Skip to main content

Crowds move through the palm-decorated Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto as it opened for business on Feb. 26, 1964.John Boyd/The Globe and Mail

For Alexandra Lange, as a middle schooler, South Square Mall was the place to go. It was the 1980s in suburban North Carolina, and Lange – today a design critic – would wander the halls, buying rainbow sweaters at the Gap, sipping Orange Julius while sneaking a read of the Sweet Valley High books.

You may have had a similar experience. For most middle-class North Americans, the mall is where we came of age. “The teenage years are when you’re trying to figure out who you are, to figure out your interpersonal relationships, to figure out your personal style,” Lange says. “And the mall is where you find all these options, and you can choose how to be.”

In short, the mall matters. In her witty and incisive book Meet Me By the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, Lange applies her skills as a design critic and historian to unpacking the mall’s past and future.

There is a taxonomy of mall plans: the square. The T-shape. The galleria. (For the latter, think of Toronto’s Eaton Centre.) Each has its own logic, designed to steer shoppers’ behaviour in specific ways, and clearly legible to the expert mallgoer.

Outside their walls, malls are closely linked to the suburbanization of North America. They were creatures of the new postwar suburbs, where planners deliberately sorted out home, work and shopping into different places. Yet malls also had a deeper significance. The form was largely invented by Austrian émigré architect Victor Gruen; he “had grown up with a European city, where there were sidewalk cafés and you strolled around in the evening,” explains Lange – who, full disclosure, is a friend. “He was searching for a way that people in American suburbs could show up, have a coffee, find friends and also be able to do their errands.”

The first outdoor malls, such as Gruen’s Northland Center near Detroit, combined rigorous modern architecture, a range of shops, and carefully designed landscapes with courts, sculptures and fountains. These were elegant, synthetic bits of city.

Meet Me By The Fountain author Alexandra Lange.Mark Wickens

(This idea translated quickly across the border; the Don Mills Convenience Centre opened in suburban Toronto in 1955, a vision in glazed brick, exposed steel and plate glass.)

Gruen’s vision was only partly realized. Still, the mall was a place where shoppers – largely middle-class white women – found pleasure and community. What scholars call the “Gruen transfer” is the moment, Lange writes, “when your presence in the mall tips from being goal-oriented (must buy new underwear, must buy birthday gift) into a pleasure in itself.” Gruen consulted on Yorkdale Mall, which opened on the edge of Toronto in 1964 with fountains and playful decoration.

By the time Lange was a teenager in the 1980s, the mall was central to North American culture. Lange recalls “a place where you could stroll and see people, where you could stroll and flirt.” And of course this site of consumerist communion became itself a subject of culture, satirized in Dawn of the Dead and captured in sparkling prose by Joan Didion.

Shoppers make their way through the main floor of Simpson's department store in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in 1964.John Boyd/The Globe and Mail

Yorkdale was Canada's largest shopping centre, at a third of a mile long, when it opened in 1964.Jack Mitchell/For The Globe and Mail

Canada largely imported the American model of the mall, and sometimes did it better. When West Edmonton Mall opened in 1981, it was innovative in combining shopping with entertainment. Its developers, Edmonton’s Ghermezian brothers, teamed up with the American architect Jon Jerde to create the Mall of America. “But West Edmonton has the tiki bar and pirate ship,” Lange argues. “It’s much more interesting.”

Today, shopping mythology has a new chapter: the dead mall. Beginning with the financial crisis of 2008-09, American malls began to fail en masse, victims of excessive building, Amazon and changing tastes. This gave rise to “ruin porn,” the visual documentation of crumbling malls that imbued them with poetic gravitas.

Yet they’re not entirely dead. Some high-end malls do continue to thrive, as others find new uses. Lange cites a mall-turned-community college in Texas, and there’s an analogue in B.C.: Surrey Central City, rebuilt by Bing Thom Architects and now home to a campus of Simon Fraser University with more than 8,000 students.

“The nature of the suburbs has changed,” Lange argues. “There are many people desiring the ability to go to a coworking space, or do multiple errands on foot.” All this harks back to the visions of Gruen – and, as Lange points out, to the shopping-and-housing complexes that are common building blocks of East Asian cities.

Now in North America, mall redevelopment can replace parking lots with housing, parks and amenities. There are more than a dozen such projects under way in the Toronto region alone. “It’s important for people to get the idea that these are sites of possibility and creativity,” Lange said. They may not provide Orange Julius, but they may serve up the next chapter of suburban life.