Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956

David Smiley
Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956
(Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

In the architectural history or preservation literature about various postwar building typologies, very little can be found about one of the most unique American building types: the mall or the shopping center. Earlier publications by Richard Longstreth or Jeff Hardwick laid some of the ground work and had focused on either particular areas or architects but no comprehensive study existed. Smiley’s recent book with its 357 pages, extensive index and annotations as well as the numerous black and white contemporary photographs admirably fills that void.
In the discussion of what is fundamentally a suburban or rather a non-urban building type, the author pays attention not only to the pure architectural and formal aspect of the buildings but more importantly to its social and cultural significance.  The mall was also about entertainment and education. Names of artists like Knud Lonberg Holm or George Kepes are found in the text as evidence of those broader aspirations.  

The book discusses issues like display and merchandising, which was very much in the mind of the stoe and mall designers, and was core to what Smiley calls “consumption”.  He remains somewhat ambivalent about the building type as architecture as his reference to consumption would suggest. In his own words in the preface: “…I still find malls and the quasi-public spaces like them to be slightly worrisome, more than a little strained, and all the more exciting for it”.

The title of the book is somewhat surprising when viewed within the traditional perception of the mall as a consequence of a society that has gone ‘automobile’ and by referring to ‘pedestrian’ it places an emphasis on the internal layout and ambiance once arrived and parked. However, it is also what makes the book interesting in today’s urban planning discussions and the pedestrian malls in the inner cities as once premiered by Kalamazoo and showcased in many new developments.

The book provides a solid basis for further study in two related areas. First is the influence abroad as evidenced by such projects as the Lijnbaan in Rotterdam, referenced at the end of the book and other European shopping developments as part of the reconstruction of old towns and the building of new ones. Secondly is the question as how to deal with the preservation of a culturally very significant building type that is fundamentally transitory in nature both commercially and often physically. Both questions hopefully to be addressed by others in the future.

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