What exactly is a "lifestyle centre"? And is it just a dressed-up shopping mall?

Image: Santana Row.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, San Jose’s Santana Row covers 42 acres. Its dense, high-end retailing, residences, restaurants and offices create a city-within-a-city. The architecture – with urban row houses finished with earth tones and pastel stucco – overtly evokes Old Europe, and developers brought in antique metalwork, pottery and stone fountains to further instill a sense of history (one store even imported the façade of a nineteenth-century building from France).

Meet the shopping mall’s hipper, New Urbanist cousin: the “lifestyle centre.”

The form is becoming more and more popular among developers and shoppers. But while lifestyle centres are promoted as a 21st century, community-oriented alternative to the soulless shopping mall, their purported Main Street “authenticity” is perhaps a new style of retail façade.

A mall or not?

Lifestyle centres are defined by the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC) as a “specialized centre” that has “upscale national-chain specialty stores with dining and entertainment in an outdoor setting”. The ICSC further describes them as a

multi-purpose leisure-time destination, including restaurants, entertainment, and design ambiance and amenities such as fountains and street furniture that are conducive to casual browsing.

It’s a description that sounds an awfully lot like a mall. But there are noticeable differences. Whereas a mall is traditionally anchored by department stores (Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Sears), lifestyle centres are anchored by large specialty stores (Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel, Williams-Sonoma) or movie theatres. While a regional mall averages 800,000 square feet in retail space, a lifestyle centre is smaller – around 320,000 square feet.

The centres have been popping up in affluent suburbs across the country for the last 15 years, and they are often mixed-use developments, bringing apartments, condos, restaurants, movie theatres, grocery stores – even hotels – to the mall’s historically singular retail focus.

The ICSC estimates that 412 lifestyle centres are open in the United States today (which only comprises a little under 2 per cent of the total number of shopping centres). Meanwhile, some malls – like the Biltmore Square Mall in Asheville, NC – have even taken the radical step of ripping off their roofs to “de-mall.”

Attention to detail

Michael Beyard of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) sees the design of lifestyle centres as a shift from “‘wow’ architecture” to the “architecture of comfort.” According to Beyard, developers are trading the mall’s soaring atrium or the Mall of America’s roller-coasters for the lifestyle centre’s attention to detail: cobblestone sidewalks, cast-iron lighting, or Art Deco-inspired neon signs.

The traditional, indoor shopping mall is known for its soaring atrium and sprawling floor plan. Image: kishjar? via Flickr.

At Market Common Clarendon in Arlington, Virginia – completed in 2001 – the developers spent more on details like signage, pavement, facades, plantings, fountains and sidewalks. However, the price-tag for the extras was made up for elsewhere: the developers saved significant resources by not having to build a mall’s roof.

The architecture at lifestyle centres is purposefully “eclectic,” so as to feel “legitimate,” explains Robert Koup of Jacobs engineering. He says that developers either ask an architect to respond to a certain period of architecture or they use multiple architects on one project. For instance, BAR architects of San Francisco, who worked on two blocks of Santana Row, described their “arcaded loft and retail buildings…modeled on turn-of-the-century industrial structures” – all designed to “recall historic shopping venues.”

By incorporating elements from history into retail projects, “lifestyle centres are designed specifically to make it look like it all evolved over time,” Koup continues.

The mix of buildings also provides a solution to another criticism about malls: their homogeneity in both form and retailing. It’s an eclectic antidote to complaints about the sterility and sameness of chain stores. Indeed, as the lifestyle centres are dominated by chain stores (like their mall brethren before them) the quirky styles of the stores make them seem more unique, local, and un-chain-like.

Lifestyle centres seek to recreate the retail experience of yesteryear’s Main Street. Pictured are the Shops at Arbor Lakes, in Maple Grove, Minnesota. Image: Mgwiki via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s one of the lifestyle centres great conceits: it wants to look like a town’s perfectly preserved, picturesque Main Street from yesteryear, but it’s all being created from scratch. Of course, some might see an irony in manufactured authenticity.

Victor Gruen’s vision fulfilled?

In many respects, lifestyle centres seek to fulfill the ambitious ideas of 1950s shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen. Gruen, a Jewish architect from Vienna who emigrated to Beverly Hills, promised that the shopping mall would bring urbanity to the “phony respectability and genuine boredom” of postwar suburbia.

In the shopping centre, Gruen saw a means to bring what he termed “community” to soulless suburbs. It would be a place where people could gather, stroll and socialize, and his ideal mall would include community theaters, libraries, daycare, bomb shelters (it was the Cold War, after all), jazz concerts and art shows. “By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities,” Gruen argued in his 1960 book Shopping Towns USA, “shopping centres can fill an existing void.”

Victor Gruen’s community-oriented vision for shopping centres wasn’t entirely fulfilled. American Heritage Centre, Wyoming.

While it’s difficult to imagine now, when suburban shopping malls first opened in the 1950s, contemporary observers compared them to the best-known retail experience of their time: downtown. In Gruen’s first mall – the Southdale Centre, completed in 1956 in the suburbs of Minneapolis – most thought Gruen had succeeded in bringing downtown to the suburbs. Southdale was “more like downtown than downtown itself,” claimed the Architectural Record.

The main appeals of the mall were its commercial density, pedestrian spaces, cafes and artwork (faux as they may seem now), which suggested an aura of urbanity for new suburbanites who had just left the city.

With his Southdale Centre, Gruen liked to brag that he had re-created “the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares.” But while Gruen had imagined Southdale as a mixed-use complex of offices, medical facilities and apartment buildings, retail became the predominant focus of the suburban mall. Many of Gruen’s less-profitable schemes ended up on the cutting room floor.

Sitting in the middle of a sea of parking, Southdale largely isolated itself from the surrounding community, creating a giant island of retail. Even Gruen acknowledged that all the “trees and flowers, music, fountains, sculpture and murals” were all designed with an eye towards increasing profits.

Or as he wrote, “the environment should be so attractive that customers will enjoy shopping trips…This will result in cash registers ringing more often and recording higher sales.”

A 1956 photograph of shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen’s Southdale Mall. Image: Life Magazine.

Nonetheless, Southdale was an immediate success: on its first day of business, 75,000 visitors stopped in to view the new phenomenon. The mall’s grand design proved that suburbanites could be enticed to stay within a climate-controlled, private space for hours upon hours of shopping, and a new model of American retailing was born.

A different flavour of the same thing

For decades, the interior-focused, blank-faced suburban malls – always surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking – would become characteristic of the postwar retail model. In the process, malls stole the market-share, tax dollars, jobs and pizazz of traditional downtown shopping districts.

But malls were eventually doomed by their own success: the formula became too easy to replicate, and the design became ubiquitous. With the same chain stores and cookie-cutter designs, malls came to symbolize both mind-numbing homogeneity and loss of community.

“Suddenly people realized this mall formula is everywhere and is getting boring,” says Beyard.

It’s also possible that the sheer size of many malls overwhelmed shoppers. For instance, the 2.4 million square foot King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania includes over 400 stores; it’s anchored by Nordstrom, Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, JC Penney and Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Lifestyle centres propose to remedy that mind-numbing situation. However, Cooper Carry architect David Kitchens is skeptical of their longevity.

“They are a better, fresher mousetrap that will work for awhile and then go away,” he says.

Rather than making real connections with the surrounding community, he thinks that many of them – especially the ones devoted solely to retailing – are “designed to be a category killer that will suck the lifeblood out of everything else.”

Yet the shift from large malls to smaller lifestyle centres is part of a larger story, Kitchens insists. He sees lifestyle centres as tapping into Americans’ “emotional desire to rebuild their community.”

“As development gets larger and larger,” he continues, “people now want to decentralize and build personal feeling back into their lives.”

Parading themselves as Main Streets from a bygone era, these new retail centres hope to recreate what was lost in the rush to cover America with large malls from the 1950s through the 1990s. Yet at their core, Gruen’s ideal mall and the New Urbanists' lifestyle centres share the same aspiration: a thriving community centre, yes – but one that ultimately turns a tidy profit.

And whether we like it or not, suburban Americans have been building community on a foundation of commercialism for the last sixty years.

 

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Jeff Hardwick is a Senior Program Officer in the Division of Public Programs at the National Endowment for Humanities.

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

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