Reinvent or Die: The Transformation of Malls Under The New Economic/Urban Paradigm

Reinvent or Die: The Transformation of Malls Under The New Economic/Urban Paradigm

In this collaboration, the Spanish office Ecosistema Urbano analyzes the rise and fall of the shopping centers as an authentically American typology of the twentieth century and with commercial success in the rest of the world, although it does not undergo significant changes in "its spaces, solutions, and elements."

According to the authors, this typology is currently undergoing an inflection due to the new economic and urban paradigms that force them to reinvent themselves or die. They plan a series of revitalization strategies in a mall in the outskirts of Barcelona (Spain) that seeks their "reconfiguration through the introduction of new programs in an attempt to convert it into a much more public space, being able to attract users who would otherwise not come."

Full article after the break.

Reinvent or Die: The Transformation of Malls Under The New Economic/Urban Paradigm - More Images+ 8

A few months ago, we had the opportunity to start working on a project absolutely connected with the current situation of economic/urban change: the urban revitalization of a shopping center. A generic space, in a generic place of any urban periphery. For us, urban planners who are concerned with detecting the needs of contemporary society, this project was a very stimulating reality injection that forced us to reconsider our position on malls and their role in the present city.

The concept of shopping, as we understand and experience it today, may have their days counted. The world of shopping centers, which has enjoyed great glory in recent years, has not been precisely a field of experimentation and innovation.

Imported from the United States and closely linked to car mobility, the shopping center is a model that has been implemented in different geographies and cultures with very limited variations: the same brands, the same gastronomy in an absolutely generic atmosphere, controlled, heated and disconnected from the outside, both physically and culturally. A legitimate atmosphere only to consume, without even providing spaces of rest or the conditions so that the "common" spaces function as a truly public space, understood as space for the relation between the people, the socialization. An interior space, privately owned and with very restrictive rules of use, that emulates an "outside" public space. 

The worst thing about urban innovation is when any wear and repeated until satiety typology is economically profitable. In this situation, we may erroneously think that we are doing well, because endless money is the best antidote to reflect on many other aspects, as much, or more importantly, as the economic balance. Now I ask: would it be so bad to stop and think for a moment? 

As a first exercise, we did a Google search and this was the result: 

Courtesy of Ecosistema Urbano

It is curious to see how buildings in such distant and distinct contexts offer spaces, solutions, and elements so homogeneous. The first note that could be made is that the aesthetics and philosophy behind these malls, as well as their exclusively 'machine-to-sell' purpose, are very similar anywhere in the world. Buildings such as these fully represent the phenomenon of the globalization of architectural language and the reproduction of a social and economic model on a world scale. Many artists have interpreted and recorded this reality; among them the photographer Michael Galinsky, who in 1989, at the age of 20, decided to take a trip through several shopping malls throughout the United States. This work was compiled in the book Malls across America, published thanks to a crowdfunding initiative in kickstarter.

© Michael Galinsky

How did it happen?

The concept of a 'street' space with trades on both sides, where one can walk protected from the weather and where the citizen/customer chooses in which shop to make their purchases, is an invention that finds its historical roots in the post-revolution industrial society. The appearance of the bourgeoisie, and with it the seed of the current consumer society, began to shape in this direction the form of contemporary urban centers. The most well-known historical embryo of these new urban spaces, where social life and commerce were completely covered, the Paris galleries in the nineteenth century. These luxurious shopping streets, covered by sophisticated glass and steel structures to allow the passage of natural light, can be considered the antecedent of the contemporary shopping mall, creating "small cities, miniature worlds" within the urban fabric of cities, such as defined by Walter Benjamin. 

But the shopping center as we know it today is considered an 'invention' of the Austrian-American architect Victor Gruen, who in 1952 defined his vision in an article in the Progressive Architecture magazine, stirring up the imagination of entrepreneurs and prefectures. Gruen conceived the first prototype of an enclosed shopping center in Edina (Minnesota, United States) in 1956, and his initial idea was to include all the elements of the city, housing, schools, public spaces, and vegetation. The utopian Gruen's original design for the Southdale Mall finally omitted the rest of the elements in its realization, and all of the innovation focused on the "closed space for shopping" format.

Later, the Victor Gruen Associates office continued to design a large number of shopping malls, even defining a specific typology of buildings for this commercial purpose. The enormous diffusion of this generic model that simplifies to the extreme the overlapping of urbanity, social life, and commercial activity, has changed the patterns of consumption, the way of moving, and the leisure habits of millions of American families. The model has been extended to today is therefore totally focused on the subject of consumption, leaving out the reflection on the public space and city. 

The US automotive culture fostered the trend of suburban shopping malls. Image via Malls of America

The incredible economic success of shopping malls in America was reinforced by the consumerist style of the "American way of life," and finally, in a progressive way, many cities eventually abandoned their urban center by converting mall as a container for social life or meeting for adolescents. In 1990, the malls lived their peak of popularity and in the US 140 new developments were opened to the year.

This format has been expanding in other cities and countries and has also been exported to Europe and installed in the old continent as a redesign of the commercial gallery invented in cities like Paris, having little to do with this archetype. It is created in parallel with a new urban culture and consumption that implies the use of the automobile, the expansion of the urban spot and life on the periphery. European cities, with an intense urban life in their centers, also reproduce this model.

How does it work today?

"Mall of the World", centro comercial actualmente en construcción en Dubái. Image Cortesía de Dubai Holding

Since the beginning of the new century, the creation of shopping centers has been slowing down. There are several reasons for this: 

  1. The big, incredible and innovative "shopping malls" are seen in the new "Americas" of the world; in other words, China, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, etc.
  2. The existing centers in Europe and the United States have been suffering from a crisis that, far from being purely economic, goes beyond the current recession. It is a structural crisis of the model, a crisis that is probably due to the end of the novelty effect and the existence of a different context and new business models that are possible through online shopping. Today, the economic scenario is different; competition between the older, outdated and newly built centers is atrocious and the Internet multiplies its business every year.
  3. Obsolescence is a physiological part of every object's life, and therefore the ability to innovate and pursue new opportunities is essential for survival. Shopping malls, because of their enormous economic success, did not need to rethink and question their model, to innovate or incorporate programs, ideas or changes to acquire an identity. This successful business has oiled an economic machinery that cloned the same model leaving no room for questioning why rethink a model that is highly profitable and works in different contexts and cultures? 

Reinvent or die. Possible solutions for urban revitalization.

Today it is necessary to think of the citizen-client, not as a mere consumer who is trying to sell as much as possible, but as someone who can enjoy having a different experience when visiting the place. Potentializing the idea of public space in a privately-owned building is a conceptual challenge, which goes against the very definition and goals of a shopping center. But this new economic reality requires rethinking the precepts that have worked until then, opening new possibilities and strategies that did not fit thanks to the economic and urban crisis.

These buildings cannot continue to base their survival on a declining attraction. The possibilities are to renew or die. The shopping model, as we know it until now, has to open up the space that accommodates it, to be less hostile to the environment and its visitors, and to provide an experience more linked to the reality of users and the city where it is implanted. On the other hand, the current crisis allows the incorporation of uses and programs, expelled from other spaces, and can be used to introduce new contents to available spaces.

Santa Monica Commercial Center: From shopping mall to commercial open street.

El centro comercial Santa Monica Place, que gracias a la sostenibilidad de su transformación ha recibido la certificación LEED. Image Cortesía de Macerich (Creative Commons)

The shopping centers compete today to entertain the customer, providing a different experience, an atmosphere that offers other incentives besides a wide commercial offer.

In search of experience, the strategy for Santa Monica Place, a shopping center designed by Frank Gehry more than 30 years ago, which after investing $ 265 million and closing temporarily, has been an interesting strategy to reconfigure itself by demolishing it and becoming an open commercial center/area overlooking the ocean, mountains and pier of Santa Monica. A magnificent example of the reconfiguration of a commercial space, which opts for a radical solution by creating a more urban experience, in front of an encapsulated and climatized atmosphere that predominates in the cloned typology of shopping centers.

The urban ecosystem experience "Shopping Mall"

We had the opportunity to dive deeply into the shopping center located in the peripheral area of Barcelona. This center was created in the 90's, facing the suburban character only accessible by car, it can also be accessed on foot or by public transport, which gives it a tremendous value. Its location is particularly favorable, so the proposal has a strong urban character, where the main challenge has been the identification of a revitalization strategy or questioning of its own identity in relation to the urban fabric that surrounds it: What activities or uses can be incorporated? How to connect with the citizens of the area? How to respond to the social reality of the neighborhood? What role can this new building play? How to maintain trade and economic activity, allowing the city to appropriate this space in current decadence? 

Cortesía de Ecosistema Urbano

The proposal addresses the reconfiguration of the center by introducing new programs in an attempt to make it a much more public space, being able to attract users who would otherwise not come. Confronted with the possibility of proposing a single program that 'solved' the current pathologies, the proposal studies possible alternatives to stimulate the building creating a new identity for each one, can be distinguished from other shopping malls, which as we have mentioned, lack a distinctive identity. 

One way of reinventing new social functions in a large covered space is by identifying different themes and activities - linking to the place - creating a new identity, linked to new needs or desires. Establishing new relationships between space and sports, games, culture, technology, gastronomy, networks or any other urban activity, can connect with citizens, tired of experiencing a monofunctional building, are attracted by increasingly complex urban experiences. 

One of the measures necessary to achieve the greatest possible integration of the commercial center in the urban environment operations is to dilute the boundaries between interior and exterior, favoring one between the other, making the enclosed space more permeable, more physically connected and conceptually with its immediate environment. The physical limit of connection between both is the facade and on this focuses a good part of the intervention. The facade becomes an interface for citizens, serving as a support for many types of new activities (climbing, descending a toboggan, watching movies, visualizing a digital platform to interact via cell phones, increasing the presence of plant species, etc..)

The proposed model for the commercial center in Barcelona could be an example of how these buildings can be converted into public equipment, so that, thanks to an approach that considers aspects of the environment, participatory and technological, they can update places that have become obsolete, anachronistic or underutilized.


A // Shopping Center + Physical Activity

Introducción de actividad física-deportiva en el espacio comercial.. Image Cortesía de Ecosistema Urbano

  • Sport, physical activity, and leisure as a new motor of activation of the shopping center.
  • Activities complementary to existing uses, which can attract new users and have a wider range of action. 

B // Shopping Center + Playground

Edificio para experimentar y descubrir.. Image Cortesía de Ecosistema Urbano

  • Programs associated with children / adolescents / adults.
  • Building a place to experiment and discover.
  • Promote shopping and public space as a playful place through unique elements. 

C // Shopping Center + Creativity and Culture

Actividades culturales y creativas asociadas al centro comercial. Image Cortesía de Ecosistema Urbano

  • New programs associated with creativity as a complement to the common activities of a shopping center.
  • Connection with existing initiatives in the city: music groups, theater groups, dance, circuses, etc.
  • Empty spaces in front of the building transformed like new urban 'square.'

D // Shopping Center + Digital Layer

La dimensión digital incorporada como parte del edificio.. Image Cortesía de Ecosistema Urbano

The digital as an extra layer added to the existing:

  • Create new possibilities for use
  • Encourage user-to-user connections and between users
  • Enable new modes of communication and information

E // Shopping Center + Gastronomy

La comida como catalizador social. Image Cortesía de Ecosistema Urbano

  • Food as an element of social interaction
  • Gastronomy as a catalyst for an intercultural encounter.
  • Actividades conectadas con la gastronomía: clases, encuentros, restaurantes, tiendas especializadas, etc.

F // Shopping + Networking

Espacios que inducen a crear nuevas conexiones y generar iniciativas. Image Cortesía de Ecosistema Urbano

  • Space of opportunity for new initiatives, entrepreneurs, shared spaces.
  • New management models to accommodate uses and needs of the urban environment, connecting with the existing to enhance it.

We hope that these proposals will inspire the many "unidentified" shopping centers that are in our cities, and that they explore more complex and stimulate ideas and visions to adapt to the new economic reality and respond in an active and creative way to the new realities social policies. 


Ecosistema is a Spanish office founded in 2000 by the architects Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo, who lead a team of architects and urbanists focused on urban social design, operating in the fields of urban planning, architecture, engineering and psychology. They have received more than 30 national and international awards and their work has been exhibited in galleries, museums and institutions around the world.

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Cite: Ecosistema Urbano. "Reinvent or Die: The Transformation of Malls Under The New Economic/Urban Paradigm" [Reinventarse o morir: la transformación de los centros comerciales bajo el nuevo paradigma económico/urbano] 29 Dec 2017. ArchDaily. (Trans. Carvalho, Guilherme) Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

Southdale Center Circa, portrayed by Grey Villet (Minnesota, United States), 1956. Image via Shorpy


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