Critics love to hate shopping centers as symbols of all that is wrong with American culture. But as they go global, they are stimulating economic growth —throughout the developing world.
By Mac Margolis
When the Los Angeles firm Altoon + Porter Architects set out to design a shopping arcade in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a few years ago, it faced a delicate mission: to raise a glitzy pleasure dome full of Western temptations in the maw of fundamentalist Islam. Not that the Saudis were consumer innocents; King Khalid airport in Riyadh fairly hums with wealthy Arabs bound for the lavish shops of Paris and London. But the trick was to lure women buyers—the royalty of retail—who are not allowed to shed their veils in public. "Women can't be expected to buy anything if they can't try it on," says architect Ronald Altoon, managing partner of the firm. So Altoon + Porter came up with an ecumenical solution: the Kingdom Centre, a three-story glass-and-steel Xanadu of retail with an entire floor—Women's Kingdom—devoted exclusively to female customers. "We took the veil off the women and put it on the building," says Altoon.
The modest proposal paid off. In Women's Kingdom, Saudi women can shop, schmooze, dine or even loll about at the spa without upsetting the sheiks or subverting Sharia, the country's strict Islamic laws. Normally the third level of any mall is a dud, but it's become the most profitable floor in the whole arcade. The Kingdom Centre may not be revolutionary; no one is burning veils at the food court. Still, it represents a small but meaningful freedom for Saudi women. And its success points to the irrepressible global appetite for consumer culture, as well as to the growing role that the right to shop plays in fostering democratization and development.
It's been more than two decades since John B. Hightower, the director of New York City's South Street Seaport Museum, a combination cultural center and shopping arcade, brazenly declared that "shopping is the chief cultural activity of the United States." Since then, it has also become one of America's chief exports: shopping malls, once a peculiarly American symbol of convenience and excess, now dot the global landscape from Santiago to St. Petersburg and Manila to Mumbai. In 1999, India boasted only three malls. Now there are 45, and the number is expected to rise to 300 by 2010. The pint-size Arab Emirate of Dubai, sometimes known as the Oz of malls, clocked 88.5 million mall visitors last year; nearly 180 million Brazilians mob shopping arcades every month—almost as many as in the United States. Where elephants and giraffes once gamboled along the Mombasa road leading into Nairobi, the African mall rat is now a far more common sight, with four gleaming new malls to scavenge in at the Kenyan capital and three more in the works. And no one can keep pace with China, where foreign investors are scrambling to get a piece of a real-estate boom driven in part by mall mania. "The same energy and dynamism that the shopping industry brought to North America 30, 40 years ago is now reaching overseas," says Michael Kercheval, head of the International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry trade association and advisory group. "Now it's reached the global masses."
Indeed, the planet appears deep in the grip of the retail version of an arms race. For years, the West Edmonton Mall in Alberta, Canada, with 20,000 parking spaces, an ice-skating rink, a miniature-golf course and four submarines (more than in the Canadian Navy) on display, had reigned as the grandest in the world. Last October it was overtaken by the $1.3 billion Golden Resources Shopping Center in northwest Beijing, with 20,000 employees and nearly twice the floor space of the Pentagon. Developers in Dubai are breaking ground on not one but two malls they claim will be even bigger, one of which boasts a man-made, five-run ski slope. Yet all these have been eclipsed by the behemoth South China Mall, which opened its doors in the factory city of Dongguan this year. By the end of the decade, China is likely to have at least seven of the world's 10 largest malls—many of them equipped with hotels, on the theory that no one can possibly see everything in a single day.
To those who malign malls as the epitome of all that is wrong with American culture, their spread is like a pestilenceupon the land. Dissident scholars churn out one dystopian tract—"One Nation Under Goods," "The Call of the Mall"—after another. Critics despair of whole nations willing to cash in their once vibrant downtowns and street markets for a wasteland of jerry-built nowhere, epic traffic jams and marquees ablaze with fatuous English names (Phoenix High Street, Palm Springs Life Plaza and Bairong World Trade Center Phase II). To some, this is an assault on democracy itself. "Shopping malls are great for dictatorships," says Emil Pocock, a professor of American studies at Eastern Connecticut State University, who takes students on field trips to malls to study consumer society. "What better way to control folks than to put them under a dome and in enclosed doors?" The "malling of America," in the words of author and famous mall-basher William Kowinski, has become the malling of the world.
As it turns out, that may not be such a bad thing. Rather than presage or hasten the decline of the traditional downtown, as many critics fear, the rise of the mall is actually serving as a catalyst for growth, especially in developing nations. In China, the booming retail sector has sucked in a fortune in venture capital and spawned dozens of joint ventures with international investors looking to snap up Chinese urban properties. In late July, the Simon Property Group, a major U.S. developer, teamed up with Morgan Stanley and a government-owned Chinese company to launch up to a dozen major retail centers throughout China over the next few years. Malls are a leading force in driving India's $330 billion retailing industry, which already accounts for a third of national GDP and recently overtook Russia's. Similarly, a burst of consumer spending in the Philippines—thanks to overseas nationals who send between $6 billion and $7 billion back every year—has fueled a real-estate boom, led by megamalls.
Most developing-world malls are integrated in the heart of the inner cities instead of strewn like beached whales along arid superhighways. "In China, 80 percent of shoppers walk to the mall," says Kercheval of the ICSC. In some megacities, including New Delhi, Nairobi and Rio, urban sprawl has flung customers into outlying neighborhoods, many of which spring up around brand-new shopping centers. That means malls are no longer catering just to the elite. "We used to talk exclusively about A-class shoppers," says Kercheval. "Now we are seeing the arrival of B-, C- and D-class customers. The developing-world mall is becoming more democratic."
In many places, malls are welcome havens of safety and security. In Rio, where teenagers (especially young men) are the main victims of street crime, parents breathe easier when they know their kids are at play in the mall, some of which deploy 100 or more private police. "Safety is one of our biggest selling points," says Paulo Malzoni Filho, president of the Brazilian Association of Shopping Centers. "When I enter into one of these malls, it feels like I have landed in a foreign country," says Parag Mehta, a regular at the Inorbit mall in the busy northern Mumbai suburb of Malad.
And as malls break new ground around the world, the one-size-fits-all business model created in North American suburbia is giving way to regionalized versions. Malls may conjure up the specter of a flood of U.S. brands and burgers, but in reality, local palates and preferences often prevail. On a recent evening in Beijing's Golden Resources Shopping Center, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Papa John's were nearly deserted, while the Korean restaurant just around the corner was packed. Chile has long welcomed foreign investors, yet the leading retailers at malls in Santiago are two local chains, Falabella and Almacenes Paris. In San Salvador, capital of El Salvador, the Gallerias shopping arcade houses a Roman Catholic church that holds mass twice a day—an intriguing metaphysical twist on the concept of the anchor store. In many developing countries, malls have attracted banks, art galleries, museums, car-rental agencies and even government services such as passport offices and motor-vehicle departments, becoming de facto villages instead of just shopping centers.
For residents of the developing world, malls increasingly serve as surrogate civic centers, encouraging social values that go beyond conspicuous spending. China is home to some 168 million smokers, but they are not allowed to partake at the smoke-free malls. That's not the only environmental plus; many Chinese malls are equipped with a soft-switching system that stabilizes the electrical current and conserves energy. In the Middle East, arcades such as Riyadh's Kingdom Centre are among the few public spaces where women can gather, gab or just walk about alone in public. "Malls are not just places to shop, they are places to imagine," says Xia Yeliang, a professor at Beijing University's School of Economics. "They bring communities together that might not otherwise encounter one another and create new communities."
For some societies, malls even offer a communal respite from the past. In Warsaw, where World War II demolished most of the historic shopping district—and dreary chockablock communist-era architecture finished the job—one of the most revered public spaces around is the local mall. "For decades Poles dressed up for Sunday mass," says Grzegorz Makowski, a sociologist at Warsaw University and expert on consumer culture. "Now they dress for a visit to the shopping mall."
Still, for some critics, no amount of social or economic development can hide the fact that all modern malls are at heart temples of rampant consumerism. Jan Gehl, a leading Danish champion of urban renaissance and a professor of architecture at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, likes to show his students pictures of malls around the world and ask them where each one is located. Many look so indistinguishable that they can't tell. (Only now are some clues beginning to appear.) Even Victor Gruen, the Viennese Jewish emigre who fled Hitler's Europe and created the first indoor-shopping arcade in the Minneapolis suburbs in the 1950s, eventually grew disgusted by the soulless concrete-box-with-parking monstrosities rendered in his name. "I refuse to pay alimony to these bastards of development," he growled during a 1978 speech in London, fleeing back to Europe. By then there was no escape; malls were already marching on the Old World.
Half a century on, some of the resistance to malls speaks more to nostalgia for an illusory past than a rejection of the present. Ancient Turkey certainly had its bazaar rats. And what is the contemporary shopping center if not a souk with a cineplex? "Maybe the mall is just a modern and more comfortable version of what has always been," says Stephen Marshall of the Young Foundation, a London think tank. "It's quite possible the ancients would have seen our malls have seen our malls with all that technology as terrific places."
Certainly mall developers seem to have learned from their early excesses. Instead of garish bunkers with blind walls and plastic rain forests, newer malls boast sculpture gardens, murals, belvederes and gentle lighting. Lush creepers, great ferns, cacti and feathery palms tumble down the interior of the Fashion Mall, a boutique arcade, in Rio de Janeiro. The Kingdom Centre in Riyadh won an international design award in 2003. And while "big" may still be beautiful in mallworld, more and more developers are launching arcades built to modest scale, deliberately emulating yesterday's main streets or the Old World piazzas they replaced. This may not be the much-vaunted consumer's arcadia the mallmeisters had always hoped for, but global malls seem oddly to come closer to the bold democratic ideal than the originals ever did. And when it rains, everybody stays dry.
With Sudip Mazumdar in New Delhi, Sumeet Chatterjee in Mumbai, Quindlen Krovatin in Beijing, Joanna Kowalska-Iszkowska in Warsaw, William Underhill in London and Alexandra Polier in Nairobi