Review by C.J. Bunce
Was there any rhyme or reason to the design of the American shopping mall? In one sense it’s an entirely obscure subject: the chapter of the history of architecture with respect to the rise and fall of American shopping malls. But architecture critic Alexandra Lange gives the kind of treatment you’d expect from a college course on the subject of her new book, Meet Me by the Fountain. Like most of the hundreds of millions who have visited shopping malls, if you haven’t heard of the influence on design of Victor Gruen, get ready for your introduction. Before you jump into this book, you probably want to know what you’re getting into.
If you’ve ever read a graduate school thesis, you’ll be familiar with the format of this book. A well-researched history of architecture will probably be dry for most readers. The last 40+ pages consist of endnote citation and indexing, so it’s not quite as lengthy an essay as it looks at 310 pages. Lange pulls much from previously compiled secondary sources and interviews, with much citation to Architectural Forum and similar periodicals. It’s spectacularly lacking in photographs (and the reader must jump around to locate what is included), especially considering the time Lange spends providing detailed descriptions of the styles and places she highlights. Diagrams of the handful of malls getting special attention are a must for a book like this and they’re not here, except for a few images too small to allow a reader to actually read the maps.
The shopping mall sounds like a topic we all would be interested in, especially considering the rumored end of malls on the horizon (an eventuality that never seems to wane despite malls still in most major cities), as well as interest created by shows like Stranger Things waxing nostalgic for the great malls of the 1980s. Unfortunately the history of the mall’s architecture is not a survey or history of malls or shopping. For many it may be as interesting as Lange describes American Dream, a new but failed design for a New Jersey mall supposed to arrive in 2019, pummeled extra by an economy tanked by the pandemic. The book takes some effort to get through, but high points include the odd contributions to mall concepts from speculative fiction and science fiction visionary Ray Bradbury.
The author ties together all the expected components of an overview except what readers may leap to learn about, like understanding why anchor tenants like Sears and Montgomery Wards were repeatedly chosen for new malls, what were the common stores in most malls and how did they change over time, how Americans adapted to malls and why, and what kind of influence corporations that populated so many malls had on the design of malls themselves. Were there typical mall designs and included stores and why did shoppers across the nation see more of one kind than another? What were the most popular stores and what made them work, and what didn’t? Readers probably have so many questions about the malls of their own towns, and have so much nostalgia about their own experiences, clearly we are in need of a book that covers those topics. (The author does mention Orange Julius, but sorry, Sbarro, County Seat, The Foot Locker, The Athlete’s Foot, Coach House, Music Den, Flowerama, Karmelcorn, GNC, Hickory Farms, So-Fro Fabrics, Sam Goody, Drug Town, Toy Fair, Waldenbooks, Lane Bryant, Suncoast, or the era of entertainment stores like Warner Bros., FAO Schwartz, and Disney stores, or all those locally owned kiosks…).
Lange includes the role malls played in society, including as a forum for political speech. The overview is primarily one of art style, history, and features (including shapes like the letter I, E, and F that many had), while splicing in a few of the inspirations for mall design concepts created overseas over the past two centuries. She spends much space on the discussion of urban sprawl, and the wealthy using malls to be exclusive rather than inclusive community areas, with particular attention to the Mall of America in Minnesota and Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. Lange also doesn’t provide much speculation on the future of malls, or what trends we may be seeing in the future.
Ultimately Meet Me by the Fountain provides a thorough overview of a niche of architectural history for students of the subject, but it’s not comprehensive and probably not going to be a page turner for those nostalgic about malls over their lifetimes. Meet Me by the Fountain is available now here at Amazon, from publisher Bloomsbury.