By Zach Mortice
After reading Mike Davis’ and Daniel Bertrand Monk’s Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism: Evil Paradises, it occurred to me that I, myself, have witnessed the great invisible elephant of 21st century anti-urbanism without even realizing it: The Mall of America (MoA) in suburban Minneapolis, the first of the world’s mega-malls.
I won’t beat myself up for it. It was built to avoid external scrutiny. From the chapter by Marco d’Eramo (with the Philip K. Dick-inspired name of “Bunkering in Paradise—or, Do Oldsters Dream of Electric Golf Carts?”)—“Like so many contemporary suburban homes whose street façade is simply an ugly and massive garage, the exterior of the Mall of America is irredeemably ugly for the simple reason that no one cares: the outside public environment has been devalued to a service area of parking and traffic.”
d’Eramo’s piece continues to critique the general withdrawal from and splintering of urban spaces through the subsuming of public activities into private places like the MoA (think mall walkers), faux-historical suburban town squares (complete with buildings of different styles and materials to simulate historical stratification in organically grown districts), and planned senior citizen communities where young people are not allowed to live. In all these cases, the street life that defines cities is sterilized, privatized, and annexed for cars that whisk people from place to place at 65 miles an hour; too fast a pace to bother with the look of things from the highway. Interiors become the only spaces that matter. It all takes a toll on architecture and urbanism.
I’ve to the MoA twice and I can’t remember what it looks like. I do remember the parking garages. And the atrium-sheltered roller coaster. Today, of course, the MoA is outdated and much larger malls have sprung up from Canada to China.
So basically, an entirely new building typography was invented and built, grand and monumental as a national monument, and no one knows what it looks like from the outside. That’s amazing.
The anti-neoliberal intelligentsia aren’t the only critics that have noticed a turning away from substantive public architecture. In a Robert Campbell, FAIA, column in the Boston Globe, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic argued that we don’t get better architecture because people simply don’t care about the public realm as much as they used to. Starting with radio, he wrote, "Americans have had access to a cavalcade of services and gadgets that isolate us in our homes: television, DVDs, computer games, elaborate sound systems." (He even dings air conditioning for keeping us inside and off our front porches.)
On the other hand, there is a museum building boom that’s been accelerating, and people are moving back into cities at higher rates, though cultural critics have argued that when they bring their suburban values and expectations back to the city, the quality of urban life again suffers.
What can architects do to remind people of the importance of the public forum and of architecture’s role there? Should they even try?