The Mall as American Dream

Does America Still Want the American Dream?

Twelve years after work began on a $2 billion entertainment complex in New Jersey, is another giant mall still an appealing vision?

The Atlantic, Oct. 9, 2015

Driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike, past the proverbial smoke stacks and then across a brief interruption of marshland, a massive orange snout looms into view. Around the next bend, you see the cranes: not the marsh kind, but tall yellow-metal arms, five or six of them, perched beside the sprawling body attached to the snout.

The cranes are quiet for now. Their symbolism, however, broadcasts loud and clear. The American Dream mall and entertainment complex at the Meadowlands—the half-built behemoth that Governor Chris Christie called “the ugliest damn building in New Jersey and maybe America,” the mega-project that has lurched from failure to would-be rescue and back again—is finally going to be completed.

In 2017, its developers say, the American Dream will open with “the largest mix of indoor facilities in the world,” according to its slick website, offering millions of visitors “the ultimate family experience.” It will have 400 stores and restaurants, a DreamWorks-themed amusement park and waterpark, an indoor ski slope (that’s the orange snout), an aquarium, mini-golf course, and theater. The 4.8-million-square-foot complex will feature “the world’s first exclusive kosher food hall” and a giant ferris wheel looking onto the New York skyline.

For years, the big question in New Jersey was whether this thing would ever be built. The answer appears to be yes. So the question now is a different one: Does a giant shopping mall represent anyone’s American dream anymore?

Full story

Reimagining Suburbia

What if the world’s greatest architects began looking beyond the city limits?

The American Scholar, Autumn 2015

Renzo Piano may be the most urban, and urbane, of great architects working today. He made his name in Paris in the 1970s, when he and Richard Rogers designed the Pompidou Center, a machine of a museum bristling with exposed steel and pipes. The “inside-out” building provoked howls from Parisians at first, but the Pompidou soon became a beloved landmark and helped revive the then-ailing Marais district. Since that time, the Italian architect has designed a master plan for the Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. He has built an airport in Osaka and the tallest skyscraper in London. He has left elegant, precisely crafted museums and galleries in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. So critics did a double take last year when Piano announced that he was designing a new shopping center in San Ramon, California. Renzo Piano—winner of the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s Nobel—was designing a suburban mall?

Full story

Young-Old: Deane Simpson Q&A

Simpson discusses his new book on the evolution and sociology of retirement communities.

Architect, September 2015

In his new book, Deane Simpson, an architect who teaches at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, chronicles the rise of communities built for older people—not the infirm elderly, but the active or “young-old.” Demographic and political forces have combined to create this new life phase, also known as the Third Age—when people are retired yet in relatively good health, roughly from ages 55 to 75. In Young-Old: Urban Utopias of an Aging Society (Lars Müller Publishers, 2015), Simpson deciphers the appeal, the unusual urban logic, and the future of these communities, from a Dutch-style retiree village in Japan to the dispersed, mobile communities of American RV drivers.

Why were you drawn to young-old communities as a research topic?
It started on a road trip in the southern states of the U.S. that I went on with some fellow students in 1997. One evening we ended up in a bar in St. Petersburg, Fla., and we were the youngest there by about 40 years or so. We were given some really unwelcoming stares. It was this very strange domination of an area by what felt like, at the time, a singular age group. I became very intrigued by this social and spatial condition, where the rules of what I was normally used to were put aside.

Full story


Del Webb 2.0

The Subtle Shifts in Retirement Community Designs

Del Webb, the country’s biggest builder of “active adult” housing, is changing its formula to appeal to Baby Boomers.

CityLab, Sept. 8, 2015

On January 1, 1960, the Del E. Webb Corporation invited members of the public to see its new community, Sun City, Arizona. Sun City was not just a new development, but a new concept: a place where senior citizens could enjoy a busy, social retirement, playing golf and shuffleboard in year-round sunshine. It was so novel that company executives were not sure anyone would come.

Instead, 100,000 people flocked to the grand opening, touring the model homes, the golf course, the shopping center. By 1970, Sun City had a population of 16,000; it now has 37,000 residents and a sister development next door, Sun City West, with another 25,000.

Full story

The Emerging Cuban Market

Is Cuba the Next Emerging Market for American Architects?

Architect, July 2015

When Abby Gordon, a designer at Shepley Bulfinch in Boston, entered the competition to win her firm’s travel fellowship, she had only one destination in mind: Cuba. “I knew I had to go,” says Gordon, who has traveled extensively in Latin America and visited Mexico as part of a class at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) on Luis Barragán. Gordon’s BAC professors had previously taken students to Cuba, and she was enthralled by their photos of the island, as well as by Unfinished Spaces, a 2011 documentary about the National Art Schools outside of Havana, their astonishing brick vaults begun in the first flush of the Cuban Revolution and never finished.

Gordon won the fellowship, and in late June, she left Boston on a 30-day journey. She planned to trace the course of the revolution through the island and, of course, tour the capital of Havana. With its collection of Neoclassical, Baroque, Art Deco, and modernist architecture, Havana, founded in 1519, has “the most impressive historical city centre in the Caribbean and one of the most notable in the American continent as a whole,” according to UNESCO. The organization has named Old Havana a World Heritage site, along with the centers of three other Cuban cities: Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Camagüey.

Gordon’s timing couldn’t be better. In January, the U.S. government relaxed restrictions for Americans wishing to travel to Cuba, just a month after President Barack Obama restored diplomatic ties with the island nation. Between January and May, the number of Americans who visited the country surged by 36 percent, a Cuban economist told the Associated Press.

Full story

Photograph by Desmond Boylan