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Lessons in Shopping, Vacancy, and Public Space.

  • Essay
  • May 31 2023
    is an interdisciplinary design collective that combines architecture, engineering,
    technology and art to address social challenges. They have delivered numerous projects,
    workshops, publications, and talks in the UK and across Europe, all of which look toward
    realising just and equitable visions of change in our built environment.

“What Northland teaches us is this – that it’s the merchants who will save our urban civilization.” [1]

Speaking in 1956 on the civic potentials of the now ubiquitous “shopping mall”, Viennese architect and planner Victor Gruen—fancifully self-confessed “crystal-gazer,” Jewish refugee, political cabaret leader, and staunch mid-century socialist—was at the height of his career. And by his account, the Northland Center, Detroit’s new 600,000 square-foot shopping mall was about to save [2] public life in the American suburbs. 

Over the next two decades, the “father of the shopping mall” and the namesake of the insidious “Gruen Transfer” would disavow his architectural enfant terrible. In 1954, the United States Congress reconfigured the tax rules that governed depreciation. In addition to turning malls into a wayward mechanism for capital investment, proliferating faster and outgrowing demand, this legislative move engendered, to Gruen’s horror, the evolution of sprawling suburban developments and big-box retail. However, Gruen would continue to defend, in some variation, what he once called the “remarkable spiritual consequences” of self-interest. This, in Gruen’s trademark hyperbole, insinuated the supposed civic benefits of urban planning that prioritized commercial activity over investor profit, which, he maintained, would position the mall as a means of injecting the North American suburbs with an ostensibly fundamental principle of European urbanism: convivial, public space. 

Today, despite successive global economic crashes, the reign of eCommerce, and the curious phenomena of “dead malls” in suburbs across the world, urbanity’s discontent is still regularly pinned to the implementation of shopping malls. As such, to the global populations of suburbs, exurbs, satellite cities, commuter belts, and outskirts, the mall becomes many things at once: a means of economic ascension; arenas for racist surveillance; apparatuses for developer-led urban renewal; armatures for teen social relations; landmarks to frivolous commercial exchange; and begrudgingly integral privately-owned, public spaces. Consecrated by master plans, development strategies, and regeneration schemes, these malls are the Gruenist churches of yesteryear’s mercantilism, beyond which there is no salvation.

That is, until there are no merchants left to do the saving. Croydon town centre, often described as an “edge city” [3] at the heart of London’s southernmost borough, has been an enduring member of Gruen’s congregation, but is now at the hands of the faith’s greatest existential threat: vacancy. The town center was airlifted into modernity in the decades after the end of the Second World War by aggressive highway development, office decentralization in inner London, megalomaniacal local politicians, and of course, shopping malls. But its explosive growth hinged largely on commerce was still curiously underpinned by convivial public activity. This meant that during its belles époques and despite a number of public parks and small squares proximate to the heart of Croydon, its largest mall, the Whitgift Centre (which was mostly without a roof in the pre-1990s), acted as its unofficial Piazza San Pietro: proportionately comparable both in terms of its everyday public importance and impenetrable ecclesiastical ownership. Named after an influential 16th century Archbishop of Canterbury buried in Croydon, and whose eponymous foundation is still the area’s largest landowner, the Whitgift Centre is a labyrinthine ‘70s commercial complex, once the largest of its kind in the UK. Today, the mall lies largely empty; an excarnation of merchant-led regeneration at urban peripheries. 

It is of course, not what the canon would consider a traditional, or even “good,” public space. It is privately owned, has closing and opening times, and is now wholly covered by an infamously leaky roof. In its putrefied state, the Whitgift Centre is, oddly enough, more surveilled and policed than ever. Unlike many other shopping malls, the Whitgift Centre permeates from the existing urban fabric, spilling out from behind Jacobean facades and elaborate provincial heritage buildings before stopping at a gigantic arterial road. 

As a result, for what the Whitgift Centre began to lack as a commercial space in the early 2000’s, it retained in its significance as part of the town, rather than a fortress within it. Though a growingly unpopular shopping destination, it continued to be a contested space where schoolkids met, where parents can took their young children, and where older generations went for the day, all under the guise of commercial exchange. Like many of London’s “failed” shopping complexes, it has slowly become integral to various, nondescript daytime community activities that neither provide a spectacle nor inform a generic vision of the “revitalised town centre.” Instead, sheltering often quite vulnerable networks of people who can find themselves excluded from this vision. In the Whitgift Centre now, this is exemplified by the existence of groups like Turf Projects, a homegrown art space and essential community infrastructure in Croydon that runs out of an old carpet shop, and the Windrush Generation Legacy Association, an organisation that celebrates the heritage of local Caribbean migrants through community building. 

The growing problem of vacancy today threatens even this and has stripped the center of much of its commercial and social lifeblood. However, the Whitgift Centre’s repurposing also offers a lens through which we might consider impossibility and redistributed power; to reimagine the transformation of—if not statutorily, perhaps performatively—public assets like shopping malls. As part of a workshop series entitled “EVERYTHING MUST GO!”, we worked with participants in the Whitgift Centre to use sound, mapping, and hands-on making to interrogate the mall’s current condition and prototype community-centered futures. Participants shared their experiences of and connections to the local area, traced and manipulated sounds, and foraged discarded shopping material in order to build toolkits to reimagine vacancy in the Whitgift Centre. They also rehearsed new models of public space within commercial ruin through a number of scenographic interventions, which are compiled in the collaged piece that accompanies this text. Seven decades after Gruen’s first misguided experiments in civic-commercial co-locations, the Whitgift Centre stands as a testimony to the failure of all aspects of his ideology except one: the redemptive necessity of convivial public spaces in urban peripheries. Unlike Northland, however, Whiftgift teaches us that it’s the public, and not the merchants, who consistently save urban civilization.





    [2] Victor Gruen, “Who Is To Save Our Cities?” , Ekistics , AUGUST 1964, Vol. 18, No. 105, p116 - 118.




    Vacant Scenographies led by Resolve Collective.



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