Holiday shopping brought me back last week into the last of the semipublic spaces of Western Society—to whit shopping malls. They are supposed to be a dying breed, and truth be told, I do not frequent them much anymore, but they were full the week after Christmas. The recession seems to be ebbing and not everybody is shopping online. 

South Coast Plaza, the jewel of the West Coast’s consumer crown in Costa Mesa, Calif., was particularly crammed, with lines of cars circling for slots and kids waiting to ride the carousel. I, of course, was looking at the architecture. I had not been to this megamall in years, and immediately noticed that it had followed the trend of making its entrances into constructions that looked more like points of access than slots: curved walls beckoning you in, turrets and arches marking the entry point, and a variety of colors and materials breaking down the scale of what, to either side, are still walls with no adornment, as they are the exterior aftereffects of inward-turned treasure houses. 

On the interior, however, this upscale mall has few of the carts that have become major moneymakers for the malls, and supposedly allow small entrepreneurs to get a start in business while breaking the walkways’ scale down. In fact, in classic mall mode, the building here disappears completely into elided corners, coved surfaces, skylights, and lighting that all conspire to make any barriers or boundaries disappear. Nothing should stand between you and the seduction of the mall’s business. 

The stores, on the other hand, are more and more about framing. It was a trend started, I believe, by Hollister, and quickly picked up by Abercrombie & Fitch and the like: Windows are small and surrounded by thick accents, the door leads to a blank wall with a photograph on it, and you are asked to peer into the store, where the goods, spotlit in disco darkness with pulsing music, draw you further toward the transaction point. 

Caroline Herrera, a Spanish chain new to this country, carries the theme into clublike intimacy in a sequence of rooms that take you all the way to its rear space. Even Banana Republic, for years the epigone of clean and open modernism, following parent company the Gap’s idea that everything should be completely visible, now has a stone surround to its windows, narrowing and focusing your view. 

In a strange way, place-making has thus invaded the mall, as tricks derived from the rediscovery of reality and historic association during Postmodernism have finally made their way into mass retail. The other trend is, of course, the opposite one, which is to say dematerialization. Here Dior now seems to be copying LMVH stable mate Louis Vuitton’s notion of a glass-fritted screen covered with the store’s logo. Nobody does it better than Apple, whose stores are becoming so devoid of anything but product that you expect the furniture to soon disappear into projections holding the objects, or what remains of them once Jonathan Ivse is done with his rounding efforts, in magical suspension. Particular pitiful is Microsoft’s attempts to copy everything the Apple stores do, but with no understanding of what makes them work. As my friend Reed Kroloff said: “How can they get everything wrong, from the scale of the space to the letter type to the clutter to the fact that you cannot even read the logo behind the columns?” 

It is clear that the notion of a unique selling advantage is hard to maintain, either in a mall as a whole or in store design but, if you can figure out one particular way of making the kind of antispace shopping ultimately demands, and carry it out fully and consistently, you might be able to hold onto our attention and our wallets, if not on to place, for a bit longer. What you will not maintain is any sense that we are still real people who live in a real world where not everything is about getting lost in a maze of consumption.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.