Spaces: Beyond “Machines for Shopping”

Can design give a mall all the comforts of home?

Dallas is famous for its shopping malls. But when I first came here last year, I couldn’t figure out why.

As far as I could tell, Dallas didn’t actually have any shopping malls. In LA, I could walk from my house to two large centers; another two were within a 15-minute drive. In Dallas, however, my husband and I house hunted for two days and barely laid eyes on a mall. We wondered where those famous malls were hiding.

When we finally went to NorthPark Center, we were confused. We hadn’t seen a mall without a food court in decades. We wanted lunch and were surprised to find the choices so limited. Then we started to wonder about the bigger picture: where were you supposed to sit and have a soda or a cup of coffee? Where could you hang out and converse? Why did the mall’s design assume you’d always be moving?

The Galleria prompted similar questions. The skating rink was cool, but where were the common areas where you could linger to watch the passing scene? Where could you comfortably take a break from shopping? Why would you ever visit the mall without a specific destination in mind? These Dallas malls might be famous, but they seemed strangely sterile.

Eventually, I figured out why I was so perplexed. I expected malls to be community centers—places to pop over to for dinner or a movie, to sit and work amid the buzz of conversation—not just collections of shops. To me, malls were crossroads and hangouts, clean, well-lighted places where you could be among other people even if you were all by yourself. A mall, in my mind, wasn’t just somewhere to spend money. A mall was somewhere to spend time.

Traditional Dallas malls, by contrast, are all about spending money. They are famous because they’ve been around a long time and house fine stores. But Dallas malls aren’t greater than the sum of their tenants. They don’t make you feel at home. They were created with other agendas in mind.

In other words, Willow Bend would be the sort of mall I’d been looking for. At least in theory. After the center opened on Aug. 3, I visited a few times to see how well theory matched reality. Could smart design reinvent the meaning of the Dallas mall? Could we get beyond machines for shopping?

Willow Bend certainly is different from other area malls. For starters, its richly detailed interior does not rely on tenants or temporary exhibits to provide a sense of place. The food court (yes, it does have one, flanked by two full-service restaurants) is not the typical sprawling, functional space. It’s a well-defined octagonal room lit by a vaulted skylight, delicate cylindrical light fixtures, and gentle horizontal lighting from smaller windows around the ceiling’s edge.

To make diners more comfortable, much of the food court seating is in restaurant-style booths rather than hard chairs. A small fountain with a sculpture of a dancing child greets shoppers passing through the court on the way to the main mall. A bas relief of stylized mechanical and natural shapes—gears and rods, mountain peaks, sunrises, and horse heads—winds around the top of the food court wall, below the small windows.

The mixture of crisp geometry and organic shapes appears throughout the mall. To define the atmosphere, designers chose Prairie Style, made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Arts and Crafts movement. The style’s mixture of the mechanical and the handcrafted, says Hagelman, is as appropriate to our turn-of-the-century transition as it was to the last. And Prairie Style suits the open horizons of Dallas, which has no obvious native style.

Willow leaves, the mall’s central motif, are embedded in the polished limestone floors (along with natural fossils) and etched into glass panels along the second floor; the leaves appear on light fixtures and as details along railings. When you revisit the mall, Hagelman promised, you’ll notice more details. Small willow sculptures line the low, horizontal fountain marking the central Grand Court in front of Neiman Marcus.

Sunlight streams in from the skylight. Outside the main seating areas, clear-story lighting—high windows that let in light from the side rather than the top—allow sunshine without glare or the shadows you get from the Galleria’s overhangs. With light ash and warm cherry, bronze and copper, frosted glass, and leather upholstery, the mall’s materials create an understated sense of luxury. Willow Bend’s aesthetic is not the aristocratic, European grandeur of so much of upscale Dallas but a deceptively simple, elegant American style.

The design does invite you to linger. “It’s just like a hotel lobby,” an awed shopper tells a friend. In the central court and smaller sitting areas, people read, talk on cell phones, converse with friends, and conduct job interviews. Men wait comfortably for their shopping womenfolk. A father feeds his infant a bottle. I even saw a woman asleep, her head tipped back in one of the leather chairs. In the cappuccino court outside Apple Computer’s store, people work on laptops and read business files.

The mall also has an indoor playground—a padded, carpeted court filled with super-sized menu items: a plate of steak and eggs 15 feet across, a 10-foot bottle of Tabasco sauce, the world’s largest grapefruit. All are safely squishy, perfect for climbing and crawling. On a Saturday afternoon, some 40 kids are exploring the giant dishes as their parents watch from the upholstered benches that fence in the area.

According to Hagelman, the play court was a relatively late addition to the mall’s design, reflecting the demographic makeup of the surrounding neighborhoods. “This is not a young singles crowd or a married-no children crowd,” he says. “It’s predominately households with children.” To get customers to hang around—and to come back—the mall needs more than places to plug in laptops. It needs family spaces.

That, of course, assumes that people will come to a mall to do more than shop. So far, Willow Bend’s design seems to be working. The problems lie mostly outside the designers’ control, in the mall’s basic operations. The canned music is dreadful. “That’s an element that hasn’t come up to the same peak as maybe some of the other elements,” says Hagelman, trying to be tactful.

The food court is noisy, made worse by the music. And the mall is unbelievably cold. The sunlit center court is the only place where the temperature doesn’t raise the hairs on my arms. A Neiman Marcus clerk tells me everyone wears long sleeves to work. I ask a mall employee why it’s so cold. “Because it’s always been cold and everybody’s told them 150 times and they haven’t fixed it,” he says. Until management corrects the climate controls, anyone who wants to linger in Willow Bend needs a jacket.

As an environment, the mall mostly succeeds. Willow Bend has given the Dallas area a new design standard. And it has joined an important social trend. For decades, social critics have derided shopping malls as the worst sort of spaces, palaces of consumption that “crush the real places in their way.” Ray Oldenburg’s influential 1989 book The Great Good Place defined the need for friendly social hangouts, “third places” between home and work. Oldenburg praised bars and barber shops. He dripped with contempt for malls, which he saw as sterile and boring.

Social critics, including Oldenburg, usually assume that markets destroy human values. In their view, business, especially large-scale business, disregards what people really want. That may seem true in the short run, because people want many different, sometimes contradictory, and often unarticulated things. But markets contain powerful feedback mechanisms. If you don’t give people what they want, they have a tendency not to give you their money (or, in the case of mall shoppers, their time). A social critic who identifies a widespread dissatisfaction will find his message taken up by the very institutions he derides.

So it is that Hagelman cites The Great Good Place as an inspiration for his design. To attract customers, he says, shopping malls are now trying to be “surrogate third places. You’re not at work and you’re not at home, and they do become gathering places.” Willow Bend may not quite live up to Oldenburg’s standards—I didn’t see strangers conversing, except occasionally in the Apple store—but it is more than a machine for shopping.

Photo by Byrd Williams

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