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All under one roof: how malls and cities are becoming indistinguishable

Suburban malls may be a dying breed, but in cities from New York to Hong Kong, new malls are thriving by seamlessly blending into the urban fabric

We didnt expect to see stores, says Yulia, as her husband browses for shoes in one of the shops lining the Oculus, the new focus of New Yorks World Trade Center.

Visiting from Ukraine and on their way to the 9/11 memorial, they were beckoned by the Oculuss unusual architecture: from the outside, the Santiago Calatrava-designed ribbed structure reminds you of a bird or a dinosaur skeleton; inside, it is teaming with tourists taking pictures with selfie sticks.

But the Oculus, named after the eyelike opening at the apex that lets in light, is more than a piece of striking architecture. It exists as a mall, with more than a hundred stores, and as a hub connecting office buildings in Brookfield Place and One World Trade Center with 11 subway lines and Path trains, serving 50,000 commuters every day. Thats a lot of eyeballs on shopfronts.

The mall company Westfield, of course, hopes that the tourists and transit users will stray to the stores. The New New York Place to Be, reads the malls tagline. Shop. Eat. Drink. Play. All under one magnificent roof.

Oculus was Westfields $1.4bn bet that New York, a city known for its love of the street, could also have a successful mall. And judging from the crowds, it counters the narrative that the mall is dead, like those thousands of empty suburban malls dotting the American landscape, ghostboxes decaying on cracked asphalt parking lots.

Boxpark
Boxpark turned shipping containers into an urban mall that merges directly with the London street. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian

Michael Sorkin, professor of architecture at City College of New York, points out that Westfield is an example of a kind of global urbanism. The Westfield mall is virtually indistinguishable from Dubai duty-free, he says, pointing out that the same generic multinational shops are now to be found not just in malls, but on the streets of cities. The effect is compromising and imperial a real estate formula.

Certainly, the Westfield World Trade Center seems to demonstrate that it is not the mall that is declining, but suburbia. The mall, meanwhile, is becoming urban.

In fact, a new breed of shopping centre is integrating so seamlessly into its urban surroundings that it can be difficult to draw any line between city and mall whatsoever. Londons Boxpark, Las Vegass Downtown Container Park and Miamis Brickell City Centre are examples of mall-like environments that try to weave into the street life of a city.

Across the Pacific Ocean from the Oculus, developers in China are experimenting even more radically, with new mall configurations catering to the rapid rise of domestic consumerism and quickly evolving tastes.

Sino
Sino Ocean Taikoo Li in Chengdu, China, an outdoor mall with streets. Photograph: Oval Partnership

In the early 2000s, when enclosed malls were the standard, architect Chris Law of the Oval Partnership proposed an open city concept for San Li Tun, an area in Beijings central business district. He proposed to inject the big box with a heavy dose of public space. He says people had a common reaction to his plan: You guys are crazy.

Instead of laying out asphalt parking lots, Law wanted sidewalks and trees that would cool and shade pedestrian outdoor space. He designed the shops and restaurants around two distinct plazas one brimming with an interactive water feature and a massive screen to televise events, the other for quietly reading a book over a cappuccino.

Rather than designing the whole complex himself, he created a masterplan with an urban design framework for other architects to fill in, making it appear as if the complex grew organically just like cities do, Law says.

As a result, the mall has the look of a modern village complete with irregular facades and zigzagging alleyways. It became a large success, not least for being a pedestrian respite in a city of cars.

The developer then tasked Law to design another outdoor retail development in Chengdu near an ancient temple. Law respectfully designed structures with timber portal frames to match the cultural heritage, laying out the stores and restaurants along intimate, tree-lined lanes. He added a hotel, serviced apartments and an office tower to create a mixed-use district centred around intricate public space.

Modern
An escalator gives the game away at this outdoor retail space in Chengdu, China. Photograph: HeZhenHuan

As innovative as his projects may be, we simply continued the urban pattern that has been around for hundreds of years, Law says. He mentions medieval cities such as Sienna, or those depicted on the Qingming scroll, where shops and food stalls lined thriving public space.

It raises the question: was the enclosed, suburban mall, located far from the city centre, a discontinuity? An invention for the age of cheap fossil fuel?

They certainly waste energy. The typical big box is thick and fat, says Ali Malkawi, professor of architectural technology at Harvard University and founder of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities. In contrast, the outdoor retail village typically has a smaller ecological footprint. Thin structures allow for the possibility of natural ventilation and daylighting, and hence can be more energy-efficient, Malkawi says.

Malls first appeared in suburbs in the 1950s, when reducing energy was not a priority, says Malkawi, and they were only accessible by car. The more you move shopping away from where people live, the more you increase transportations impact on the environment, he says. (The transport sector accounts for nearly a quarter of all energy-related CO2 emissions.)

Architect Friedrich Ludewig of the firm Acme takes the idea a step futher. Knowing that the point to shopping in stores is to offer something physical that is interesting, otherwise we can do it all online, he designed a suburban mall extension in Melbourne around a town square, with a public library at its centre, not an anchor store.

Suburban
Offer something physical or we can all do it online … Friedrich Ludewig, whose suburban mall in Melbourne is designed around a town square with a public library (pictured) at its heart. Photograph: Acme

Customers prefer to be outside and to feel less artificial, Ludewig says of what is, in fact, an outdoor mall. His company has taken steps to create a seamless urban feel. There are guidelines for storefronts, including about colour, to ensure the visual coherence of the public space and avoid screaming yellow storefronts. When there are lots of people shouting, he said, you cant hear anyone.

He also thinks about the right ratio between landscaping and paving of the open spaces, and makes an effort to think about the city planning of how the space is used throughout the day. We spend a lot of time thinking: what does it feel like at Wednesday morning 11am?, when there are not a lot of shoppers around. He also argues that outdoor malls save money by having open spaces and buildings that are naturally ventilated rather than air-conditioned.

Above all, however, he says: It shouldnt feel like something is wrong. He describes a feeling akin to what is known as the uncanny valley: the hypothesis that when human replicas appear almost (but not quite) real, they trigger disgust and revulsion because they seem unhealthy.

Langham
Langham Place, like many Hong Kong malls, is deliberately placed to capture natural pedestrian flows. Photograph: Alamy

The city of Hong Kong solves this issue by going one step further it weaves malls into the very urban fabric.

The city counts more than 300 shopping centres. Most do not perch on asphalt parking lots, but on subway stations and underneath skyscrapers. Hong Kongs transit provider is also a real estate developer, and has capitalised on the value created by its subway stops: it sandwiches malls between stations and skyscrapers, establishing pedestrian streams that irrigate the shopfronts.

Tens of thousands of people often work, live and play in a single megastructure, without ever having to leave. And the mall is deliberately placed on the intersection of all pedestrian flows, between entry points into the structure and the residential, office, and transit functions. These malls are, by design, impossible to miss.

Langham Place, for instance, is a 59-storey complex in Hong Kong that includes retail, a five-star hotel and class-A office space. It is connected to the subway with its own tunnel and pulls in an estimated 100,000 people per day.

My whole life is here, says Katniss. She works in the buildings office, where she also shops, eats her meals and watches movies. Even on her daysoff, she enjoys going on dates in the malls soaring atrium, and drinking coffee near the huge escalator.

This expresscalator whisks people up four storeys in a matter of seconds. To get shoppers back down, the Jerde Partnership designed an ingenious retail-lined downward spiral path, shaped like a corkscrew. Langham Places retail portion alone measures 15 storeys, which is a skyscraper in its own right a vertical mall.

On both sides of the Pacific, the mall is not dead. It has simply transformed into an integrated part of cities themselves.

For Sorkin, that comes with a risk. While the idea of the shopping mall becoming urban has a certain appeal, the net effect is to turn the city into a shopping mall.

Stefan Als books include Mall City: Hong Kongs Dreamworlds of Consumption and The Strip: Las Vegas and the Architecture of the American Dream

Follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion, and explore our archive here

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/mar/16/malls-cities-become-one-and-same


Curious George loses his home: world’s only store to be closed down

New building owners plan to replace Massachusetts store dedicated to playful fictional monkey with a stairwell, as customers and enthusiasts push back

Curious George must find a new home. The only shop dedicated to the mischievous fictional monkey is being booted out of its building at One JFK Street in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, forcing the childrens book and toy store to look for a new home.

Real estate investment trust Equity One bought the building last year, and has announced plans the gut the building. A stairwell will replace the current store, named the Only Curious George Store in the World, according to development plans obtained by the Guardian.

Curious George is a mischievous fictional monkey in a childrens book series originally written and illustrated by Margret and HA Rey. The creators of the now-famous series settled in Cambridge after fleeing Paris during Nazi occupation on bicycles with book manuscripts in their backpacks. Seven books were published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, beginning in 1941. The series later expanded after the deaths of the Reys, and has been made into a television series.

Houghton Mifflin granted permission to friends of the Reys to open a Curious George-themed bookstore in Harvard Square in 1995. After a brief closing in 2011, the store re-opened in April 2012, with new owners Adam and Jamie Hirsch, and with a new name: the Worlds Only Curious George Store. Some products are solely available at the store.

Curious
Curious George store owner Adam Hirsch at the store in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photograph: Boston Globe/Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Hirsches would like the store to remain in Harvard Square, and are currently looking for a new space to rent out. There is a cultural and deep-rooted connection between Cambridge and Curious George that we and other groups would like to see continued, Adam Hirsch said.

The store attracts over 100,000 visitors a year, according to the Hirsches. The small corner store bustles with exuberant children, and a cashier makes room for a stroller behind the counter as a child pulls his mother toward a rack of toys. The classic books sit next to stuffed animals, hats and puppets. Hirsch said, It puts smiles on everyones faces of all ages. Its a place to escape for 20 minutes. Its linked to literacy, education and learning. People want to hold onto that.

The store recently celebrated Georges 75th birthday with a block party that drew over 1,000 attendees, according to Hirsch.

Vanessa
Vanessa Tavares, 8, a Curious George fan whose letter calling for the store to be saved is taped to the shop window. Photograph: Sarah Betancourt

Taped to a window overlooking the square is a colorful letter to Cambridge officials from eight-year-old Vanessa Tavares. Her family drives to Harvard Square from the South Shore to specifically visit the store. Her mother Jennifer Hagan said: I bought her first book there as a baby. We always go to the store when were in Cambridge. She saw it on the news, and I told her, Honey, they might close the store, and she said, Where are my markers?

The building on JFK Street was owned by the Dow Family Trust for over 100 years, and was sold to Equity in fall 2015. Equity One representatives have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

In the meantime, a petition has been signed by more than 5,000 customers and George enthusiasts, urging community members and Commission leaders to support the store in its transition. The Commission will hold a public hearing on 1 December, in which alterations to the property will be discussed.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/nov/16/curious-george-store-closes-cambridge-massachusetts


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