Highland Mall
Project info

While most consumers of the new middle classes of emerging countries such as China or India are flying to bright new developed shopping malls, indoor shopping malls are much in decay in the United States.

When the Highland Mall opened in 1971, it was the first shopping mall in the city of Austin, Texas, and it remained quite popular until the beginning of the 21st century. Built as a fortress surrounded by a huge asphalt moat serving as a carpark, it offered relaxing water fountains, cheap food eateries, and most importantly, a constant 72°F (22°C) all year round, the perfect temperature for baby boomers to hang around in the absence of the now ubiquitous video-game console. However, changes in consumption patterns during the turn of the century, as a consequence of a growing trend for online shopping as well as the expanding income inequality of the American society as a whole, have made this kind of retail space unfitting for today’s consumer needs.

Modern shopping malls of the “life-style” sort are thriving by attracting upper scale clients to luxury brand retail stores and offering upper scale outdoor restaurants, when not including an ice rink, sport facilities or a ski slope. Many of them are even designed as friendly downtown shopping districts, incorporating apartments, making it unnecessary to drive to the shopping areas and assuring clientele every day of the week. If retail stores were historically adapted to the existing condition of the cities, it can be said that today it is the city and its life which is adapted to the logic of consumption.

As the so-called “anchor stores” abandon the traditional indoor shopping malls in favour of the modern outdoor ones, retail space in the old fortresses become affordable to small family owned businesses. Since decline started at the Highland Mall around 2006, Mexican eateries, afro-american hair saloons and plus-size fashion stores took over the international chain stores. But eventually, allegations of a “less-than-welcoming” attitude towards latino and african american communities by the mall’s management transformed the already “ghetto mall” to a dead mall by 2011.

Many ideas are being developed on what to do with the increasing number of dying malls in the United States. Corporate headquarters, clinical facilities, even churches are occupying the spaces left empty by retailers, taking advantage of the large built spaces while very often retaining the food court in operation. For instance, the Austin Community College, a two-year young and adult educational institution for students of the neighbouring community and supported by local tax revenue, has taken over the Highland Mall in 2015. The actual building will become a university campus, while most of the parking will be redeveloped into affordable housing and office compounds. The quest for a new hybrid architectural typology remains open.