Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic. She is a columnist at Bloomberg CityLab, and a former contributing writer at Design Observer, opinion columnist at Dezeen, and architecture critic for Curbed. She has written for The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Metropolis, Architect, The Architect’s Newspaper, Dwell, Elle Decor, The Nation, and Places Journal. She is the author of multiple books including: The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids, Writing About Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities, and co-author of Design Research: The Store that Brought Modern Living to American Homes. Her latest book, on the history and future of the American shopping mall, will be published by Bloomsbury USA in 2022. Below, LA Forum Board Member Jayna Zweiman interviews Lange about design criticism, playgrounds, teenage girls, and shopping malls.
I’ve read your work in The New Yorker, Curbed, and what seems a million other places over the years, but I didn’t put it together that it was always you. Looking at your body of work, it makes so much sense. I am interested in the arc of your work, how you choose what you research, and the power and importance of being a critic.
Somebody who wasn’t as familiar with my work asked me that a few days ago and we ended up talking about this word “magpie.” I see myself as kind of a magpie. I do think that there’s a through-line to everything I do. And it’s interesting that you see it because I’m not always understanding it when I’m doing it. The mall book is such a great example of that. I feel like it was a perfect topic for me because it’s a really capacious topic. There are so many different ways to look at a mall. That turns out to be a common ground of all the topics that I pick: that it’s not just about one building or one architect. It’s about the relationships between all the different people that make a building. It’s also about the relationship of that building to culture.
Different chapters of the book are more about urban planning or more about architecture, and there’s one that’s mostly about movies, photography, and fiction. All of those things are tied to the mall, the mall in our general imagination. I like topics that let me pretend to be a literary critic and let me be a movie critic, along with being an architecture critic. One of the things that’s really changed since the beginning of my career has been what architecture critics mostly write about. It’s shifted to be a much broader category of things — much more about landscapes, much more about social and political dynamics. Honestly, I think that was always there, but it’s been brought more to the forefront. And I feel like that goes along very well with my interest in buildings and the multi-part stories that I want to tell about them. I’ve had points at which I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to meet the new moment. But I feel like I have successfully surmounted those by doing more reading and more research and figuring out what’s my angle on this thing.
How did the mall book come about?
One of the ways I jokingly describe how I pick topics is “vibes.” Sometimes something keeps coming up on Twitter, in architecture, media, in my life. When it comes up that many times, and keeps coming up and I am interested in it every time, that tells me it’s a worthwhile topic. I mean, like it’s important to me that I grew up in North Carolina and I went to malls. So I have this personal grounding. I get it when people are like, “oh yeah, Spencer Gifts.” I loved the GAP. I have this gut level identification with the topic. But then on the other hand, it makes me mad when people always dismiss the César Pelli addition to MoMA as being too much like a mall, because what’s wrong with that? It had much better circulation than the Toniguchi addition because Pelli was willing to learn from the mall rather than rejecting these commercial ideas about how to move people around. So I get a little mad about that. And then I’m also like, “Wow, Jon Jerde, he was just a wild and crazy guy!” There isn’t anything more postmodern than Jon Jerde. Yet we’re kind of fixated on Michael Graves and this kind of intellectual postmodernism. What’s wrong with Jon Jerde? More people probably saw his buildings, experienced his buildings, etc. So it’s all those kinds of questions, the personal, my frustration with the way architecture history is written, and also always trying to talk about architecture in ways that the largest number of people can identify with that drive the work. I’ve always been interested in general interest journalism. I find topics that are about the spaces we’re all living in, that people will be drawn to, that don’t put architecture on a pedestal, but are about design that people experience all the time.
I had a really good experience with that approach in the Design of Childhood book. At a basic level, I realized playgrounds were this thing that people were using every day, where lots of parents are sitting basically zoned out and bored. Most people don’t think of them as having a history and don’t think of them as being designed. The same is true by and large for shopping malls. Once I started to dig into it, I found all of these amazing designers, many of them famous for other things. People had just never treated their playground work as being as important as their museum work. It’s the same thing with malls. Why not? Who’s in charge? Who’s the more important client? And which piece of design is going to be used and loved and abused by more people?
In reading the Design of Childhood and learning more about child development, how pedagogical approaches change with age, and how types of designated spaces change towards the end of childhood, I was thinking, “What was I doing at ten years old when my world had gotten larger and I was aging out of childhood?” I was going to the mall as a new kind of leisure or play space. You recently wrote about teenage girls and it was amazing to look deeply at this group of people and how they use space. How do these stories come about? How did you pitch it? And how does that whole process of creation work?
Honestly, I’ve been thinking about teenagers for quite a while. Basically, the Design of Childhood book kind of ends with childhood. And childhood in the field of childhood studies ends around age 12. You get to teenagers and there’s this gap. Adolescent studies is a far less developed category. After I finished the childhood book, I had questions about what came next. I actually talked to a couple of people about the possibility of a “design of adolescence” book … It didn’t seem like something that would stand up on its own, but I did write two pieces for Curbed about design and teenagers: one on outdoor spaces that ended up being a lot about skateparks and one on young adult spaces in libraries, which is a phenomenon that began in the eighties. They’re kind of obvious parts of libraries today, but again, it was something I hadn’t thought about having a history. When did young adult literature become a separate category? And when did people start programming for them in separate spaces? Because anyone knows from experience, you can’t have toddlers and teenagers in the same space. It doesn’t go well.
There are things that I already have as a running thread in my mind that may or may not have been expressed. I now have three published stories about teenagers and design: the skate parks, the libraries and now the teen girls, which I hadn’t really considered as a separate category when I wrote the skate park story. I went back to some of the same organizations from that original story and asked them, “What about teen girls?” In terms of pitching that story the hook was this new charity in Britain called Make Space for Girls, which I think just floated across my Twitter timeline. They wrote a couple of posts that bounced up in a lot of places. I interviewed the founders of that organization and neither of them has a design background. So I thought, “OK, I can take their project and add what it is that I think I do well, which is to relate the social phenomenon to actual physical design work and find designers that I can talk about how you build for this population.”
Luckily, I’m now writing a monthly column for City Lab, and the editors there know my work so they’re willing to allow me to do things that aren’t newsy except in my mind, but are part of this ongoing narrative of my work. The piece did very well. It’s something that’s not been news in design this week; it’s something that’s interesting and relevant to our world in general. If you write it right and if you edit it right, it can still really pop on people’s radar. The benefit of having a reputation and having written the Design of Childhood book is now people are willing to let me do “Alexandra Things,” like write about kids. Each of the pieces offers something new, and is another piece of the puzzle. It all feels like an ongoing narrative.
When you talk about having a platform, the platform comes with a certain amount of power to do the work you’re interested in. How do you think about the power of being a cultural critic and the responsibility of what you choose to bring to light?
I do understand that I have power and I come from a lot of privilege, both in my economic and educational background, and in having built up a reputation over the years. Ultimately, I feel like I’m just myself writing in my house in Brooklyn. When I write about my actual experiences in public spaces, I really try to emphasize that it’s always just me, a small woman in the city. I come from a physical place of some amount of vulnerability. I want that vulnerability to appear in the work; like, it’s not from on high, I’m just a pedestrian in the city. That said, the power comes from being able to pick and choose topics and to choose topics that aren’t newsy, but that I feel, like in the case of childhood, I’ve made part of the conversation. And if I propose it, people will say, “OK, she knows what she’s talking about, she can do this thing and she has the skills to pull it off so that people will actually read it. It won’t seem like some weird, obscure side note.”
Especially in the last few years I’ve decided that it’s worth it to me to write less and write about the things that I think only I can do. I’m not fighting for blog space now and I’m not doing newsy coverage.
This is something that came from working with Kelsey Keith at Curbed. She always said, “We have other people that can do this thing, what are you interested in?” In fact, she let me do some completely bizarre things that I find myself linking back to and that really resonated with people. One of them was about making cities better for winter. It was a total “vibes” piece. I was thinking about parkas and how they could be fashionable and how I’d read about this Ice Pavilion competition in Canada, and why was New York so lame in the winter? People always complain about the weather and I don’t think it has to be that way. I reported it out to show that there were plenty of places where it didn’t have to be that way. That was completely created as a topic in my head. Nobody said, “Alexandra, please write about parkas.” I just know there’s something there. During the pandemic winter, I thought, “Oh, here we are again. Let’s check in with everybody.” Honestly, most cities did not do a good job, but there’s still a future to do a good job.
Sometimes you just have to keep bringing something up until the right combination of money and power and interest comes together. People always ask, “what good has your criticism ever done?” I hate that question and it sort of makes me want to cry, but I think the good may come from having something written in a concise and effective way that advocates can point to over the long term and say, “This explains why postmodernism should be saved, we have a piece of paper.” I feel like my role is to provide that piece of paper because I do skip around a lot. I’m not necessarily so embedded in one cause or one city, but I find these topics and go where my interests take me. Sometimes I ask “should I be more of an advocate?” I really admire Alissa Walker, who I think is more specific and more embedded. but I don’t know, that’s not the way my mind works.
She even has the correct last name for her work.
I know! And I believe in that work. Sometimes I’m like, “Is that a better way to do it?” Part of being a critic long-term is going with your own interests and acknowledging your own personality. I’m not a good person to go to a protest, so I’m trying to help in other ways.
It’s fascinating how a lot of people are using the word “activism.” I get a lot of the questions like, “are you an activist or are you this?” There are these titles and I’m like, “what does that really mean?” But using one’s skills to make the world a better place, if that’s the definition of activism, we should all be activists… and we all are.
I feel like it’s cheesy to say so, but I am actually trying to do that. I think that impulse comes from eight years in a Quaker school; the Quakers have been doing that all along, often in a very low-key way. There is an ethic to their work and an ethic to their ideas about society. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it had a much bigger impact on me than I realized at the time, because my family is not Quaker. I went to this school and I absorbed that idea of how to be in the world. So, yeah, it feels really grandiose to say you’re trying to change the world, you’re trying to make a difference, you’re trying to leave the world a better place. I’m not really comfortable with that. I was a Loeb Fellow at Harvard a few years back, which was an amazing year just to think and regroup and take classes. It’s a program that accepts 10 to 12 people every year. And they say to you on the first day “You’re here because we think you can change the world!”…. And my face when they said it…
Did it make you bristle a little bit?
Yes, it made me bristle. They have a long history of having critics in the program. Inga Saffron, an amazing activist and architecture critic in Philadelphia, was a Loeb Fellow. It made my shoulders so tight. I was just like, “OK, I’m just going to hide here in the corner” because I can’t think of myself like that. I’m not sure it’s healthy to think of yourself like that. On the other hand, it is healthy to have an ethic for your work and not be one hundred percent at the mercy of the market and other people’s ideas of what’s interesting.
Beyond talking about your own vulnerability, you often talk about other people’s vulnerability in spaces — like when you wrote about how people with disabilities might not be able to climb to different levels of the Stephen Holl library. And it comes up in the Design of Childhood; you discuss how many Black children actually had access to playgrounds, and the discriminatory practices of FHA loans. Every time you discuss a topic, you share something that’s personal to you, and you also share something that’s personal to a group beyond yourself as an individual. Is that a conscious choice that you make?
It is a conscious choice. I think that’s just the way that we have to do the work now. In the early part of my career, talking about architecture from a feminist perspective came naturally to me as a woman trying to make her way in the architecture world. And a side note, my mother, Martha Scotford, is a graphic designer and graphic design historian who wrote some foundational texts for feminism and graphic design, so it came very naturally to me to look for the women. The woman was always the landscape architect or the woman was the project architect and she wasn’t credited. I knew about Natalie de Blois long before most people knew about Natalie de Blois because I wrote my dissertation on post-war corporate modernism. And there she is. She wasn’t really hiding, it’s just nobody bothered to stick that in the story. I had an orientation towards feminism, feminism in architecture, women in architecture. But over the years I read things, I saw what was happening in the world, and I realized that white women’s feminism wasn’t enough. While writing Design of Childhood when I thought, “There aren’t a lot of sources on Black childhood, there aren’t a lot of sources on who is using these playgrounds.”
I have to acknowledge who is left out of the story. Even if I can’t tell as full and rich a story about, say, Chinese American kids in San Francisco or Black kids in New York City, I need to acknowledge the story that isn’t being told. And yeah, I kind of freaked out because I was like, “Oh no! What have I done? Have I written just another white post-war history? I don’t want to do that. That’s not what we need right now.” So I freaked out and then I figured out how to deal with it. I did some more research about certain aspects to make sure they were in there. Some of those stories, especially about the Rosenwald schools that were built in the South, resonated with people because they hadn’t heard that story before.
That’s great because it is a super fascinating story and it only benefited my book to have had that freak out. When I went into the mall book I already had that in mind. Many of the same issues came up again, like I was hoping that I would find more Black mall owners. But, in fact, most of the malls, even in majority Black urban areas, were designed and developed by white owners and architects. This is something that’s playing out in L.A. right now with the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall where the community that has grown up around a really important historic mall wants to buy it back so that there can be community ownership. One of the sad stories of malls in America is that even though they have at times catered to Black customers, Black communities haven’t benefited in a million billion dollar way. Sometimes you just have to say, “I wish this story was different, but this is the way it is” so that people understand that it’s not being brushed over.
And thank you for hearing that, too.
There may be other ways to do it. I think about this a lot because I want to be doing the work the right way so that people feel heard and reflected in it. I don’t think that always has to be the theme of everything I write but it’s more about who do you interview? What cities are they in? What’s the gender and ethnic mix of your sourcing? That’s a more subtle way of getting at some of these issues and making sure that people understand that they really are, especially in terms of children, often universal… It isn’t a story about underprivileged children, but the story includes that perspective.
Our cities are filled with people of all different ages, sizes, ethnicities, all shapes and abilities. It seems like writing about cities should be able to reflect the stories of all the different people who live there and experience it.
One irony of writing so much about children is that it’s really easy for me to have one hundred percent female sourcing in most of my stories. That’s something a lot of architectural writers struggle with, right? If you look at stories from five years ago, I’m sure there are plenty of architecture stories in which only men talk. Once you’re talking about children, schooling, and education, that’s not a problem. So it’s a problem that solved itself…
Because historically women have been pushed towards the direction of children…
Right. Right. Right. It’s gender essentialism. It’s a less lucrative field than, say, commercial architecture. Sadly I didn’t find, as I said, more Black-owned malls. I also thought I might find more women designers of malls, which I didn’t. One of the best-known women who worked for Gruen Associates in Los Angeles is Norma Merrick Sklarek who is a really important, early Black female architect. She was not as involved in the design of the mall. She was more involved in project management, which is very important. But that meant that she wasn’t as important to the narrative that I was trying to tell. So I wasn’t really able to highlight her contributions in a meaningful way because I was telling more of a design and trend story, not about how the Mall of America got made. I feel bad about it, though.
I have a feeling it may come up in a very long article of yours at a future date.
Yeah. I’m on the board of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation now. I’ve been very happy to support their “Pioneering Women in American Architecture” series, which is essentially a better-than-Wikipedia online biographies of all these women. I co-wrote one on Julia Morgan after I wrote her late-breaking obituary for The New York Times. There’s a really good one on Norma Sklarek. It’s all part of the same project.
Looking at work with a feminist lens, is that something that you talked about with your [mom] Martha Scotford? Has that always been part of the way that you look at work? Have you always been looking for where the women are?
I gave a talk earlier this year called “Looking for Role Models in All the Wrong Places” about my own history with Ada Louise Huxtable and Dolores Hayden and some other important female figures and how, in some ways, they tricked me into thinking that architecture and criticism were more accommodating space for women than they actually were or have turned out to be. I realized pretty early on that Ada Louise Huxtable was exceptional and an exception, but I still kind of used her as a model in my mind, like this kind of mentor about how a critic could be. I was happy to have that visual. It was important.
I think about how I structured my dissertation, which is about post-war corporate modernism. It was actually about architecture and landscape architecture and graphic design and a little bit of product design. So it was already seeing these corporate projects as collaborative. And once you started seeing them as collaborative rather than being led by like two important white men, as had been the dominant narrative, all of these women turned up as Noguchi turns up as a person of color, working in those environments. I don’t think I articulated it this way at the time, but once you start not privileging architecture over the other design fields and trying to look at these corporate projects as collaborative, lots of other people with maybe less fancy titles turn up and more of those people are not straight white men. I feel like that project established a parameter and a way of thinking about design that I’ve continued to use. If you start picking around the edges, even the most famous projects have a lot more going on than the first round of history necessarily told you about.
I’m interested in how you put ideas together and your general outlook on space, architecture, and the collaborative experiences of all those different disciplines coming together. In Design of Childhood, you talk about what cities can do to be more inviting for childhood. What can we do to help create a collective future that’s better for all children rather than focusing on individual band-aid solutions?
I’m friends with a lot of people on transit Twitter. In New York, they set up this organization called Streets PAC, which is like a political organization that gives money to candidates that support safer streets, non car-dominant transportation, et cetera. I keep thinking that you could have a Kids PAC. Maybe we need to start one in L.A. or New York, then expand to other cities, to bring together different city departments and make cities better for kids and families. There is a transportation part of it and there’s a parks part of it and there’s a schools part of it, and there are other things, too. Those aren’t necessarily under the same leadership, but you need all of them to work together to make a city better for children. Unless you have organizations that pull those things together and package them in a politics-friendly way, it’s hard to see how it could move forward.
Transportation Alternatives in New York came out with this 25×25 plan earlier this year, about better using the streets. I went through and picked out all the kid stuff in it, which was pretty prominently placed. It’s clear that they have the good of children across the city in mind, but they aren’t necessarily set up to talk about the children first. I think that an organization that can solidify some of these ideas and then get politicians to sign on to a kid’s platform could be really beneficial because it’s honestly very complicated…. The truth is that what makes cities better for children is a complex web of playgrounds for different ages, protected bike lanes, and wider sidewalks with benches and all of these things…. and courtyard housing! It’s not a neat package.
In the recent Low-Rise: Housing Ideas for Los Angeles competition that Christopher Hawthorne did for the city of L.A., I was looking for projects that I felt supported a kids’ agenda. There is one that converted alleyways into what looked like great mixed-use streets that kids would be able to play in and would only be open to local traffic. I thought, “OK, like this!” I look at all these things with my kid agenda and pick out the things that work for it. Maybe you need a permanent place that would bring together all these individual elements of the kid agenda. I think something like a Kid’s PAC could do it. A story idea I haven’t gotten around to yet is one about having a kid mayor, not a mayor who is a child, but somebody at a high level of government that is bringing together the kid-focused agenda across multiple urban departments.
That makes so much sense because you think ADA guidelines are written for people with mobility restrictions of a specific kind, but so many people don’t realize that at some point, they might become disabled, too. There are people who don’t have children or have grandchildren or nieces and nephews right now, but they may in the future. When we design for people who don’t necessarily have an average male body, we’re designing a more inclusive environment.
Sometimes I wonder if part of the reason I got into this is because I am very short, just over five feet tall. Children are rarely intimidated by me. When I was doing reporting for the Design of Childhood, it was really no problem for me to sit around in a playground, or when I was invited into classrooms, the teacher was like, “Here’s Alexandra. She’s going to watch today” everyone ignored me. All of that is beneficial. I’ve also been a mom in a city and I’ve written about how you have to collapse your stroller to get on a bus in New York and what a huge pain that is. I was talking before about my body and my own vulnerability. I can still viscerally feel how difficult it was to hold my two year old under one arm and collapse my stroller and then kneel down and pick it up. That’s just doing all sorts of things to your knees that you’re really not supposed to do.
I’ve also had two leg injuries while living in New York City. So, I get it. I know what it feels like and that could happen to anyone at any time. Also just apropos of the ADA laws, I wrote a piece a really long time ago that was a germ for Design of Childhood called “The Moms Aren’t Wrong.” I talked about how disabled people, people with luggage and bikes, people with strollers were actually often all on the same team. Again, the way we’ve siloed all of these discussions makes it harder to create a coalition, but all those people need the MTA to get on board with having more elevators in stations. It’s just maddening. There’s a great T-shirt that one advocacy group made that said “elevators are for everyone,” and I felt, “yes, that is the correct energy.”
That’s really, really great. And I know.
This idea that, “oh, I don’t need an elevator, I can work around it,” but people cannot work around it. Someday you’re not going to be able to work around it, your elderly relative can’t work around it.
Architectural criticism often doesn’t address ability and access. As a pedestrian who is also around five feet tall and whose city was not designed for them, I was amazed in Seattle, using public transportation. Buses kneel down to you and you can just move around easily.
Were they roll-on? With the stroller? I know! That’s how it is in Europe. I took my three-year-old to Stockholm and Copenhagen. I was like, oh, I can just push the stroller on the bus.
And that sense of ease of, “wait, you thought of this?” A lot of change has to happen for all the buses in a city to be able to do something like that, but if we think about those questions before we get a whole new set of buses, what a simple way to make moving through a city easier.
Well, the truth is, like in the case of the bus, it’s often a product that exists. I wrote something in the beginning of last year with Alissa [Walker] about dumb urban design competitions and one of the things we called out in that story was cities’ exceptionalism and how these products exist, any city could buy them, why are they not buying them. It is not actually a design problem that needs to be solved. It’s a purchasing problem. This is the level of nitty-gritty government I don’t entirely understand. Who decides what kind of bus to purchase? How do you change that? I don’t get into those details but some of these problems have been solved in plenty of places. It only requires the political and economic will to change things.
Your mall book is coming out soon.
Not as soon as I’d like, but in June 2022. I finished the manuscript in March; I’ll do the edits this summer, and that’s how long it takes to publish a book.
Especially a well-researched book. I imagine site visits were generally impossible.
Yeah. I had originally planned to do a lot more “Alexandra goes to this mall and that mall.” I think that was important to me as a journalist and as somebody who likes to set the scene, but book writing is a little different and I found I could use other people’s accounts of going to those malls. In a lot of cases to get at the original purpose of the malls, it was better to use a historical account than it would be to go there now because the original design and decor had been added onto and papered over. My account of Horton Plaza now would be way more depressing than people’s account of Horton Plaza in the mid-eighties, so I think it worked out. I feel like it’s still personable in that way. The last trip I took before quarantine was to the NorthPark Center in Dallas, which has been called, and I kind of agree, the most beautiful mall in the world. I was really glad that I got to do that trip. That’s chapter two in my book, focusing on the artistry of the mall. So that is more of an in-person experience. I still haven’t been to the Mall of America.
It’ll still be there for you!
Apparently it’s back. A friend of mine who lives in Minneapolis tweeted about how it freaked her out to be at the Mall of America last weekend. It was like the “before times” and I couldn’t believe it. I think people have all this pent up social and communitarian energy. If you live in certain places, the place to go to have that social encounter is the mall.
I was a teenager in the 90s, so I spent a lot of time at the mall. You’ve written about adaptive reuse ideas for malls. As we’re further and further into the 21st century, do you still think there is a place for the mall itself?
Oh, yes. Definitely. One of the fundamental insights that I had in doing my research on suburbs is that there’s the one FHA that subsidized the mortgages for all the little houses, there’s the other FHA that subsidized the highways to bring people out of the houses, but the government did not subsidize the space in between those things. Private developers had to make the space in between and that was the mall. What would people living in the suburbs have done if they didn’t have the mall? Just think about it. There is a fundamental human need to come together. There is a fundamental industrialised need to shop for food and everyday things. And the idea that women would have driven with their children back downtown to do their shopping makes no sense at all. So, you know, as often happens, commerce was brighter and faster on its feet than the government.
The mall is this architecture in between the highway and the home. All these decades haven’t obviated that need at all. There are lots of places where the mall is still the town center, as Victor Gruen originally intended. Those are the malls that are going to be successful, that have kept up with the times. There are going to be a lot of dead malls, but I think there are a lot of interesting ways to reuse them. In imagining their reuse we have to honor the central place they once had in those neighborhoods and their usefulness. We’re going to get better ideas if we don’t think of them as dead stupid sculptures, but as places that were centers, that had all these affordances that made life easier. So, what would make life easier now?
Definitely! I’m originally from the Boston area also, and my parents are a little bit older and in the wintertime, they walk around them. They have these places.
I have this crazy anecdote. I have a chapter in the book that’s mostly about teenagers, but it also includes a section on older people and the mall and the phenomenon of mall walkers, because the reasons those two groups use the mall are related. When I was talking about mall walkers on Twitter somebody told me that their parents had been mall walkers. In the pandemic, they couldn’t get into the mall to walk, but they had started walking around the parking lot of the mall because they needed an open space, and they were just attached to that place. They knew how to go there to do their daily steps. It gets to the emotional content that we now attach to them.
It makes sense for the suburbs, but does the idea of an urban mall in the future make sense to you as this temple to consumerism in one spot that’s more controlled?
I don’t think closed urban malls make a whole lot of sense. But I wrote a piece for Curbed two years ago now called “Who’s Afraid of the Pedestrian Mall?” In it I talk about the vogue in the seventies and eighties for pedestrian malls in cities and why so many of them failed. But they’re not necessarily a bad idea. A lot of urbanist ideas about center cities and removing cars and making those spaces better for bikes and pedestrians are the pedestrian mall. They’re just calling it something different. I mean, people were always arguing with me about terminology.
Because nobody wants to call it a mall?
Nobody wants to be called a mall. Nobody likes to have you associate their idea with a failed idea from the nineteen seventies. But I’m a historian, so I’m always like, “well OK, it is the same thing and I get to call it whatever I want.” There are people that are developing what they are now calling “retail centers” or whatever. They don’t like to call it the mall. And I’m like, look, if I put the word mall in big letters on my book, people will buy it. If I put the retail center on my book, people are going to be like, what is this weird thing? So you’re fighting a losing battle.
Oh, my goodness. That goes back to what we were talking about before, about the power of a writer and being able to put these ideas out there. What are you thinking about potentially coming out of these threads of the mall or out of the thread of Designing Childhood? I saw you were writing the forward to Designing Motherhood.
It turns out I am still thinking about teenagers. I’ll probably never write a teenager book, but there’s a lot going on with teenagers and I’m sure it’s something I’m going to end up talking about in the publicity for the book. And I really, really like my chapter on teenagers in the book. I just feel like teenagers are this betwixt and between thing. Now I have teenagers, so I have these test subjects right in my home and I get a lot of ideas from my kids. We talk a lot about technology and using the city. That is really helpful.
So yeah, I think about teenagers. I also really enjoyed, in the mall book process, writing about movies, books and TV…. I see my future as potentially moving more into cultural criticism, more broadly focused. I would like to have the opportunity to write more about design and architecture in other media. Kind of like the playground and like the mall, that’s a place where people are encountering design without really knowing what they’re seeing. I’ve done a lot of that over the years, but I don’t feel like people have necessarily put that together. If I were ever to produce a set of collected works I think I would have ten or more pieces on design in film and design in TV. I have a collection of work on those topics and I really enjoyed writing every one of those pieces.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.