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The shopping mall as consumer architecture

Referring to the moment, in Plato’s Symposium, where the lover supposedly beholds a completely disembodied, atemporal “beauty”, in the process conforming to the character of this abstraction, Kaja Silverman says (World Spectators, 2000: 10): “This deindividuation of the look represents a crucial feature of the process through which Socrates negates phenomenal forms. This is because it is in the particularity of the human eye that its transfigurative properties reside. It is only by assuming its utmost ‘ownness’ that the look can make the world shine — only by becoming itself that it can deliver other creatures and things into their Being.”

I want to argue that such “deindividuation” also happens via the reduction of the variegatedness of the world by consumerist imperatives. Marx is invaluable in helping one understand this. In a discussion of money as a “symbol of alienation in capitalist society” (in the Grundrisse; 1972: 59), he remarks: “The definition of the product as exchange value necessarily entails that the exchange value leads a separate existence, severed from the product. This exchange value which is severed from the commodity and yet is itself a commodity is — money. All the properties of the commodity viewed as exchange value appear as an object distinct from it; they exist in the social form of money, quite separate from their natural form of existence.”

To appreciate the radicality of the transformation in socio-economic relations expressed in these terms by Marx, one has to recall that the value of the “natural product” (as he calls it), or its “use value”, is something that depends upon and issues more or less “directly” from the properties of the product (for instance a knife or ceramic crockery). What changes with the introduction of “exchange value” — expressed abstractly or quantitatively in terms of monetary value — is that a medium is invented, which serves as a kind of common denominator into which all products or artefacts, but eventually also all services, all resources (human as well as natural), personal skills, capacities and abilities, and also all experiential spatial modulations, can be “translated” or converted.

Money is the Midas touch of the social and natural world, and whatever is touched by it, turns into proverbial gold; at the loss, of course, of its original “life” or “natural” properties. This is even more apparent from Marx’s observation, that (1972: 60): “The more production is shaped in such a way that every producer depends on the exchange value of his commodities ie the more the product really becomes an exchange value, and exchange value becomes the direct object of production, the more must money relationships develop, as also the contradictions inherent in this money relationship, in the relation of the product to itself as money.”

Is it not possible to think of architectural space of a certain kind — say that of a shopping mall — in these terms? Shopping malls may then be read as architectural-spatial manifestations of what Marx alleges here regarding products “becoming” exchange value, as well as the “direct object of production”. This observation is bound to seem counter-intuitive. Think of it this way: if a product, for instance a cellular phone, is said to “become an exchange value” (and “the direct object of production”), it is another way of saying that remarks heard in advertisements pertaining to the “age” of certain models of phone (“Your phone is so last year!”) embody this ostensible identity between the product and exchange value. In other words, the phone is not judged in terms of its functionality or use value, which may still be excellent, but from the perspective of the question concerning its present exchange value, which is visually inscribed, as it were, in its very physical, perceptible appearance. In this sense the phone has “become an exchange value”.

But how does this translate into architectural space? It is well-known that shopping malls are designed and “signed” in such a way as to give optimal visual exposure to the brand names of the stores represented there (Woolworths, Edgars, Game, etc), as well as to the products displayed in shop windows. These products are invariably those comprising the latest fashions in clothes, or state-of-the-art technological gadgets, and the prices displayed on them are “competitive” — so much so that the way in which consumers look at them is determined precisely by their exchange value, and not predominantly by their use value. This becomes especially clear in the case of goods advertised as being on a “sale”, when the products’ exchange value is highlighted to attract potential buyers’ attention.

One could go further and say that the architectural space of a mall, with numerous shops and stores adjacent to one another, differs in a decisive qualitative manner from other kinds of spaces — that of a symphony hall, of an art museum, the domestic space of a private house, and so on. Regardless of the different products sold in different stores, it establishes a continuum of consumer space or, to put it differently, of spatial homogeneity representing exchange value in its generalised form. From the moment one enters the mall, your eyes are guided, almost coerced, into looking with a view to discerning products (clothes, electronic goods, etc) as “exchange values”.

This is as true of those goods which constitute “bargains” at a sale, for example, as for products at the other, “upmarket” end of the scale, which attract consumers who can match their (the products’) exchange value with corresponding sums of money. In a nutshell: from the moment people enter a mall, their behaviour as consumers is dictated by the mall space being presented as a metonymy of exchange value. And it means that this space is intimately connected with money relations, to the detriment of the particularity of every product displayed there, as well as of the individualising particularity of the look on the part of every person who enters this space. This is because one’s gaze is colonised by consumer items that exemplify pseudo-variation-within-standardisation, instead of the true heterogeneity that would be commensurate with the particular look on the part of a human subject.

What may be inferred, for the theme of consumer-architectural space, from this elaboration on the social alienation-effect of exchange value (concretised as money) on individuals, corroborates the impression concerning the covering-up of the particularity of products displayed in mall-space, this time in relation to individuals entering that space. To the degree that the mall-space in question is the architectural embodiment of exchange value, individuals entering it tend to be alienated from their own individuality or particularity (which is “denied and suppressed”) — these are the conditions of being a consumer.

Small wonder, then, that mall-space is conducive to — if not coercive of — typical consumer behaviour: whether one visits a mall for so-called “window-shopping” (a particularly pitiful manifestation of powerlessness in an exchange-value oriented or money-driven society), or with the purpose of shopping and buying commodities, your behaviour is orchestrated by the exchange-value organisation of its architectural space.

For a thorough treatment of this theme, see my paper, “Architecture as consumer space”. South African Journal of Art History, Vol. 23 (1), 2008, pp. 93-106. Reprinted in Philosophy and the Arts. London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Publishers, 2009.


  • 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.


  1. Theunis C. Goosen Theunis C. Goosen 28 March 2013

    “You are the only one with your ability. It is an awesome responsibility” – Zig Ziglar

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    I’d say this blog highlights the potential affect architecture can have on people when combined with social psychology.

    I’d submit that the nature of a space almost completely determines how we feel about that particular space, and how we feel effects the decisions we make within these spaces.

    Our susceptibility to influence, to be intentionally lead by the architect, through sequences of spaces and experiences, never ceases to amaze me. The ability to influence perception as well as someone’s psyche is surely one of the most powerful tools in an architect’s arsenal and perhaps one that few other professions can boast about. However, (…and I love saying this) “with great power, comes great responsibility”, and as no tool that any man or woman possesses should ever be considered inherently good or bad, but rather, the potential to do good or bad lies with the person who wields these tools. We should ask: at which point does this issue of influence become an issue of ethics?

  2. Theunis C. Goosen Theunis C. Goosen 28 March 2013

    Surely using architecture as tool to exploit the insecurities of people is crossing the line, no? Influencing their behaviour to spend their money on things that may or may not be what they really want/need, but rather what the pressures of society dictates they should have, is where our good consciences must kick in. Exploitation was never in the job description and this corrupt use of our talent for personal or financial gain is downright architectural prostitution.

  3. tracy haupt tracy haupt 28 March 2013

    While the main focus of these malls is the profitability, to coerce the public into consumerism, malls are meant to be designed to house the human’s needs and a place for interaction to take place, ironically, they are being designed in an inhumane manner.

  4. Mcoseleli Jafta Mcoseleli Jafta 7 April 2013

    Our shopping malls are a literal representation of “buying and selling”; they entice capitalism; they’re designed for consumers and not humans….but what does this mean?
    Does this mean architects have failed the discourse? Churchill says we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us- does this not mean there’s room for our shopping malls to entice a qualitative value of architecture, introduce a sense of place in our malls- promoting social interactions amongst the ‘consumers’ maybe? But where do we even begin?
    Could the problem lay with the fact that ‘seemingly’ the end goal of architects or any form of producer of a commodity is the quantitative value of the reward, in this case ‘money’. Architecture or production of commodity should be entirely based on the ethics/morals of its discourse; its ‘exchange value’ (money) should not be the primary concern or objective.

  5. Stephanie Briers Stephanie Briers 9 April 2013

    What came to my attention when reading this was the concept of deindividuation and losing one’s self-awareness. As stated above “the mall-space in question is the architectural embodiment of exchange value, individuals entering it tend to be alienated from their own individuality or particularity.”
    This reminded me of the term “retail therapy”, so often used by psychologists and consumers throughout the world. First used in the 1980’s, retail therapy as we all know is shopping with the primary purpose of improving the buyer’s mood or disposition. One often hears people using the term very lightly when feeling under the weather or stressed but why does taking part in consumerist spending or window shopping make you feel better?
    Retail therapy could be proof that deindividuation of a person occurs upon entering a mall and a zombie-like behaviour sets in. The mind enters a state of blindly following the malls guidance, its primary concern being the exchange value of products, not the stresses of everyday life. The mind is essentially cleared of all worries as if in a state of meditation.
    This might not be a very good observation, but I thought it was a rather interesting tie to deindeviduation -and as a result a clearing of the mind- and the idea that shopping, as well as window shopping lifts the spirits. It highlights how powerful architecture can be, that it is able to remove all personal thoughts and focus the mind to function in a specific manner, guiding ones…

  6. michiel van wyk michiel van wyk 14 April 2013

    The almost bureaucratic description of the ‘shopping mall’ in this text rather identifies itself more with the economic possibility of what it could be over the architectural experience it is meant to be. The idea of the shopping mall originates from the original center of trade in a settlement. The original idea of a trading centre has evolved and morphed into something that is driven only and primarily be the general consumers needs and the developers thirst for quick economic turnover.
    But then what about the ideology of architecture. How valid is it here?
    Is that not the challenge in itself. Architects are the ones who are to bring back and develop a humanized centre of trading that facilitates both the economic powerhouse of the bureaucrats and the huminasation of a space for the average human being. Consumer architecture requires special attention that realises the significance in space making that lends itself to the consumer.

  7. Alistair Mac Bean Alistair Mac Bean 16 April 2013

    Ha ha. When i read this article all i could really think was “how free is freedom really”. None of us forced into buying anything. There is no person physically making us purchase an item. So in a sense we are free to do as we like……or are we? At what point does external influence become to much. I know for myself (well at least i think) that I can go to a mall and not be affected by that “for sale” sign, but is this the case for all? At what point does this sales propaganda actually become subliminally anchored in our minds and when do we lose capability to be ultimately……free.

  8. Zamubuntu Sipuka(206014929) Zamubuntu Sipuka(206014929) 30 October 2013

    “The mall is thus designed as a non commutative space, and the goal is to trap the consumer in the world of consumption” Jon Goss

    The physical structures(the architecture) of malls and its spatial layout breeds behavior that promotes consumerism. The customer’s path through a ‘consumer space’ is carefully anticipated & planned: from the shelving to the grouping of products. The consumer competencies are guided by in-store devices such as these aisles, shelves & signs which facilitate not only in identification of individual products, but also comparison. Categorisation & comparison form the foundation of economic inter-mediation, and are what shops of all kind strive to elicit from their customers.

    “If we went into shops only when we needed to buy something, and if one in there we bought only what we needed, the economy would collapse, boom” Paco Underhill, CEO Undersell

    What irritates me though is the irrational pricing of putting the price of items at say 4.99 instead of 5. Obvious as it may seem, apparently the reason offered for not rounding off is based on memory processing time. Rounding upwards involves an additional decision compared with storing the first digits. Therefore customers perceive to be getting a better deal than they infact are.

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