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An alternative to the typical shopping mall

Not all places where shopping is or may be done, necessarily have to be of the reductive, spatially homogeneous, dehumanising type, exemplified by the standard shopping mall. An example of a shopping space design that is heterogeneously structured, into which ”other” spaces ”flow”, or with which it intersects, is furnished by Erik Grobler, a final-year architecture student at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (Port Elizabeth, South Africa) in 2007.

The design should be seen against the backdrop of Grobler’s admission (2007: 3) that, historically, cities became bigger in a ”fragmented and disconnected” way, to the point where the outskirts of the city and its centre (which increasingly played a smaller role in the lives of people on the city’s edges) could no longer relate meaningfully in spatial terms. Hence, according to him, the need for the construction of ”shopping centres” in suburban areas. ”The shopping centre, as a private development”, he says (2007: 3), ”has thus become the civic space of society. It is not only a place to shop but to be”. Grobler quotes Van Eeden and Du Preez, to the effect that evidence suggests shopping malls, today, to be ” … the major public spaces where … people interact, form their identities and make sense of the world”.

Indeed! And as my earlier analysis of the space of shopping malls suggests, these identities are fatally shaped in axiological terms by an ideology (or discourse) that is responsible for reducing the variegated (use-) values of things, as well as the corresponding heterogeneous life-space in which they exist, to one pervasive (non-) value-system, namely that of exchange-value, better known as capitalism. The result is, as I have argued, that things and people are experienced as resources — optimally as branded objects and (in-)”human” resources.

Small wonder, therefore, that Grobler admits (2007: 3) ” … most shopping centres” to be ” … driven by commerce with little regard for their function as a centre of public life”. He then quotes Thomas Hine approvingly, where the latter points out that there is ” … no reason … why a shopping centre can’t both be a pleasant place to linger and an efficient place to shop” — something noticeable, perhaps, in a younger generation’s qualitatively different appropriation of these spaces originarily structured by capitalist values.

Given the direction in which Grobler’s argument (and more importantly, his design of a ”shopping centre”) then develops, however, it is clear that he has made an attempt to conceive of a different kind of ”shopping centre”, one which would, precisely, overcome the invidious alienating effects of what I have termed ”shopping malls”. Hine’s statement is actually used by him as a justification for the alternative that he (Grobler) proposes. As it turns out, the ”shopping centre” designed by Grobler is a refreshingly inventive modulation (in a simultaneously ”new” and ”old” fashion) of space into place, which is, qualitatively, a far cry from the customary ”shopping mall”, with its ”enclosed”, homogeneous consumer space.

He states as his intention (2007: 66) ” … some degree of intervention in the urban fabric to achieve an integrated node and the merging of public and private space”. The latter distinction bears on his design, which envisages civic buildings (a library and a town hall) and the shopping centre to be juxtaposed in one integrated, nodal space, and to be integrated, in turn, with the surrounding suburban context. Grobler also points out (2007: 66) that it is ” … important to have a mutual relationship [between public and private space] that minimises boundaries”, and intimates that the relation he aims to establish for ”commerce” (note the ambiguity) between private and public space is modelled on ” … the traditional street diagram”.

From the above it should already be apparent that the design proposed by Grobler eschews some of the most alienating aspects of the typical shopping mall. Unlike the latter architectural monstrosity spawned by capitalism, it does not set up a quasi-carceral boundary between outside and inside — a boundary in the guise of the shopping mall ”entrance” and enclosing corridors, which limits (if not prohibits) interaction between ”private” (in the sense of ”private, capitalist enterprise”) and public space, thus relegating the interior as exhaustively as possible to the spatial status of exchange value, with its concomitant reductive, alienating properties. (As ”Sophia” has reminded me, however, this space is not impervious to its social re-encoding by a new generation, less susceptible to the seduction of ”exchange value”.)

Instead there is free interaction between the public buildings and those accommodating the variously sized shops. Such interaction is promoted by a ”green” pedestrian walkway that takes pedestrians into the ”heart” of the ”node” comprising these heterogeneous, yet connected buildings. This ”green” walkway is envisaged by Grobler as being ”lined with trees”, so that the ”green area around the centre” imparts to it a ”park-like quality”. Unlike the typical shopping mall discussed earlier, the projected shopping centre cum public space does not have any ” … internal corridors but shops fronting on communal external space that connects to [sic] the surrounding area”, so that one would enter both public and ”private” (commercial) buildings ”from the same communal space”. Grobler also foresees the buildings in question to be no taller than three storeys, so that a ”human relation” between ground and top floor may be maintained.

This design by Grobler, while being nothing ”spectacular”, offers the promise of a variegated, heterogeneous space that would resist the reductive, homogeneous, monodimensional space of the standard shopping mall. Unlike the latter, it would allow the people who enter it from the surrounding residential area to experience the space in question as being qualitatively varied, and as a result their shopping activities are unlikely to occur in a space where they experience themselves as being exhaustively constituted as zombie-like ”consumers”.

Not only are public or civic spaces here juxtaposed with commercial spaces, but there is a free flow of spatial interaction between these two kinds of spaces and residential space surrounding the node as designed, in this way further ameliorating the invidious effects of reducing heterogeneous, ”human” space to the impersonality of a space bearing the imprint of ”exchange value”.

In such a heterogeneous space, what Silverman calls the ”particularity of the look” could flourish, instead of falling prey to the standard, and standardising look of consumption. With architects like Grobler around (and I’m convinced that there are many), who are able to envisage a shopping space integrated with other kinds of spaces — softening the harsh impact of reductive consumer space, and in the process recuperating urban space for the human beings who live there — there seems to be hope for life beyond rampant, mindless, un-dead consumer capitalism.

For a fuller treatment of this theme, see my paper, Architecture as consumer space. South African Journal of Art History, Vol. 23 (1) 2008, pp 93-106. See also Grobler, CF 2007. An investigation into the form of the suburban shopping centre as contemporary civic space, leading to the design of a shopping centre in Summerstrand, Port Elizabeth. Unpublished Master of Architecture treatise, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.