by Marshall Poe
New Books in History March 13, 2014
Most of us have been to strip malls–lines of shops fronted by acres of parking–and most of us have been to closed malls–massive buildings full of shops and surrounded by acres of parking. Fewer of us have been to open malls: small parks ringed by shops with parking carefully tucked out of sight. That’s because open malls–once numerous–have largely disappeared, having been replaced by strip malls, closed malls and, more recently, big-box stores.
As David Smiley points out in his wonderfully researched and beautifully illustrated book Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956 (University of Minnesota Press, 2013), the open mall was a response to a number of macro-historical, mid-twentieth century forces: the explosion of car culture, the decline of urban centers, the rise of suburbs, and, of course, mass consumerism. But he also shows that the open mall wasn’t just an banal machine for selling; it was a canvas upon which Modernist architects could create a uniquely American kind of Modernist architecture. The strip mall, the closed mall, and the big-box store may be artless, but the mid-century open mall certainly was not. It had style, as the many wonderful images in David’s book show.
Interestingly, the open mall is making a comeback. I visited one outside Hartford, Connecticut. Alas, it has none of the Modernist elements that made the original open malls so interesting. To me, it looked like a closed mall turned inside out.