Between Christmas shopping and organizing the season’s festivities, let’s take a break from the maelstrom of the end of the year to talk about the mall and its success as a panorama for many families in Santiago and Chile in general. If people go to the mall looking for public space and find it in this private commercial promenade, is it because there is a lack of quality public spaces in the city and, therefore, better recreational areas such as parks, avenues and squares?
Running at a steady pace in the maelstrom of the end of the year and a couple of Christmas days, many families in our country use their free time to buy gifts and special ingredients for their Christmas feasts and, along the way, entertain children, grandchildren or nephews and nieces who have finished school and are looking forward to spending their energy on the long-awaited summer vacation. As time is tight, what could be better than to go to the mall, that complex with several stores that make paying in multiple installments easy, supermarkets with national and international products that offer promotions of “buy three and pay two,” American-style, Italian, Japanese restaurants and fast food courts, and even a movie theater or bowling alley?
For the Chilean citizen, and especially for inhabitants of Santiago, the mall is more than a shopping center, it is a panorama, a weekend walk, a safe, clean, air-conditioned (1) and democratically accessible place, a social meeting showcase, a private space disguised as a public space. This can be explained because today the malls, in addition to diversifying the supply of products, also sell a “pleasant experience” as a commercial strategy to attract the consumer public (2). It seems that this idea of the mall where everyone wins − merchants who attract the public and sell and consumers who buy in a safe environment − is not something that is wrong in itself. However, it continues to resonate that a core of consumption such as the mall is one of the main places of entertainment in our society.
(1) See Cáceres, Sabatini, Salcedo y Blonda, “Malls en Santiago: luces y claroscuros,” (Malls in Santiago: lights and chiaroscuro) ARQ 62 (Marzo 2006), 49.
(2) See Cáceres, Sabatini, Salcedo and Blonda, 49.
The problem of the mall can be understood clearly and synthetically in the text of the academic Margaret Crawford, “Suburban Life and Public Space,” where the author addresses the three dominant negative narratives associated with these enclosures: first, as a rigid architectural typology, second, as a suburban experience that claims to be urban but that is not and third, as a “vehicle for the continuous process of commodification where a wide range of social and communal experiences are absorbed by commerce” (3). The idea that trade absorbs social experiences is understood from the urban perspective in the words of the architect Mauricio Baros, who explains that “the current problem is […] the direct threat that this new commercial geography represents for the public space itself [… since] with the degradation and death of the public dies, in some way, the protagonist of this space who is the citizen”(4).
(3) See Margaret Crawford, “Suburban Life and Public Space” in Sprawl and Public Space: Redressing the Mall (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).
(4) See Mauricio Baros “De la Casa al Mall, Privado v/s Privado,” (From House to Mall, Private vs. Private) ARQ 53 (March 2003), 6.
The notion of public space and its role as a citizen educator is a recurring nineteenth-century theme and one proposed by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the most important landscape architects in American history, who insisted on the figure of the park as an urban instance capable of generating social friction, and thereby of civilizing and educating the working class and those less favored during the nineteenth century. Then, if people go to the mall looking for public space and find it in this private commercial promenade, is it because there is a lack of quality public spaces in the city and, therefore, better places for recreation such as parks, avenues and squares?
Interestingly, and to reinforce the idea that the success of the mall is partly due to the absence or poor quality of public spaces in the city, the origin of the word is found in a landscape element. The Paille-maille (in French) or pall mall (in English) was a game similar to croquet of Italian origin − pallo a maglio − which became popular in France at the beginning of the 17th century. In 1597 the first Paille-maille court was built on the outskirts of Paris where double rows of trees were planted for its practice. The construction of the mall (the row of trees for the game) was replicated in several French provinces and in the capital (5). Over time, along with the growth of cities, these places of play became one of the first forms of public urban arborization.
(5) See Henry W. Lawrence, City Trees. A Historical Geography from the Renaissance through the Nineteenth Century (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 32.
So, how can we build a city of attractive, safe and active public spaces that respond to the hyperventilated contemporary society? How can we transform these private instances of public use into part of the city and the landscape? How can we make the mall more pall mall assuming its public use? And finally, how can we dissociate the idea of recreation and rest from the concept of consumption?