Architectural forms don’t emerge in a vacuum. Societal factors shape their design, use and meaning. In the U.S. a shift to a predominantly consumption-oriented economy in the 1960s prompted dramatic restructuring in the built environment that impacts how we live, work and play today. Now iconic, the once ubiquitous suburban shopping mall emerged as a product and driver of this new economy. Sprawling exteriors, often featuring a befuddling hodge-podge of attached buildings warming around an open food court, belies expert planning to stimulate consumption. Nearly every feature is designed to spark the buying impulse—including the classic “barbell” shape, which funnels shoppers between anchors past a maximum of small retailers. Kiosks, colorful shopping bags, pleasant smells, music and the sounds of registers ensure that even when not in the act of making a purchase, users of this space are thinking about consuming. In its historical moment the mall served as the spatial paragon of the modern capitalist era, with shiny glass “funhouse” entrances sardonically daring you to enter and not spend.
As effective as it has been, this temple of consumption is now in decline along with the middle class that sustained it. But the impulses and design principles that led to its architectural form are today implemented throughout the built environment, reshaping cities as consumption machines. Cities reeling from deindustrialization compete for events, stadiums, casinos and other large tourist attractions that will draw consumers, demolishing old structures and often rerouting public investment for large-scale private projects.
At the far end of the spectrum whole cities, like Branson or Las Vegas, are remade as commodities—branded, marketed and sold for profit. Other activities are supplanted as the city becomes the mall, spatially organized to maximize consumption. Here architecture as advertisement is advanced, with building forms enticing consumption through familiarity, garishness, or even denotation. Consumerist fantasy becomes urban identity in cities where entertainment strips, theme parks, casinos, and imitations of iconic architectural landmarks comprise the most distinguishing physical features.
There is a way in which this transformation has been at least partially functional, allowing some urban centers to survive, more rarely to thrive, despite losses in industry or federal revenue. But there are costs. More than ever this new built environment is classed. Spaces constructed for consumption are spaces for consumers. The working class, poor, homeless, and increasingly the middle class are not welcome where their participation in the sanctioned activity is limited. Gentrified central districts are symbolically and materially reserved for legitimate consumers. Outside these areas upscale shopping centers spring up at a rate rivaled only by dollar stores in other districts and low cost housing is razed to make way for condominiums and high-end apartments. Punctuating the reality of uneven development, many parallel districts lack basic urban infrastructure. In areas where money is scarce, even a grocery may be considered a bad investment.
But these trends are neither random nor inevitable and the built environment is always contested space. Middle class residents initiate historic preservation and NIMBY (or, “not in my back yard”) protests and challenge new building heights. Low and moderate-income residents challenge the demolition of neighborhood schools or buildings containing low-cost housing and clamor for highway sound walls rejected by building owners who value market visibility over the quality of life for apartment tenants. Residents collectively resist gentrification and the use of public money for private development. These are contests over the meaning and built form of social space. These agents challenge the dominant meaning, which circumscribes space for consumption and the meaning of the city and its built form as a commodity.
These are, arguably, democratic impulses, pushing to reshape the built environment from below. But as key producers, architects, urban planners, and social scientists play a critical role in shaping a vision for what alternatively defined space could look like and how it will function. No doubt sensing the urgency, some are contributing to this crucial project here at Drury right now.
DR. DAVID DEROSSETT ’90 IS ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES / SOCIOLOGY.