Church of Glass and Steel: Meaning in the Mall

Shopping malls, despite their size and apparent granduer, often seem invisible in modern life, so familiar are we with these buildings. It's almost difficult to imagine our cities without these shining structures.

Nevertheless, like all aspects of the built environment, the shopping mall is always projecting an image, projecting some part of an idea or culture. An incarnation of a shopping mall has always been designed by someone, somewhere, for some reason, whether or not an individual designer or architect recognises those reasons. So the mall is always saying something, even if we don't know how to read that message, as the cultural critics say.

The modern shopping mall appears to have borrowed many of its features from the architectural features of churches and cathedrals. There's a central nave, arcades flanking the main thoroughfare, the galleries above, and overhead a vast vaulted roof of glass and steel.

The configuration of natural light, which floods in from high up, mirrors the function of the clerestory in church architecture. The effect of all that light and hollow space is to draw the viewer's gaze up toward the celestial realms. In the cathedral, it is drawing you to look up heaven; in the mall, to wonder at the volume and variety of shops.

Even the floorplans of shopping malls are designed to allude to the infinite. Many are based on a floorplan of two arms at a slight offset angle around a central food court or other functional space. In this way, a shopper is unable to see the whole way from one end of the mall to the other, so there is always the impression that there's more to buy just around the corner.

They are worlds unto themselves.
— Richard A. Feinberg and Jennifer Meoli, "A Brief History of the Mall"

The shopping mall also bears a certain resemblance to churches in its intended function as a centre of community. The pioneer of the modern shopping mall, Victor Gruen, envisioned in the 1950s "a communal gathering like the one he knew back home [in Vienna], with a lively mix of commerce, art and entertainment." In fact, as explained by Anne Quito, Gruen came to hate the structures and despise his name as 'the father of the American shopping mall', because shopping malls sprung up on the outskirts of cities and drew people away from the centres, rather than toward them.

Where Gruen had wanted to create spaces more like town plazas, blended into the urban landscape and fostering community, shopping malls now draw us into their own enclosed constellation of amenities and meanings. As one researcher has noted back in 1992, they are "worlds unto themselves--free from bad weather, life, crime, dirt and troubles."

They are inorganic, closed-loop systems, in some cases literally. The Arndale Centre in Manchester, for example, is a square of arcades, leading the visitor round endlessly in its arrangement of shops. It is a world unto itself, a microcosm of the city, and providing all your clothing, food, style choices, jewellery, status symbols, technology, entertainment.

In the "closed loop" of shopping malls, a single language and set of symbols is employed, that is, the language of aspirational consumption. While some shopping malls retain a clean functionality, such as the above-mentioned Arndale Centre, others seem to almost be parodies of this type of building. One such example is the Trafford Centre on the outskirts of Manchester.

The Trafford Centre unflinchingly draws attention to itself as is to say, ‘why wouldn’t you want all of this?’

This sprawling shopping superstructure stands as an absurd vision of the shopping mall, apart from the city and containing its own self-referential, detached world of eateries, gaming arcades, silver screens, and designer stores. You'll be confronted with a harassing patchwork of mock architectural styles, from 'Aztec', 'Oriental', 'Classical', and 'Rococco', with columns, murals, sweeping staircases, a huge ship ploughing through the food court.

Ariel view of the Trafford Centre

One uses these terms in quotes, because the Trafford Centre doesn't embody any of these styles fully. It is a hybrid design, which is based on the idea of these architectural forms, rather than the reality of these historical periods. Luke Butcher examines this as what he calls the "hyperreality" of the Trafford Centre, where the building invokes an imagined version of the past. Butcher highlights that the inauthentic design choices of the Centre signify its lacking substance. It comes off merely as a front, with no substance.

In a way, it can be quite a confusing place to visit. Should it be read as a kind of glorified religious experience, an extended version of the church-like qualities of other shopping malls? Or is it part of a culture which seriously aspires to this image of wealth? Either way, the Trafford Centre unflinchingly draws attention to itself as if to ask, 'why wouldn't you want all of this?'

After all, the closed loop of the shopping mall presents no other option than to consume. The mall has been configured for us, it tells us what to desire and what to purchase, and we are forced to marvel at its scale and design. The mall presents us with a complete vision of the world according to its creators, the same way that the cathedrals and churches of the past were intended to demonstrate their universal truths.

We can at least question whether we wish to accept this consumer culture.

The future of the mall is uncertain in these days of the demise of the high street. Each week another big-brand name falters or goes under in the face of rampant online competition. For now, at least, the shopping mall exists as a spatial and architectural manifestation of our consumer culture.

A temple of consumerism: parody or aspiration?

These buildings have the final say. While we cannot or directly challenge the image which is presented to us, we can at least question the aspiration of the shopping mall, and ask whether we wish to accept the consumer culture which is embodies and promotes.