terms of how we use our land. And we were kind of throw things away as soon as they they’re used up. And that kind of reminds me of the idea of the mall and the leapfrogging that happens, you know, starting at the center of the city and then moving outward and continuing outward until kind of the cannibalization of the middle sections is, is complete. That’s interesting from that perspective as well, from a sustainability perspective.

Alexandra Lange (22m 19s):
Yeah, no, I absolutely agree with that point. And it is an incredibly wasteful way to develop things. One of the points I make towards the end of the book, when I start to talk about ways that people have already started reusing malls, is that if possible, we should be reusing the actual buildings of the mall, they are more adaptable than you might think. And that at least, you know, reuses the embodied energy of the concrete and the steel that’s already there rather than clear cutting them and building something new, like a total replacement, it’s much better to try to reuse architecture and people have done that. So there’s something about the mall, you know, especially with all the brands plastered across it that makes people think, oh, this can only be a retail environment, but if you strip it down to the bones, the mall is just a series of big boxes.

Alexandra Lange (23m 12s):
And there are a lot of other things that can be put in those big boxes.

Jeff Wood (23m 16s):
Well, I was entertained by a lot of the things in the book because it reminded me of places I’ve been and seen in Highland mall in Austin was one of them. I went to school at the university of Texas. And then also I was, I grew up in Texas. So for one cross country state meet where the, you know, states at Georgetown, which is just north of town. We stayed at a hotel just outside of Highland mall, which you mentioned in the book. And then for our entertainment, while we were waiting to race, the next day we went and wandered around the mall Highland mall. And so thinking about Highland mall now, as, as a campus of Austin community college is, is a little strange, you know, that transformation that’s happened, but they are finding ways to reuse the space like that, where they take the building and then they use it for other things. And not just like we mentioned earlier, the libraries and such, but actually places of learning.

Alexandra Lange (23m 58s):
Yeah. And I think the Austin community college Highland campus is one of the best examples of that. It’s interesting that you said that you went there because one of the things that the chancellor of the college told me was that they had saved a giant fiberglass hot dog that used to be in the food court at Highland mall. And

Jeff Wood (24m 17s):
I don’t remember that students

Alexandra Lange (24m 18s):
Would come into the school and see it and say, oh my God, I remember that from the food court and, you know, take selfies, et cetera. And they’re actually pretty respectful of the legacy of the mall. I mean, Highland mall was one of the first indoor malls in Austin. I think it was built circa 1970s. So there are people with, you know, 50 year memories of the mall and they feel like that is an asset to the college. The people remember what it was and now overlay some of those positive feelings onto the college.

Jeff Wood (24m 50s):
You addressed the equity as well, the equity implications. And, and at first it’s the equity implications of everybody leaving downtown in kind of this space that actually had good retail and, and a lot of department stores and things like that. But then later on the equity implications of the indoor spaces too, how much did that discussion kind of come into your, your thinking when you were writing the book?

Alexandra Lange (25m 9s):
Well, before I started writing the book, I was already aware of a lot of the new scholarship on the suburbs first that you know, how zoning redlining and homeowners associations, you know, kept the suburbs white. And so I wanted to make sure to acknowledge that if you’re building a mall in the suburbs in the 1950s, the clientele for that mall would most likely have been white stay-at-home mothers and their children like that was who the target audience was. That was, who lived in the catchment zone for the mall. So I wanted to say that, but then as I did more and more research, I just found that there really is a racial component, like running through the whole history of the mall.

Alexandra Lange (25m 51s):
And I, you know, if you’re doing history in 2022, you need to talk about that. And it turned up in a lot of different ways. You know, first it was that the original malls were designed for a white clientele, not, you know, kind of DEFAC that’s that would be who was shopping there. Then there is the idea that over time, white malls then became black malls as the demographics of the neighborhoods around them changed. And that often there was a negative inference to that, even though there shouldn’t be there, there’s nothing wrong with a mall serving black clientele. And then it also turns up in things like mall codes of conduct, which will say things like you can’t have more than four kids under 18 going around a mall without an adult.

Alexandra Lange (26m 40s):
But typically those codes of conduct are enforced on black and brown teens rather than white teens, more likely to enforce on boys versus girls and so on. And so in a lot of places, malls have reinforced racism even while they have also sold, you know, sneakers and sportswear and all kinds of other things to black shoppers.

Jeff Wood (27m 3s):
Yeah. It’s interesting because you know, another idea that you’ve kind of forwarded in the book is the idea of the mall is training wheels for younger kids and for, you know, tweens and, and young adults as well. And then you have these kind of restrictions that the mall owners wanted to put on kids and tweens and younger adults. Like you mentioned, the malls kind of were designed as a place for kind of the, the white suburban wife, you know, housewife, but they ended up being this place for teenagers and others to gather and meet their friends and be seen. And all those things I’m wondering, you know, that evolution or was it even an evolution? Was it just always kind of, they didn’t really realize what they were actually doing?

Alexandra Lange (27m 41s):
No, it was an evolution and it was an evolution that happened as those children born in the 1950s that would’ve been little kids going to the mall with their mothers got older, like the mall had to grow up with the children of the baby boom and in a bunch of the kind of mall mall management handbooks that I read, they had specific sections talking about what you could do with teenagers. Like a lot of malls had teen councils, or they would have tea parties and fashion shows for teenagers. But that kind of activity is really very parental and very limiting. It’s sort of saying, okay, like you can come to the mall as a teenager, if you are a nice young lady who wants to watch a fashion show, but you can’t come to the mall.

Alexandra Lange (28m 30s):
If you’re part of a mixed group that, you know, wants to hold hands in the food court and like get a little rowdy, you know, that’s not what teenagers are like. And that’s sort of saying like, okay, you can only be in the mall on our terms. So the mall owners, I think swiftly found that they couldn’t control teenagers to the extent that they originally imagined. And so they tried to control them with things like the codes of conduct and curfews and things like that. But on the other hand, parents were always dropping their kids off at the mall. As more mothers started working, the malls became babysitters for many people because they have the kind of eyes on the street effect that Jane Jacobs talks about in Greenwich village.

Alexandra Lange (29m 14s):
But, you know, eyes on the mall, eyes on the atrium eyes, on the food court. So they feel safer to parents than a regular city or suburban street. And they have the kind of walkability and connections that you don’t get in other places in the suburbs.

Jeff Wood (29m 31s):
What’s interesting to me is that you mentioned San Hemano a couple times, which is Italian hill town, and which is, is interesting to me. And, you know, I think a lot of people always wonder, you know, and the answer is varied and long, but I mean, why can’t we build San Hemano here instead of a mall, right? Like why can’t we just build urban places where people wanna go or wanna be part of that’s history, part of that’s development codes, part of that’s fire codes, but like, why don’t we just build that instead of making this kind of weird facsimile?

Alexandra Lange (30m 1s):
Well, I mean, as somebody who started out as a modern architectural historian, I would say you can’t build it without it being F because to try to build Sano now is to build ITIM. That’s true. Honestly, that’s what John J was doing in his first successful project was Horton Plaza in San Diego, which is an urban open air mall that he basically made look like a Disney version of Sienna. So architects of the 1970s were weirdly obsessed with Italian hill towns and it comes up in their designs for housing and their designs for malls and their they’re designed for universities.

Alexandra Lange (30m 42s):
And I could go on about that for a long time. It’s just like one of those things that once you start looking at architecture of that period, you can’t unsee. But I mean, I think that Jody did the best version of it because he acknowledged the Arity of that, but built in some of the kind of wonderful level changes and secret little streets and outdoor cafes and all of that, that makes San Jim Minno so wonderful. I mean, I think the real reason is that architecture in America is almost always driven by capitalism. And so, you know, one of the things I point out is yes, it would be great if truly public streets had the benches and plants and clean bathrooms, et cetera of malls, but that’s not really the way we build things in the us.

Alexandra Lange (31m 35s):
So until we improve the public realm, sometimes the best public realm you get is actually in the private space of the mall.

Jeff Wood (31m 42s):
Yeah. I was thinking about that and I think that’s probably my problem with malls generally, but also the same problem I have with like apple spaceship is that it’s and Johnny Ives lame opinions too. Like, I feel like, you know, you could have built an actual place there, and then we’re stuck with this stuff for 40 to a hundred years that you built and is inward facing rather than outward facing and not very helpful for the greater society overall.

Alexandra Lange (32m 5s):
Yeah, no, I have all kinds of problems with travel spaceship. I’ve written about all the problems that I have with spaceship, but what I think is pretty fascinating is that also in Coopertino there was this old mall that the community thought against the redevelopment of for years and years and years with all the usual NIMBY arguments. But it’s finally being redeveloped now as more of a mixed use space with the giant green roof that is supposed to be a public park and it’s still neoliberal space. You know, it, it’s still this kind of neither public nor private, probably going to be policed by invisible security cameras.

Alexandra Lange (32m 48s):
So only certain kind of people can move around in it, but at least it is providing more housing and more open space for a wider number of people. Whereas the apple spaceship is simply providing, you know, some trees for the apple engineers who are locked in their glass house

Jeff Wood (33m 7s):
And also running into the glass walls. Yeah.

Alexandra Lange (33m 10s):
And also driving their cars and parking underneath. So they don’t have to look at their cars, but everyone else gets affected by the pollution of their cars.

Jeff Wood (33m 18s):
14,000 parking spaces. Fun. Yeah. Another thing that came up while I was reading the book was like, I felt like, and I love trying to make like dumb connections, but like I felt like the mall kind of as an analog to cable television. And the reason why I thought this is because, you know, at one point cable was where you went to go get your bundle of viewing. Right? You got your different channels, you got all the things that you wanted to watch. And now we have Netflix and we have this unbundling. And so I feel like the internet has brought this unbundling, not only to cable television, but also to retail. And so it’s an interesting kind of parallel of how those two very different, you know, capitalist Moores have transferred, but almost feels very similar,

Alexandra Lange (33m 56s):
But the unbundling is super annoying. I mean, I was, I was talking to my, so I live in Brooklyn and my kids have grown up in Brooklyn. So I was talking to my 11 year old about the mall because my kids have very rarely been to a mall. They don’t get them at all. And I was saying how, one of the things that I thought was good about a mall for kids, you know, teens and tweets was that all of the things that my 11 year old could do in our neighborhood were all kind of adjacent in one place. And you didn’t have to worry about crossing streets between them. And the things that I listed off were basically getting bubble tea, getting a slice of pizza, going into the gift store and then hanging out in the park.

Alexandra Lange (34m 40s):
Right. I mean, those are the things that kids do at the mall, but it is in fact safer, cuz our streets are not safe enough and he immediately got it. He was like, oh, it’s putting all of those things together in one place. Like the bundling is convenient and the bundling of cable was convenient because now there are a lot of shows that I don’t watch because it’s on like the platform that I didn’t subscribe to. And I feel like the same thing happens in retail. Now there are things that you no longer have access to because they’re just too inconvenient.

Jeff Wood (35m 13s):
Oh yeah, no, I agree that it’s not convenient. Cause there’s too many different channels now or services. Right. And you’re right. You can’t watch everything you wanna watch cuz it’s all on different places. But I guess you’d have to pay for the extra cable channels to do the same, like, you know, HBO and Cinemax and whatever else, if you’re wanting to watch that bonus movie or anything like that. But at the same time, you’re right. I mean, I’m wondering when they’re gonna rebundle right. Like there’s, there’s gotta be a point in which they come back together because consumers gonna be fed up with separation.

Alexandra Lange (35m 40s):
I think consumers are already starting to be tired of TV during the pandemic. We had to spend a lot of time socializing online and we were, most of us were doing less. And so I feel like TV and TV shows came to be a very dominant part of the conversation. And I think when people have more options on our back doing things, you know, out there in the world, they are going to be watching TV shows less. Hopefully it will shrink as part of the conversation. And I don’t know if it’s gonna be sustainable to have all of those different separate networks.

Jeff Wood (36m 18s):
Something just came to me. One of the shows early shows we did was about Walt Disney and his ideas as a planner. And, and one of the things that we learned is that, you know, the reason why Disneyland has all these separate sections in it is because he wanted people to go there and wanted them to experience the park. Like they would a television. So you change the channel and you go to pirates of the Caribbean, you change the channel and you’re on main street, you change the channel and you’re on space mountain. Those are all different kind of connections between place and between experiences that maybe, you know, we had in these mixed use places like in New York city or even in San Francisco that maybe the suburbs don’t have. And it’s a fascinating connection. And I don’t know if you have any thoughts about it.

Alexandra Lange (36m 57s):
Well, Walt Disney was in touch with a lot of different mall makers. He was also in touch with James Rouse, who is the force behind fan hall and south street Seaport and Harbor place in Baltimore, which are definitely, you know, Disney, urban environments. And the other connection I would make is actually two John Jody and the mall of America. So the mall of America has an amusement park in the center of it, which is clearly homage to theme parks and Disney. But also each of the four wings of the mall of America was set up to look like a different tourist destination. You know, one of the wings was supposed to evoke new Orleans.

Alexandra Lange (37m 38s):
Another was supposed to evoke European cities like Victor Gren always wanted. So the idea was that you could go to the mall of America and experience all of these things in one place. So it’s absolutely that Disney idea and the fact that there’s so much back and forth between the mall makers and theme Parkery is very important. And honestly, in my previous book, the design of childhood, I talk about some of the original plans for Epcot that Disney had, but died before they could be executed. Right. Which were basically for a car free or car light city in the middle of the swamps of Florida.

Jeff Wood (38m 16s):
Yeah. It’s too bad. His brother just didn’t have his vision. It would’ve been interesting to see, although, you know, Disney had his own problems and issues and stuff like that, but yes, it would’ve been interesting to see what he came up with

Alexandra Lange (38m 25s):
Also racist.

Jeff Wood (38m 26s):
Yes. Was there anything new that you learned when you were writing the book? I mean, you’ve, you did a lot of articles. You were able to do a lot of research ahead of time, but when you’re writing the book, was there something that popped up that really, you know, got you interested in thinking about the malls as a whole?

Alexandra Lange (38m 39s):
I think one of the most interesting threads that I found was the whole legal history of the mall. I was not expecting Thurgood Marshall to turn up in my book on the mall. I mean, you know, I’m a journalist and I have sort of a short attention span. So when I pick a topic for a book, I want it to be something that has a lot of avenues. It, it it’s like a branching topic, so okay. I can talk about movies. I can talk about urbanism. I can talk about the Supreme court and that’s what happened with the legal history of the mall. So the fact that there was this contested legal history, like is the mall a public space? Is it a private space? Can you protest at the mall or can you not, was really interesting to me.

Alexandra Lange (39m 22s):
And I had a really good time reading through, you know, 20 years of decisions to kind of figure out where people ended up and where we are today is that whether or not you can protest at a mall is a state by state decision. Different state Supreme courts have decided it differently. And so if you’re planning a protest, you should look up what the policy is in your state. But what was especially interesting to me was Thurgood Marshall wrote the majority decision in the Logan valley case, which was the first case of the mall before the Supreme court in 1968. And he said something that I think is still really important today, which was basically that malls have become de facto downtowns.

Alexandra Lange (40m 6s):
And one of the things that is important for civic protests is to have an audience and have it be disruptive. And so he basically says, if malls have become the new downtown, they have to be open to protests because otherwise we’re leaving. People know where to go to make a scene. Like you need that platform in order to make a scene, to make your point to get attention. And I think that’s something that we’re still seeing as a problem. And it’s still interesting to look at where people protest. There was a black lives matter protest at the mall of America. The people were arrested because you aren’t allowed to protest at the mall of America, but that was where post, you know, George Floyd people felt they could get the most attention.

Jeff Wood (40m 54s):
What’s the response been to the book so far?

Alexandra Lange (40m 56s):
It’s been really great. I mean, one of the things that is making me really happy is how many people coming from different angles are, you know, kind of finding themselves in the book. I mean, I, first of all, I love it. When people take my book as an opportunity to write about their mall, this is something I refer to in the introduction that as I was researching it, every time I told people I was writing about the mall, they would say, oh, let me tell you about my mall. Or they had some fun story from when they were a teenager or when they worked at the departments, whatever. So like I knew that this was an architecture topic that was actually very personal. So that makes me happy. But then the other thing is, you know, I’ve been working as an architecture and design critic for a long time, but I’m getting requests for interviews from business podcasts, retail podcast, transportation, podcasts.

Alexandra Lange (41m 50s):
I just got a query. I don’t know if it’s gonna work out from a food podcast cuz I talk a lot about food courts and mall food. So the idea that the mall is actually part of all of these different categories is really fun and exciting and it’s made the interviews much more fun for me because I kind of never know what questions I’m going to get. I mean, sometimes I’m stretching maybe the limits of my knowledge, but that is really fun. Yeah.

Jeff Wood (42m 15s):
Well, so the book is called, meet me by the fountain, an inside history of the mall, Alexander, where can folks find the book? If they wanna get a copy,

Alexandra Lange (42m 23s):
If you wanna get assigned copy. They have them at green light books in Brooklyn and politics and pros in Washington, DC, but you can buy the book pretty much anywhere online.

Jeff Wood (42m 36s):
We tell folks typically to go to bookshop.org, go to their local bookstore IndieBound to places where you can find books generally.

Alexandra Lange (42m 41s):
Yeah, well it’s definitely on bookshop.org. I actually have a mall books reading list on bookshop.org too. You know how they let you make a reading list? Yeah.

Jeff Wood (42m 50s):
So what’s your URL. Do

Alexandra Lange (42m 52s):
You remember? I think it’s just my name because I have a reading list for both that and for design of childhood, that’s basically my bibliography.

Jeff Wood (42m 60s):
So it would be bookshop.org/shop/ Alexander Lang.

Alexandra Lange (43m 4s):
I think so. Yeah. Yeah. But yeah, I mean I’m a recovering academics, so I always have extensive bibliography and I know other people like the nerd out with bibliography. So I put something together with a lot of books, including a lot of great fiction about them, all that you could read if you’re so inspired.

Jeff Wood (43m 20s):
Awesome. Well Alexander, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.

Alexandra Lange (43m 23s):
Thanks for having me

Listen to the Talking Headways Podcast


…the first thing I read every morning is the newsletter to see what’s been out there. It’s great to have an aggregator that pulls everything together so nicely.

Joe Cortright, City Observatory

I think that the email newsletter that you do every morning is the best one that I get, and I get a lot of them.

Mary Newsom, The UNC Charlotte Urban Institute

Really is the best daily urban newsletter out there.

Eric Jaffe, Editorial Director Sidewalk Labs


To Receive The Overhead Wire in Your Inbox Daily

Premium Daily Subscription

The Premium Daily Subscription is our most information packed offering, chock full of over 30 pieces of news every single day. Included are popular features such as the quote of the day and the most read article from the previous day. Also included is our weekly roundup for times when you are strapped for time but need to know what’s going on.

Premium Weekly Subscription

The Premium Weekly Subscription is for professionals constantly under a time crunch. We take the most read items from the week before and share them with subscribers along with more in depth analysis of a single popular topic.

Learn More and Subscribe

Video of the Day

Friends of The Overhead Wire

Back To Top

Welcome to The Overhead Wire

What Can We Help You Find?

Try Our Newsletter For Free