February 7, 2013

In November of 1977, filmmaker George A. Romero arrived with cast and crew at Monroeville Mall, a sprawling indoor shopping center located in the suburbs east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The young director, who by that time had established himself as a pioneer in the horror genre, was set to start production on his latest film, Dawn of the Dead, a sequel to his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Once again Romero’s slow-shuffling ghouls — starved as always for brains and entrails, meaty thigh bones and plump jugulars — would be unleashed on bumbling humans ill-prepared for a world gone rotten.

This time around, however, Romero, who in Night of the Living Dead touched on issues of race in the civil-rights era, had plans to skewer a new social dilemma: the rise of the American consumer. And to properly lampoon the nation’s burgeoning shop-till-you-drop culture, Romero needed the ideal backdrop.

“Right then it was just really the beginning of that mall culture where you went there and you hung out all day,” Romero said in a 1997 interview with the BBC.  “My impression of walking through there, going through this sort of ritualistic, unnatural, consuming experience, was that we really do become zombies in here. And the way the music was lulling … everything about it was just so hypnotic. It seemed like nothing was real in there.”

The hypnotic experience that Romero observed when he first visited Monroeville Mall is one that’s now ingrained in the American psyche. But as the cultural and economic prominence of the shopping mall has declined over the last two decades — only one new mall has been built since 2006, City Creek Center in Salt Lake City — our collective infatuation still lingers.

A key example of this infatuation is evidenced in the public’s recent excitement over the work of photographer and filmmaker Michael Galinsky. In 1989, a 20-year-old Galinsky traveled across the country photographing malls and the people inside. Starting with the Smith Haven Mall in Garden City Long Island, he photographed malls from North Carolina to South Dakota, Washington State and beyond. The resulting photographs offer a time capsule of not only American culture, but an unflinching document of the American shopping mall in its prime. After the images were relegated to storage for nearly 20 years, Galinsky scanned and published a selection of the photographs online in 2011. The response, he says, was “wildly viral.”

“It was a time and place that people had forgotten about because it had gone so undocumented,” says Galinsky, whose forthcoming book, Malls Across America (Steidl), collects the photographs in a single volume. “I was interested in how malls were kind of becoming the new town square. As such, the images are as much about the people as the way that people interact in the spaces.”

For the people who frequent shopping malls, the oddly euphoric rush they experience upon visiting is often triggered by a mixture of familiar sights, sounds, and smells. Among architects and urban planners, this sensation is sometimes referred to as the Gruen Effect, named after Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen, the man credited with pioneering the modern American shopping mall. First developed in 1956 with the construction of Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, Gruen’s concept was simple yet innovative. By taking the idea of a traditional outdoor shopping center and enclosing it to protect against the elements, he created a climate-controlled pleasuredome — or an environment of  “eternal spring” as it was described in a press release at the time.

Since then, generations have come to know the shopping mall through personal, often highly emotionalized transactions — from small children who play in the wide-open atriums to teenage boys fawning over girls in the food court; adults who seek refuge from the summer heat to retirees in search of early morning exercise. And though the American shopping mall never became the vibrant town center that Gruen envisioned — a suburban hub of retail, medical, residential, and recreational facilities — the institution itself has come to transcend the mere act of shopping.

“[Our] experiences take the built environment of a mall and add meaning to it,” says Ross Schendel, a retail historian and co-founder of Labelscar.com. “They create memories because people are socializing and having these experiences together. When malls replaced downtowns in the mid-20th century, they became the de facto gathering place for those living in suburbs, and created these collective experiences and fond memories we have.”

In Gruen’s estimation, however, his concept failed. Even though malls eventually became a makeshift social hub in the American suburbs, this less-than-perfect realization of the concept strayed too far from the Viennese architect’s original vision.

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