It’s hard to love a mall. Any mall. They are simply too big and sprawling. Most are cut off from their city, from the street, from reality, causing an unnerving, out-of-body sense of dislocation that author Joan Didion once described as an “aqueous suspension not only of light but of judgment, not only of judgment but of personality” (The White Album, 1979).
That was exactly where the problem began. Those big-box, cinnamon-scented nightmares were usually built in the hinterlands. This made them dependent on the car and in need of vast expanses of asphalt parking. They sucked the very life out of the American city.
The enclosed mall owes its birth to Vienna-born Victor Gruen, who designed the 800,000-square-foot Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota. When it opened in 1956, this first enclosed American mall was hailed as the new town square, a machine for selling. “We want to influence emotional rather than rational powers,” said Gruen, rather eerily.
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Gruen also proposed a self-enclosed octagonal beehive for the Bal Harbour Shops in the late 1950s. Developer Stanley Whitman rejected it in favor of a plan by Herbert Johnson that featured a central, open-air promenade, fountains, exotic plantings and no need for central air conditioning. The plan was urban and refreshingly bucolic at the same time. While relatively small and specializing in luxury brands, Bal Harbour Shops proved to be one of the most successful malls in the world and continues to perform well today.
By the end of Gruen’s career, he had turned against his own creation and disclaimed paternity. “I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities,” he said in 1976, two years before his death.
As for his original mall archtype, it was largely swept aside by the market forces of bankruptcy and e-commerce. As it turns out, most people now prefer density over exurban sprawl. They need to wander and look and rub shoulders with other people. They crave tactile, sensual experiences and three-dimensional interactions, far away from the flat-screened placelessness of their computer screens, laptops and iPads.
Miami has a new model for urban shopping, one that challenges the supremacy of online shopping and brings back the idea of the public agora and town square, adapted to the digital age. It is Brickell City Centre, developed by by Swire Properties and designed by Miami-based Arquitectonica.
The five-million-square-foot complex, opened in late 2016, spans more than nine acres and includes three levels of retail shopping, two office towers and the 352-suite East Hotel. Still to come is One Brickell City Centre, an 80-story mixed-use tower that will be built just to the east of the mall and will be one of the tallest buildings in Florida when completed in 2019.
It is a highly ambitious plan, one that essentially reshapes the Downtown/Brickell neighborhood, with 500,000 square feet of retail space — both luxury and mid-price — 260,000 square feet of office space and more than 1 million square feet of residential units. Swire Properties has developed a number of highly successful urban retail malls in Hong Kong and Mainland China, but this is their first major retail project in the United States.
The retail section features luxury brands on the ground level and “premium” retailers on the second and third levels — including Apple, Bally and Valentino. The three principle anchor tenants are Saks Fifth Avenue; the Mexico-based luxury dine-in theater CMX; and La Centrale, a three-story, 38,000-square-foot Italian food hall. The BCC master plan also includes a new transit station for the Eighth-Street Metromover and a vast underground parking garage, all jumbled together with a sense of what Dutch urbanists call “messy vitality.”
Underlying Swire’s city-within-a-city is a fairly rigorously conceived master plan: “a true jigsaw puzzle,” as architect and Arquitectonica co-founder Bernardo Fort-Brescia calls it, one that weaves in and around the existing streetscape, merging with the city itself. “We didn’t want to disrupt the urban fabric, so we chose to keep the blocks and the existing streets in place,” he said.
The concept was inspired, in part, by the 19th-century glass-covered arcades of Paris and Milan. Bal Harbour Shops, with its open-air layout, was also a design touchstone.
There are moments of unexpected intersection, sudden drop-offs and vistas that open up to the real city of office workers, commuters, tourist buses and noisy construction sites. Curious pedestrians wander in and wander out. People shop, meet friends, eat lunch. There are balconies and trestle bridges that offer views over SE 6th Street and out toward the Miami River.
The vibrancy of the city penetrates to the very heart of the mall, and this is what I admire most about BCC: the vistas that reach into the surrounding street scape and a certain meandering randomness in the pathways of movement that are neither linear nor fully prescribed by the planners. This is what saves it from being another hermetically-sealed, soulless mall. It is open, inviting and grounded in the city’s existing fabric.
The architecture does not shout out for attention. Blocky volumes are discrete objects that hover and bulge away from the Euclidean grid. In some cases, they appear to shift and slide to one side like shoji screens, leaving openings, glimpses of interior spaces and corner transparencies that reveal the merchandise on sale. Within the multi-level retail complex, the range of lighting goes from moody shadow to dramatic chiaroscuro and bright sunlight. Natural light penetrates from every side.
Walls are made up of narrow horizontal panels — aluminum coated with metallic automobile paint — something like clapboard siding but slightly skewed. The result is a rippled, reptilian texture, absorbing light in some places, deflecting it in others. The asymmetry and apparent randomness of the cladding was intentional as it served to break up the bulky regularity of the structures. The tropical colors of Arquitectonica’s early work have given way to a more restrained palette with shades of neutral gray ranging from dull pewter to mercury to slate and silver.
Unlike most malls, the shops face both out to the street — further activating the perimeter — and inward to the naturally cooled and lushly landscaped esplanades. Walkways are staggered back so that you can look down and see the different levels. Loading docks for delivery trucks are discretely concealed within the interior of the complex.
The most memorable feature at BCC — and the spatial glue that helps to pull the different parts together — is the patented “Climate Ribbon” that flows above and between the buildings like a pale river. Designed for both shade and air flow, the ribbon features 10 parallel fins or wavelets, undulating and curvaceous, sculpted from glass, architectural fabric and PTFE synthetic resin. In some places, it turns; in others, it dips, catching and filtering the light. The elevated plazas take on a kind of luminosity and subaqueous glow, as if the entire complex had been submerged beneath the sea.
The fiberglass blades of the Climate Ribbon cover an area of more than 100,000 square feet as they zig and zag, leaping across South Miami Avenue and continuing on the opposite side. In doing so, they shade and shepherd the trade winds that blow off Biscayne Bay, channeling breezes throughout the length of the mall so that no centralized air conditioning is needed.
“I envisioned our canopy as a corridor for the wind,” explained Hugh Dutton, French artist-engineer who developed the $30 million Ribbon in collaboration with Arquitectonica. The Ribbon also collects and filters rainwater that is recycled to irrigate the planted terraces. Ceramic frits in the glass help to cut the sun’s glare by 50 percent.
A less prominent but equally effective feature at BCC is the upper-level landscaping plan by ArquitectonicaGEO, a landscape architecture firm, in which natural grasses and tropical plants create the feeling of elevated pastures in and around the different towers. Unfortunately, much of this can only be seen from one of the higher-level residential or commercial spaces that are not open to the general public.
Swire Property’s original vision was to create a major inner-city destination, a vector of both consumerism and gentrification that would pump much-needed vitality into a formerly scrappy neighborhood. As its name implies, Brickell City Centre is an attempt to create an urban nexus in a place that heretofore lacked a center.
At its best, there’s a kind of a cinematic vision at play — something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — with BCC’s crossovers, suspended walkways, metallic canyons, skewed lines of sight and cascading escalators. There’s a feeling of urban density, movement, complexity, penetration and porosity, and this is exactly what keeps it from being yet another hermetically-sealed urban mall.
“We are not seeking a shape,” said architect Fort-Brescia. “We are seeking an experience, an extension of the city.”
Alastair Gordon is an award-winning critic and author who has written regularly on the built environment for the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. His books include “Weekend Utopia” and “Naked Airport.” He teaches critical writing at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and is a Distinguished Fellow at the FIU College of Architecture + The Arts.