Shopping is one of the most pertinent activities within urban life and is one of the last remaining public activities we have within our cities today. Historically trade and shopping activity took place within public open spaces. These quotidian public activities of the city were encapsulated within the historic architectural typologies of the Greek Agora, Roman Forum and old Souks of the Middle East.
The Souk was one of the emerging social, religious and financial centers within the region, which was primarily established on trade and commerce. So, from this point of view, it’s easy to understand why shopping is so deeply engrained within our culture today. Since the last century, when Victor Gruen developed the first shopping mall typology, shopping has mutated and developed in unusual ways. Today’s shopping malls are able to permeate almost all aspects of everyday life. Shopping malls have been able to separated shopping as an activity from the urban landscape, where once these two were an inseparable part of everyday life. Nowadays malls are islands within the sea of urban life. These enclosed and controlled environments for consumption reinterpreted the urban fabric to simulate all the elements of the city, and package it as an internalized experience. Inside the malls envelope, a utopia is portrayed where people are continuously stimulated to consume. Today consumption has become a lifestyle and these shopping malls are the new temples of consumption.
Since the last two decades shopping has crept into almost any architectural program imaginable. Globally, and more specifically regionally, we find airports resembling shopping malls, museums which are seamlessly represented as department stores and beachfronts which are no longer a destination but a marketing tool for consumption. Almost all the historic examples of shopping spaces such as the Agora, Forum and Souk are externalized and public forms of space, while more and more malls are privatizing and enclosing this activity. Within the region, the shopping mall is probably the modern day third place. Oldenburg describes a third place as and ‘anchor’ of community life which facilitates spontaneous interactions. So can the mall be a true representation of a ‘third place’?
In search of a culturally relevant third place for the region and our time, one should question if we could really be devoid of the shopping mall from our urban landscapes. In most probability, this will never happen… even the father of the shopping center could not escape the monster he had created. In 1968, Gruen decided to move back to Vienna, to the scenery, fountains and plazas he had been trying to imitate within the shopping environments he had designed. But his frustrations grew as a mall was being developed along the edge of town. From Gruen’s point of view, Vienna was already perfect and didn’t need the shopping mall. Ironically this situation had completely skewed his vision making him one of the foremost mall critics!
Urbanism takes time, a city needs a patina for it to mature and develop. Our impact on the city will outlive our life span, were today’s vision will influence future generations to come. This is even more relevant when we consider that our cities within the gulf, which in relative terms are young cities, are experiencing the highest rates of development and growth within the region. Here the shopping mall is the new third place, but all things considered is it the best form of public space for the city and its future generations?