“What’s past is prologue.”
William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act II, Scene I. Looking backward isn’t always a bad thing: for example, the current wave of shopping centre design both in the Middle East and North America is looking very much like the cities of centuries past. From California to Dubai, zoning is giving way to integrated uses; fortress malls are opening up to their surroundings; and great retail spaces are becoming great people places.
This really shouldn’t be surprising: In essence, the history of shopping centre design is the history of urban design, because retail gave birth to cities. Humans have always gathered into communities for safety and society. It was only natural that goods and services would then be exchanged there.
In time, trade routes were established along waterways, and other easy transit nodes. This gave us the early great trade routes and capitals, including Jiroft, which according to recent excavations had active trade with Pakistan, Afghanistan and
other areas in the Persian Gulf region as long as 5,000 years ago. Even thousands of years later, the Persian Empire was focused on trade with Mesopotamia (whose capital, Babylon, had itself become an important trade capital as early as 1000 BCE), China and India. The central bazaars in Arak, Susa and other cities, which date from 1200 BCE, became a prototype for outdoor malls, gathering together merchants of various items from spices to jewellery to fabrics. In fact, the word bazaar derives from the Persian word bazar, the “place of prices.”
The souks filled a similar role – descending from caravans that would form temporarily, and evolving into permanent urban fixtures. The souk also filled a social role, with festivals and other celebrations taking place. They were, and remain, sources of entertainment as well as merchandise. Souks and
bazaars do not separate shoppers from goods – the customer can see, smell, touch and hear the sometimes chaotic activity around them; shoppers, vendors and merchandise merge to become a communal experience.
commercial and retail trade occurs there. In Dubai, the Souk Madinat Jumeirah recreates a traditional bazaar, albeit covered and air conditioned, blending tradition and contemporary convenience. Even more recently, the newly opened “Souk” at Qaryat Al Beri in Abu Dhabi offers two levels of Arabian and
international retail with architecture reminiscent of Venice.
The result is a social structure that has lasted for hundreds of years and continues to grow. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, parts of which date from the 15th century, supposedly includes more than 4,000 shops. Kuwait City, Manama, Damascus, Aleppo and Cairo have world-famous souks, with some of the shops operated by the same family for hundreds of years.
With its winding walkways and narrow streets, in fact, Aleppo’s souk is so elaborate and labyrinthine, that visitors should take care to specify which street they want. Others can be very specific: the Gold Souks in Kuwait and Dubai are among the best places to buy jewellery, though they also feature restaurants.
The souk in Tehran is one of the oldest and largest in the Middle East – at least one report says that one-third of Iran’s The concept of a central location for markets is not exclusive to the Middle East – the idea continued in other cities and civilizations of ancient times. The Greek agora, a large rectangular square surrounded by civic buildings, was a centrepiece of daily life, with more than just materials exchanged: Some 800 years BCE it was a gathering place to hear the latest news. It evolved into a marketplace, where foods, spices, perfumes and fabrics were sold.
Trade began in ancient Egypt about the fourth century BCE, again along waterways with dockside shops selling wares literally off the boats. For convenience, trade was centralized, forming marketplaces that are still the basis of what we all do today. Rome, too, held markets in central areas, then spread the concept as it conquered most of Europe.
In the centuries that followed, Western Europe followed a similar pattern, with trade along water routes and near ports. In the Middle Ages, communities typically formed around churches for security – many of the areas were walled — with the main squares nearby becoming the source of commerce. The weekend market, with local know: Fifth Avenue, the Via Condotti, Oxford Street, the Ginza. These streets are eclectic and alive, with people strolling at all times of the day or night. Elaborate public transportation, either above or below ground, connects people in more distant areas with these streets.
And then in the mid-20th century, the United States created its great suburban experiment, driven by their love affair with the automobile, merchants selling local goods, is still a fixture in many towns.
As the world population grew, and people lived near where they worked and shopped, trade gave us many of the great cities through the early 20th century. London, Paris, Cape Town, Chicago, Shanghai and New York all are located near major bodies of water, allowing for the easy transport of goods. As transit systems developed, these goods could be moved easily and securely to interior areas, permitting the development of other great cities.
Individual building design reflected the cultures and mores of their users because they grew up gradually over decades or centuries. As in medieval days, stores clustered together for convenience, locating along High Streets or Main Streets, creating the great names we and enabled by the post-World War II construction of a massive superhighway system. Zoning laws changed, which allowed the creation of designated areas for residences, office, and retail, surrounded by vast parking lots. The car was necessary to travel among them.
Supermarkets, department stores and small shops that were found on the High Streets began opening outside the cities to serve these new suburbanites. Strip centres, straight lines of connected stores anchored by a grocer or drug retailer, with complementary retail such as a dry cleaner or pizza store, sprung up around the country.
By the early 1950s, department stores also moved to suburbs, eventually creating the dumbbell mall format – an anchor at each end, with small shops forming a retail street in between. Shoppers then were compelled to stroll the entire length to visit both anchors. The big change came in 1956, when Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis, was opened. Designed by Victor Gruen, it was completely enclosed, climate controlled, and housed rival department stores in the same complex. This remade U.S.
fashion shopping for decades, and inspired imitators around the
The result was an industry that grew dramatically over the last 60 or so years, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the New York City-based trade association. if she were in Albuquerque or Atlanta. That’s the antithesis of what retail historically had been and should be around the world – it should reflect, flow into and become an integrated part of the life of its surroundings, just as the souks, High Streets and downtowns of old have done for centuries.
To their credit, developers and shopping centre designers in As of May 2008, there were nearly 99,000 shopping centres in the United States, a figure that includes strip centres as well as malls, with a total GLA of 6.8 billion square feet. That’s a total of 22.3 square feet of shopping centre space per person.
But malls are a declining portion of the total count. At its peak in the 1990s, there were about 2,000 enclosed regional and superregional malls in the United States. Through consolidation, the demolition of outmoded centres and demalling, that number has been reduced to about 1,100 as of 2005, the last year for which data exists. And ICSC acknowledges that the number has probably dropped since.
The early North American projects pretty much all looked alike: fortresses with bare exterior walls, surrounded by asphalt moats for parking. There was no attempt at reflecting the community’s style, and the tenant expansion meant the retailers were similar. It eventually became a joke that a mall shopper wouldn’t know North America began to realize this in the late 1980s and 1990s, designing new projects that architecturally belong in their regions – Mediterranean-influenced in Florida and California, a lodge feeling for a mall in Denver. To some degree, this was mandated by the communities themselves, which have become increasingly active in maintaining architectural integrity.
Meanwhile, the enclosed shopping centre revolution came to the Middle East with the opening of Al Ghurair in 1983, the first mall in Dubai. And mall development has continued, with such extraordinary projects as Nakheel Shopping Malls’ Ibn Battuta Mall, the first themed mall in the Middle East and Mall of the Emirates, which has included entertainment in a dramatic way, and more. But even though these projects are located in a rapidly growing city, the pioneers fell prey to the same trends as early North American models: they are not integrated with their nearby elements. The mall was just another building, nondescript, often isolated, either surrounded by parking or other buildings that didn’t engage the shopper until they walked inside. It was a deliberately planned destination with a single activity:
shopping. There was no design unity with other elements, and moving back and forth between them was not easy. And there are no great urban spaces for public gatherings such as Venice’s St. Mark’s Square, New York’s Times Square or London’s Trafalgar Square.
Interestingly, however, the same trend is taking place in both North America and in the Middle East – the desire to return to the sense of community that created great cities.
In the U.S. and Canada, developers are re-integrating uses, turning to lifestyle centres – open-air projects with retail on the ground floor, topped by offices and or residences to create downtowns for suburbs that never had them. Such projects usually also include a great plaza that is the site of special events, gatherings and festivals and that gives people a reason other than shopping to visit. One example is North Hills, the conversion of an outdated mall in Raleigh, North Carolina, into a complete neighbourhood with retail, topped by office and residential space. The architectural detail, which in this case
includes the brick and structures typical of the American South, strives to give the impression of a community that has evolved over decades, and interacts with the city as a whole. By opening these projects up to the sky, designers are also opening them up to the surrounding streets. Much of the parking is underground or in multilevel structures to avoid the vast parking fields that isolate the projects from its neighbours. That, too, encourages life.
That trend has now come to Dubai: Nakheel Shopping Malls and other developers are committed to building projects whose uses are integrated to form real neighbourhoods, with architecture that includes design elements that are distinctly Middle Eastern.
Ibn Battuta Mall will in time become a community, with office towers, residences, and hotels, connected to Dubai’s new metro system. Various different centres are being integrated into Nakheel’s Palm developments to create mini-cities within Dubai that still integrate into the Emirate as a whole. The retail will not be isolated from the office or the housing. Some even now include outdoor streets that recreate the souks, offering life and activity. We are no longer building “projects”; we are building communities, while continuing the new Dubai tradition of striking design.
The result is a new paradigm that places Dubai and its developers among the world leaders in creating projects that will succeed financially, encourage both social activity and a sense of community, will be sensitive to the environment, and create a legacy to leave to future generations. We are no longer building
for a decade – like the other major cities of the world, Dubai is building for centuries to come.