Collapse of America's Shopping Mall
Editor's note: The rise of online shopping and a brutal, drawnout recession have changed American consumption patterns, causing malls across the country to shutter their doors and fall into disrepair. As Business Insider reported, some 15% of US malls will fail or be converted into non-retail space in the next ten years. In Black Friday: The Collapse of the American Shopping Mall (Artivist Publishing, 2014), artist Seph Lawless assembles his striking photographs of these decaying monuments to American capitalism alongside short reflections of the people who used to frequent the malls. The images hint at the human presence that once occupied these spaces—a payphone dangles from a hook, a paint bucket rests on the floor—but the signs of life only highlight the emptiness of the physical structures. The following text is taken from the introduction of Lawless' book, with photographs reprinted by permission.
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In 1955, the Austrian-born designer Victor Gruen had a vision of bringing the community feeling of the European arcade to the suburbs of America. One year later he designed the very first shopping mall, Southdale, in Edina, Minnesota. The genius design that he created featured an intentionally confusing layout that consumers would find themselves in the moment that they would enter the shopping mall, causing people to lose track of their original intentions. This method of design would later be referred to as "the Gruen transfer." He envisioned a peaceful atrium indoors with plant life and trees—a place separated from the industrial complex and the automobile.
Gruen despised the automobile. He hated the sound of cars and the pollution they created; his early writings even indicated that he believed cars were anti-social to human development. Ironically, Gruen's creation only served to strengthen the suburban car culture that he despised. Later in life, Gruen became disillusioned with malls and their unintended consequences. He revisited one of his old shopping centers, saw all the sprawling development around it and pronounced himself in "severe emotional shock." Shopping malls, he said, had been disfigured by "the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking" around them. He spoke with anguished words. "My creation wasn't intended to create a gigantic shopping machine. I am devastated....I invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna and now I ended up making Vienna more like America. I hope all shopping malls end up neglected, abandoned and forgotten. I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments," he said in a speech in London in 1978, before moving to Vienna where he would become a recluse until his death on February 14, 1980.
"I proposed to my wife here. We had three beautiful children and spent much of our lives together until her untimely death some 30 years later. I'd visit here regularly trying to find closure and never was able too, but I am now."