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.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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