‘Malls R Us’

God is goods, says the architecture that enfolds retail worship.

By Dorothy Woodend, 21 Aug 2009, TheTyee.ca

When I first moved to Vancouver, the first place I went was the mall. We’d heard about Vancouver’s underground mall in the Kootenays of course, but the idea seemed preposterous, fabulous, beyond wonderful.

Pacific Centre Mall was everything it was rumoured to be, sleek and modern, a glamorous new world, far removed from the ordinary grubbiness of farm life. I loved it.

The other day, as I wandered through a mall killing time before a film, aimlessly watching people, looking at things that weren’t nearly worth their price tag, I realized my time in the mall was done. Whatever lingering allure it once might have held for a girl from the country, my long-term love affair was over.

Maybe this was because I couldn’t afford to buy anything there anymore. Or maybe it was because I didn’t need the sense of identity it once promised to deliver.

Still, something lingered, a fading remnant of nostalgia and promise.

Helen Klodawsky’s documentary Malls R Us captures this curious feeling from multiple angles, looking at it from a global perspective, taking apart the physical components of the mall (water, light and vaulted space), tracing the mall’s origins, and looking to its future evolution. Some of the information that the film uncovers is fascinating, even profound, but ultimately it is this wistful, slightly mournful spirit that endures.

Malls, like other sacred spaces before them, especially churches and cathedrals, make heavy use of symbols to create a religious experience. Jon Pahl, a theologian who is interviewed in the film, gives talks about the genesis of the mall as a sacred space. He does so from a personal perspective, remembering his own childhood delight in mall visits. In a speech that takes place, ironically enough, in a mall church, Pahl explains to congregants how vestiges of sacred symbols like water, whether in fountains or reflecting pools, are always prominent in malls. Water, representing cleansing and ritual purification, is a promise of renewal. So too light, the source of all energy and life on the planet is given prominent placement.

Think of a mall’s central rotunda, like the dome of a cathedral that effectively says, “Here is God, come get some!” In a mall, trees never die, but live eternally in the light and warmth of the controlled space. It is only natural that people would want to collect in such a place, but of course it all comes at a price. $1,530,438,775,107.00 to be precise (total retail sales in 2005).

Malls make use of fundamental desire for comfort, succor, and new shoes, but they also exploit the more instinctual drives of human beings. One of the very first mall developers in the U.S. recounts how the idea of enclosing stores in a covered space came out the need to overcome “threshold resistance.” If a store is wide open, and doesn’t require a person to physically open the door and walk in, shoppers are much more likely to enter. Once inside, they are more prone to purchase. The design and physical placement of goods is calculated down to an infinitesimal d egree in order to facilitate more buying. Everything else that surrounds this bottom line is merely window dressing. But what window dressing it is.

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