Everything Mall Is New Again

JAKARTA — I spend an astonishing amount of time in Jakarta’s malls. In December, they were islands of tinsel and Christmas trees, even though only 11 percent of Jakartans are Christian. (Despite periodic claims of a “war on Christmas,” it seems the entire world celebrates American Christmas.) Late last year I went to buy long socks at the Taman Anggrek mall in West Jakarta, where I had just interviewed someone at a cafe on the ground floor. Looking for anything specific in these malls is like L’Avventura; the original pretext evaporates in minutes. I emerged four hours later, after strolling through a pop-up Christmas market set to a live children’s choir, people-watching at the indoor skating rink, and petting some dogs headed home from the next-door mall’s dog park. Besides the socks, I had managed to pick up some cosmetics for friends, a copy of a bralette I liked in case it got discontinued, a kitchen knife, and a pastry called a Hokkaido cheese tart.

Taman Anggrek is in a complex of three huge malls that together sell most of the consumer products invented over the course of human history. Ringed by apartment towers, office space, and a university, Taman Anggrek is so vast that if you moved to those towers and convinced your friends to hang out downstairs, you could feasibly never leave. From the highway you can see most of its LED facade, the largest in the world. Inside there was a five-story Christmas tree and several perambulating Santas. One of the Santas was a sullen young Muslim man from Sumatra who didn’t know much of the Santa/presents story; he had picked up the seasonal gig to save up for a new motorbike. This mall has a concierge, who had an advent calendar of holiday goings-on. On Christmas Eve there would be fake snow pumped indoors for an “Insta[gram] Story” opportunity.

Malls like Taman Anggrek are situated in, but are not necessarily of, a city. The higher-end ones don’t always acknowledge physical reality either, selling wool coats in January although the only seasons here are hot and dry and hot and wet. These malls don’t live in their cities but in a transnational mall space; you could swim from one mall to another across the Asian continent as if through John Cheever’s surreal string of swimming pools.

Increasingly, to live in a large Asian city means to be a mall rat. From Beijing to Jakarta to Tehran, life increasingly happens inside malls. While suburban American malls have shuttered at a clip, Asian cities have made malls into life-encompassing, purpose-built sites for gossiping, eating, shopping, dating, exercising, sleeping, and partying. In the last year I have been to: an aquarium, a gym, several art shows, a fashion week, a church for refugees, several movies, a speech by former President Barack Obama, nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and a concert … all inside Jakarta malls.

But it’s not just in Asia. I went home to the tristate last summer and realized I was … still in malls, even in New York; they were just better camouflaged. The Oculus terminal is a mall. The shops at Columbus Circle are a mall. Every second restaurant I went to was in a “food hall,” a glorified mall food court. Because the costs of standing alone are so high, the mall aesthetic rules urban development, compacting maximum spending opportunities into minimum space. Online shopping was supposed to kill the mall, but it may have just shifted it into cities.

The urban mall, pioneered and perfected in Asia, has quietly become the mixed-use space of the century. But what does that mean? Probably that the city of the future will look more like Jakarta, the world’s second-largest urban area, whose building block is not the plaza, avenue, or skyscraper but the shopping mall. Not only are there over 170 malls in Jakarta, there are whole subdistricts composed of malls like the aforementioned West Jakarta mini-city and the “Satrio corridor” of South Jakarta, where there are five huge malls in a row.

Malls are the ideal base unit of modern city life, turning the 19th-century Parisian arcade’s flâneur into a consommateur strapped to the hedonic treadmill. You’re guaranteed to leave a mall food court unsatisfied as you walk past all the missed options on the way out. If the flâneur reads the city by strolling, what is it that we do in malls? Want things, mainly. What you can “read” of city life in the modern mall is often a self-sustaining simulacrum, like the fake-snow photo opportunity at Taman Anggrek. The flâneur type is often contrasted with the badaud, the gawker, but you can’t just gape in malls, you have to spend.

The first modern shopping mall was built just where and when you would expect it: 1954, in the Detroit suburbs. “Mall” is related to “mallet,” like the mallets used in “pall-mall,” a croquet-like game played at The Mall, the first one: it was an outdoor promenade in London’s St. James Park and so named in the 1670s. A “shopping mall” is now defined as a covered and enclosed shopping area with a variety of retail stores and restaurants. The suburban American mall was conceptualized by an Austrian immigrant architect named Victor Gruen, an idealist who sought to bring the amenities of city life to the car-yoked suburbs. He built the first multilevel mall (the Northland Center in Southfield, Michigan) and the first climate-controlled one (the Southdale Center in Minneapolis).

Gruen imagined malls as sites of congenial kaffeeklatsch like in his native Vienna, but almost immediately the reality diverged from his vision. Frank Lloyd Wright, visiting the Southland Center in 1956, called it a “desolate-looking spot.” “You’ve got a garden court that has all the evils of the village street and none of its charm,” said Wright.

But many other Americans loved them. Since then, at least one new mall was built each year in the United States until 2007, an omen of the Great Recession. At its peak in the 1990s, up to 19 malls were built each year. There are about 1,100 malls left in the United States, but up to a quarter of them will close within five years, according to a report published last year by Credit Suisse. The chief concern of today’s American mall discourse is death and decay, like an entertaining YouTube series by the same name.

Asian malls, ironically, hew closer to Gruen’s vision than suburban American malls ever did, in terms of being community centers. He would have liked the apartment towers attached to many Asian malls, creating a live-work space for at least some occupants.

Malls came first to the richest urban Asian economies in the late 1960s, like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo, as Nicholas Jewell writes in Shopping Malls and Public Space in Modern China. Rem Koolhaas, in Singapore Songlines, has singled out Singapore, the tiny island nation that developed rapidly after independence from Great Britain in 1963, as the pioneer of Asian mall-space.

Singapore’s centre is theorized as a prototype of the modern Asian metropolis: the city as a system of interconnected urban chambers. The climate, which traditionally limits street life, makes the interior the privileged domain for the urban encounter. Shopping in this idealized context is not just the status-driven compulsion it has become “here” but an amalgam of sometimes microscopic, infinitely varied functional constellations in which each stall is a “functoid” of the overall programmatic mosaic that constitutes urban life. 

Across Asia, malls have met the needs of large populations and the instantaneous generations of consumers created by independence and economic development. Of the world’s 15 biggest malls by gross leasable area, 12 are in East and Southeast Asia and two more are in Iran. The biggest one, in Dongguan, China, is more than twice the size of the famous Mall of America.

In Hong Kong, malls took off in 1975 when the city’s railway corporation developed land for mass transit. Jakarta’s first malls opened in the 1980s after Indonesia’s oil boom and the luxury malls went up amid financial deregulation in the 1990s. “Taman Anggrek is like stepping into a time machine when Suharto was still dictator-in-chief,” joked my friend in Jakarta. “I’m obsessed with it.” 

Time inside giant malls wears you down. I went to malls when I moved to Jakarta because the closest gym, hardware store, or threading salon to me was always there. I would take inventory of the store windows. I would make mental notes for “next time.” There would be a next time. And then I wanted to go to the mall! This has a name: the “Gruen Transfer,” by which shoppers are so enthralled by their environment that they are unconsciously drawn to shop.

When my friend moved out to West Jakarta, basically Siberia by her account, we went to visit her in her new neighborhood, which turned out to include the Taman Anggrek complex. We met at the aquarium inside Neo Soho mall on a Saturday and, six hours later, were in a subterranean restaurant that sold over a dozen kinds of mango dessert. It was completely the place to be on a weekend.

And yet the citizen in a mall-city assumes submission as a constant pose: there is nowhere else. When malls are the agora, they starve the city of places to exist without spending money. Also, the future city full of malls is not green. Taman Anggrek means orchid garden, which is what that mall replaced. Between 1983 and 2015, the green space in Jakarta decreased from 35 percent to six percent.

There was likely never a pure flânerie without material wrinkles; already by midcentury Walter Benjamin was dissecting the type along Marxist lines. The flâneur of his Arcades Project, beyond his romantic offhand connotations, was an eyewitness to the corrosive effects of capitalism, strolling as a “demonstration against the division of labor.” But in the future mall-cities, there will be ever fewer places to even walk for free.

If you live in a city today, you will have to think about malls. Urbanization will go on for some decades before it flattens off, “once Africa completes the industrialization process started by Britain in the 19th century,” per Stephen Cairns of the Future Cities Laboratory. At least until then, the planet will have new malls.

Dealing with this new urban form requires vigilance. Even if you never experienced the Jane Jacobs fantasy of a neighborhood street ballet, it’s draining to give in to city life predicated on spending. Resistance is difficult: spend more time in houses (although city homes tend to shrink or drift further from the center over time)? Seek out parks (even as the climates of many cities get more inhospitable by the day)? But the efforts count, especially in scale: “the freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is […] one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights,” as the leftist geographer David Harvey once said.

There are signs that the American and Asian mall types are evolving and converging: the suburban mummies are being repurposed, urban malls are absorbing more quotidiana. Los Angeles has Rick Caruso’s The Americana and The Grove, Gruenesque shopping complexes, the latter of which gets more visitors a year than Disneyland. One-third of China’s malls may be “dead” by 2020. Last October, a Catholic chapel in a Boston mall acquired the relics of three saints, which struck me, in its collapsing of sacred, profane, and consumer space, as the kind of thing that would happen in Indonesia. Meanwhile, since 2011, there have been moratoriums on new malls in Jakarta, so they’ve been migrating to the next best place: the suburbs.


Krithika Varagur is an independent journalist and writer currently based in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her reporting has been published by the Guardian, The AtlanticThe New York Times, the New RepublicForeign Policy, NPR, The Daily Beast, US News and World Report, News Deeply, The Huffington Post, and other outlets.