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The shopping mall is perhaps one of the most cataclysmic typologies of architecture to evolve in the Twentieth Century. What the skyscraper did for the urban commercial landscape, the mall has done for suburban retail. Malls successfully weaned customers away from the shopping districts in urban centers during the post-war years and have yet to lose their edge. Over the past decade however, the contemporary notion of the shopping mall is increasingly appearing in a new context: the city.

In Los Angeles several large-scale “urban mall” projects are taking root and transforming areas of the city from blight (or at least developmental jaundice) into glimmering blobs of globally recognized corporate retail. While these schemes have the potential to dramatically rejuvenate dilapidated urban environments, they fail to capture the complexity and eccentricities that the urban realm evokes. These shopping giants have the potential to provide a space of distinction in the city. However, current examples appear to be just as formally bland and spatially ambivalent as any shopping mall in the suburbs. The arrival of this typology of architecture to the contemporary metropolis is symbolic as it preludes an erasure of difference that has, up to now, been antithetical to the notion of the city.

One such project, Hollywood & Highland, located at the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, has already rejuvenated street life in a once decayed section of Hollywood. It has provided tourists with corporate alternatives to the mom n’ pop souvenir stores and shabby eateries that line this section of Hollywood Boulevard. The project is an attempt to transform Hollywood from a tawdry tourist destination to a glamorous vortex of nightclubs, restaurants, and upscale retailers that will generate millions of tax dollars for the city of Los Angeles.

As if one large shopping center in Hollywood weren’t enough, ten blocks to the southwest a large hole in the ground constitutes the future West Hollywood Gateway – a “big box” retail scheme from the Jerde Partnership renowned for its “place making” retail strategies. Complete with a Target and a Best Buy, this emerging project hopes to clean up an area of the city currently known only for its post-production houses and rampant prostitution. The renderings appear pleasant enough, but give little illumination as to the architectural impact of the scheme on the surrounding area.

Hollywood itself seems an appropriate enough locale for the introduction of the shopping mall into Los Angeles’s urban landscape. Because of its location halfway between Downtown LA and the suburban tract developments that rose from the sands of the San Fernando Valley in the 1920′s, Hollywood was once thought of as a retail “hinge-point” capable of serving the adjacent suburbs of Melrose, Los Feliz, and Hancock Park as well as those on the other side of the Hollywood Hills, thus giving suburbanites faster access to the retailers already established in Downtown. Hollywood’s retail core straddled the area’s two major north-south arteries – Vine Street and Highland Avenue – and included several street-facing outposts of major Downtown LA department stores. However, Hollywood’s prospects as a retail satellite sputtered out during the Great Depression and never re-ignited to its full capacity, despite small surges in the 30′s and 40′s. [1]

Hollywood’s decline as a retail center was not an unusual phenomena during the Post War years. In the 1950′s as America’s suburbs mushroomed outward, urban retail cores wilted and inwardly focused “regional shopping centers” quickly became the destination for suburbanites, due to their efficiency and ability to condense the shopping experience into a singular event. Located on the periphery of cities and suburban developments, and next to primary streets or highways, these gargantuan facilities were cities unto themselves, gobbling up hundreds of acres, and offering retailers thousands of square feet and the shopper infinite opportunities to consume. [2]

“A reciprocal relationship exists between a shopping center and its surrounding area. A well planned center can exert a highly favorable and invigorating influence on the area surrounding it, and a well planned surrounding area can add, in large measure, to the prosperity of the center.”

- Victor Gruen and Larry Smith Shopping Towns USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers.

In the book he co-wrote with Larry Smith, Shopping Towns USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers, shopping center designer Victor Gruen states that “…when the site for a shopping center is the one remaining piece of land within a completely built-up area, there will obviously be meager possibilities for influencing the character of the surrounding area”. Gruen goes on to point out that shopping areas in already built-up areas risk “…the handicap of having to be fitted into existing area conditions…” Developers have taken this to heart in most cases and balked at the thought of trying to work their ungainly consumer behemoths into denser urban environments. While much of this is caused by the interior-oriented nature of the shopping mall; high land costs, heavy traffic congestion, and even the misconception of urban environments as poor retail markets has kept many developers from engaging the inner-city as a place to build their next large scale retail project.

An exception to this convention is the Hollywood & Highland development that opened in the fall of 2001. The shopping center, with its multi-level outdoor atrium of shops, eateries, star-studded Kodak Theater (a recent host of the Oscars), and abutting luxury hotel appears to the observer as a cacophonous parade of architectural styles and forms. It is a jungle of retail zoning schemes, subterranean parking, dead space, and disjunctive circulation systems – all mashed together into a pile of consumerist confusion.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this seemingly chaotic mixture, the effect on the visiting consumer is to encourage more looking and less shopping. A large, stepped plinth separates it from the buzzing Hollywood Boulevard thereby creating a space of respite within the larger, more enigmatic chaos of the surrounding cityscape – one that the general public, tourist and Angelino alike have embraced. Forget shopping! The potential of the project as a retail paradise seems forever unrealized as people stroll about the circular promenades checking it all out – checking out the million dollar views of Hollywood from the spacious observation decks, checking out the gilded interior of the Kodak theater, checking out the heroic quotes from Hollywood’s brightest stars etched in the paving, and of course, checking out each other.

The effect of Hollywood & Highland upon its surroundings is immediate. By car it is a blur of pedestrian activity and the usual gaudy retail distractions, but on foot it is another vision entirely. What was once a city block ridden with prostitutes, tourist trap retail dives, drug dealers, and gristly locals now plays host to a newly refurbished Walk of the Stars, a subway stop on LA’s billion dollar Red Line, throngs of camera-clicking tourists, and of course The Gap. The Gap is hard to miss since it occupies the corner anchor spot on Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue. Rising above its three stories and the looming five story mass of the H&H project, a large, curved LCD screen morphs into an enormous four story billboard (at one time adorned by a leering Brittany Spears, and now by a speeding Audi) which reaches upwards into the night sky crying to Los Angeles to please, come and “check it out”.

This is perhaps the sad legacy of Hollywood & Highland. It functions very well as a new pocket of semi-public space within the city. The mall’s arrival signaled a turning point for an area hard hit by drugs and crime. It even defies Los Angeles’s predisposition toward the automobile, as it contains a connection to the subway. However, as an architectural overture to the future of the shopping mall within the city, it seems an impotent gesture, space filler. It is something that is appreciated as a destination, but lacking in any sort of critical dialogue with the context around it. The interior space of the project is as vacuous as any other mall in any other place. In short, Hollywood & Highland acts as an exit from the city, but an exit without destination, an exit to nowhere. It is just another contextual void, in a city already brimming with them.

“West Hollywood Gateway creates a landmark entrance for the West Hollywood’s eastern entrance at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and La Brea. By creating a vibrant communal destination, the project is expected to become a catalyst for future development in the declining eastside urban environment.”

- Jerde Partnership press release.

Another potential “contextual void” is already realized as a physical one. As construction begins on the West Hollywood Gateway project, a large pit (eventually to be subterranean parking) is busy with workers and equipment preparing the site for the pouring of footings. The project is to become “a lighted gateway” that will serve as a visual transition from the city of Los Angeles to the city of West Hollywood. It is meant to serve as a catalyst for an area consisting of dilapidated production houses, strip malls, and fast food joints. It is to be a medium density development containing both a Best Buy and Target store, along with an entourage of support shops, eating establishments, and office space. Like Hollywood & Highland, much of the project is outdoors, and the pedestrian entrance is oriented to encourage flow from the corner of La Brea Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. As in all Jerde projects, this is “place making” on speed, an instant shopping destination with a distinctly “urban” vibe. Where before there was only a car wash and a taco stand, you will be able to buy a pair of cargo pants at Old Navy and close a deal on a new television at Best Buy.

The problem with the West Hollywood Gateway project as an urban gesture is not the architectural styling nor is it the siting of the project. The shortfall of the development is that once again it fails to recognize the responsibility of architects and developers to imagine change. The project does have the cohesive ability to evoke change the area – by providing yet another uninspired shopping area where there was none before. Yet there are no deviations or novel programmatic solutions proposed here. There are no parks, no dog runs, real public spaces of any kind. There is no attached housing, nor are there any attempts to integrate new urban ideas into the mix. Like Hollywood & Highland, the West Hollywood Gateway could be in downtown Palmdale, Sylmar, or Reseda for that matter.

It takes a scary kind of illness
To design a place like this for pay
Downtown is an endless generic mall
Of video games and fast food chains

- The Dead Kennedys “This Could Be Anywhere”

The shopping mall is not simply of suburbia; many of the design concepts employed in mall design were garnered from successful elements in the urban realm. However, what developers and architects fail to realize is that by simply injecting the standard model of the suburban mall into the city, they succeed in only creating another monolithic object of blankness, incapable of communicating with the context that surrounds it. By refusing to adapt or by simply infusing the same trite New Urbanist schemes into the existing city fabric they only succeed in bringing to the city the psychological condition of nihilistic banality that the suburbs are so often criticized for. There is no way of creating an instant place, place evolves. In order to successfully engage the city context in a progressive dialogue, urban malls must be re-thought, in such a way that they attract the local as well as the global. In order to do this they must actively engage their surroundings and reflect this relationship in their architectural and spatial organization. By attempting to build every new urban mall as a singular destination, without recognizing the larger more diverse network that surrounds it, we are simply transforming the metropolis into a continuous series of impotent gestures forever locked into an egotistical pursuit of a fossilized dream of what we once thought cities to be.

Footnotes

  1. Longstreth, Richard, City Center to Regional Mall: Architecture, the Automobile, and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1997)
  2. Rybczynski, Witold, The New Downtown in The City Reader, ed. R. Gates and F. Stout (New York, Routledge, 2000) pp. 171-179.

Back to Forum Issue 4: Consuming the City