The Architectural Monolith of Edmonton
Colin Szasz, McGill University, School of Architecture
Ask anyone in the world other than a Canadian where Edmonton is, and more than likely they won’t have a clue. Ask the same people what the world’s largest shopping centre is called, and there is a good chance they will be able to name West Edmonton Mall as the winner. The Guinness Book of Records has been good for advertising that fact. Along with huge spending by the mall itself to attract tourists, Edmonton has acquired an internationally renowned structure. Note that it is not called an internationally renowned work of architecture. After all, as big and extravagant as it is, at first glance West Edmonton Mall is as much an eyesore in Edmonton as it would be anywhere else. The first question one might ask then is why such a poor piece of architecture was ever built. Essentially West Edmonton Mall is in many ways just another shopping mall, one of the most popular forms of architecture of the time, but in reality it isn’t the typical mall most of us know. By investigating the ideals and feelings of Edmontonians and the rest of society then and even now, it isn’t hard to figure out that they had an influence in its construction. The best inquiry would look at its plan in relation to how it was built and into why it was done this way. As Shields says, West Edmonton Mall is a child of its times. By looking at its plan and studying the contents of the mall, it is clear that such a structure could only have been built at the time it was. The ideals and feelings held by society around the time of its beginning were a driving force behind its development. West Edmonton Mall started as a simple regional shopping centre, not unlike any other that had been built since World War 2. But it progressed from what was originally intended to be a simple regional mall to a billion-dollar mega-mall and became the huge architectural monolith we know today. West Edmonton Mall ended up with its diverse elements and developed to the incredible size that it did as a result of two main factors which are evident in its plan. The first is the search by Edmontonians for an identity and goal of supremacy over other cities both locally and internationally, in particular Calgary in the ongoing ‘Battle of Alberta’ between Alberta’s two biggest cities. Second, the capitalist sentiments held by not only the developer but also by society at the time, which explains the profit motive that would lead the developers to build such a building. The capitalist inspired consumer culture of the day defines the ‘traditional’ shopping centre design and the driving force behind how a mall is planned.
First, a look at exactly what makes West Edmonton Mall so infamous is important to lay the groundwork and give one a sense of the scale of this mega-mall. The Ghermezian family owns the developing company, Triple Five that built West Edmonton Mall. The architect of the mall is Maurice Sunderland of Calgary. The mall was originally built in three phases, the first opening in 1981, the last opening in 1985 , with a fourth phase opened just last year (1999). Phase three alone would be Canada’s largest shopping mall. The mall covers a piece of property equivalent to 24 city blocks or over 49 hectares (121 acres), is over a mile long, and with its two floors has a floor area of approximately 480,000 square metres or five million square feet. Besides being the world’s largest shopping centre, it fittingly owns the record for the world’s largest parking lot with a capacity of over 20,000 cars. There are approximately 800 stores in the mall, and many stores have more than one location in the mall. Besides the stores there is an amusement park, a water park, a hotel, an indoor lake with 4 submarines and an exact replica of Columbus’ ship Santa Maria, a NHL sized ice rink and a few ‘theme’ streets. The total cost of building the mall was somewhere around $1 billion. Finally, the mall attracts anywhere between 10 million and 20 million people each year placing the mall at par with the two Disney parks of the United States, with about half of that number being tourists from outside of the Edmonton area. The mall is so big that it alone accounts for 1% of all retail sales in Canada (1990). No matter how you look at it, West Edmonton Mall is one huge shopping centre, which is one main factor differentiating it from other malls.
Upon looking at the plan of the mall (fig. 1) or the overhead view (fig 2.) without even knowing what each space is, the first thing that anyone would notice is the sheer size of it. Without looking at or utilizing the scale on the plan, there is such a huge number of stores and spaces that it is nearly impossible to rationalize how big the mall really is. One can only be amazed at how many spaces there are on the plan, regardless of their layout. The immense size of the mall can also be seen in the site plan of the neighbourhood in which it sits (figs. 3&4). Compare the size of a single housing lot to the immense size of the mall in figure 3 and you’ll get the idea. Also notice how much bigger it is than the other malls nearby (fig. 4, circled) and how close they are to West Edmonton Mall. So how did the mall end up so huge? This is hard to justify for the following reason. Edmonton is the unofficial mall capital of Canada and was so even before West Edmonton Mall was built, meaning that Edmonton had (and still has) more mall space per capita than any other city in Canada, (now at 3.5 times the national average). It would seem then that it makes no sense at all to build another mall, and especially such a big one in such an ‘over-malled’ city. The city should be called ‘Edmallton’ as Blomeyer suggests. If per capita space were all we were looking at, then no, it didn’t make any sense. Also, the mall was to be situated on the edge of town, very close to two existing malls. One only has to realize that this is Edmonton, a city of people who really like shopping malls, especially in the winter with the seemingly endless stretches of bitterly cold days that are the norm for the region. But this wasn’t just any mall or a big mall, but a huge one—five million square feet. So they like malls, but that doesn’t explain the size factor. This is where one has to know a bit more about Edmontonians and their pride, especially when it comes to doing better than their archrival to the south, Calgary. As one stage in the ‘Battle of Alberta’ against Calgary, the mall was also intended to become a symbol of western and even national and international supremacy for the city. Looking at its western neighbours who are the biggest competition, Vancouver has the ocean and the warm weather, Calgary has Banff and the Rocky Mountains, and now Edmonton has the Mall, as was pointed out by Edmonton’s mayor at the time, Lawrence Decore. The fact that it was built at all is exemplified by a fear that if the city didn’t let the developers, Triple Five, build it here, and grant them many concessions, that it would be built elsewhere, no doubt fearing Calgary more than anywhere else. It must be noted at this point that originally the mall was only going to be half the size of phase one and the rest of the site would be residential development. Why Triple Five chose to build a mall instead will be discussed later. But why the city facilitated the construction of such a huge building (in the centre of a newly developing residential area) is fully explained by Edmonton’s pride and the battle for supremacy. The developers had to go through a series of zoning changes and land swapping with the city, making promises and then breaking them. The process for such a huge number of amendments and adjustments would no doubt take years now (or in any other city at the time). But Edmonton wanted its world-record monster-mall, and the city had no trouble passing the requests made by Triple Five to achieve this. There is another reason that the city had no trouble passing these amendments. Though the local residents were not supporters of the mall per se, as it was a huge disruption in their community, they were smart, and agreed to zoning changes that would allow for the construction of the mall. They agreed to these amendments in exchange for improvements to their communities by the developer, such as playgrounds and concrete sound barriers. Interestingly, the mall is now completely separated from the community by those concrete barriers as well as the major roads and banal parking garages surrounding it—their negotiating tactics having turned the mall into an island of commercialism in the heart of a suburban residential area. Not only is the mall huge, but it is a huge island, all on its own, blocking out the community around it but welcoming the praise and money brought by tourists, which was its goal—international recognition due to sheer size. It size then isn’t so unexpected when looking at Edmonton at the time. A sense of neo-boosterism, Drapeau/Montreal-style, pervaded Edmonton at the time (and still does) and both government and the people supported the mall’s construction that allowed it to end up so huge. This boosterism also explains the contents of the mall that we see on the plan (the waterpark, Galaxyland, etc.) in that this mall has things never included in a mall before in an attempt to attract even more attention.
The reason for the people of Edmonton not objecting to such a huge project is understandable, their city became famous and gained something that would break at least some of the sense of isolation they may have held and give their large but quiet metropolis an internationally known attraction. But that doesn’t explain the developer’s motive behind the construction of such a huge (and expensive) building. Consider that they started off with plans to build a mall half the size of phase one, which would have been about 500,000 square feet. That is about one tenth of the size it ended up being. So when did they decide to increase the program tenfold? It didn’t happen all at once, but was based on pure profit motive. North America, and much of the world at the time, held mostly capitalist views. Even Canada with its more left-wing social programs had and still has a capitalist based economy, where the strong (or rich) survive and the poor suffer. Perhaps that’s putting it in grim terms, but having immigrated to Canada from the Middle East, the Ghermezians were no doubt success-driven, profit-seeking entrepreneurs. And it can be argued that Alberta is the heartland of capitalist Canada with its booming oil patch and profit-driven economy. So the mall ended up getting bigger to make more money. It didn’t take long for the Ghermezians to decide to increase the size of the program when in the first year that phase one was open they recorded a substantial profit. What is interesting is that they continued to build the mall at a time when Alberta’s economy took a sudden downturn—not a time one would normally be building such a huge building, especially a shopping mall. This is testament to the fact that the Ghermezians were very ambitious and were sure that the mall could make money. And make money it did. By 1984, the mall was racking up average per-square-foot sales of $540, versus the Canadian average of $212. So they had every reason to keep making it larger. After all, the larger the mall, the more stores you can have to generate more sales and therefore more profit. The sprawling layout of the mall is also explained by the drive for profit. The mall was never planned from the beginning to be as big as it is, and developed in a piecemeal fashion as profits rolled in and decisions were made. This is where we can look at the layout of the stores in the mall themselves (fig. 5). Sure, lots of stores will generate lots of profit, but the goal is to fit as many stores into as short a distance as possible. This is especially true in West Edmonton Mall, which is already so long. The solution is simple. People walking past stores only need to see the front to be attracted inside. Stores need only have a small frontage to identify themselves, but they must all have some, and preferably equal frontage if they are paying the same amount of rent. We can use the layout of land plots in Montreal under the seigneurial system as a precedent. It was important in Montreal at the time to give as many people as possible direct and equal access to the water, which was the main transportation route of the city and hence its most important means of survival and therefore profit. Laying the lots in long narrow strips perpendicular to the river did this. Modern stores are no different in their needs or their layout, and are placed perpendicular to the most important axes of the mall where there is the heaviest traffic, giving as many stores as possible direct access to the busiest routes through the mall. Those busiest routes are the ones between the major tenants, which are the major drawing force in the average mall, and in the case of West Edmonton Mall the attractions serve the same purpose. This gives more stores the good locations they desire on the main route, generating more profits than a poor location, and eventually allowing the mall to increase rents and make more money itself. So it is obvious that not only the size of the mall, but also its layout is determined by the profit-motive of the Ghermezians which is a direct result of the capitalist economy of the day.
Looking more at the capitalist aspect of society and the capitalist views of the Ghermezians, it can be clearly understood why the mall is so huge and why it contains the unprecedented mix of facilities it does. As Gottdiener explains, capitalism survives by producing its own space based on its needs. In other words, one would expect the mall to be used by the Ghermezians as a tool to generate profit, which it is. The glitz and glamour of its interior and the integration of leisure into the mall are done in part to conceal that fact. Space is not just a location or property ownership; it is a piece of real estate and a mental expression of freedom. The mall is definitely an expression of freedom of not only the Ghermezians, but of the people of Edmonton. The rationale behind the layout of the mall and the features included in it are really only known by the Ghermezians, whose tastes defined the conceptual design and in the end the plan. Also, the fact that they felt comfortable developing such a building is a factor of the freedom they had in the capitalist system. The mall as it is today wasn’t even imagined as such when they started building, but they felt free to decide as they went along in a very ad-hoc conceptual approach, expressing their freedom, which is reflected in the somewhat random layout of the mall. The mix of retail and leisure as it is now was totally a result of freedom of the developer to do so and by the desire of people to do what they want in their free time. Triple Five solicited 17,000 suggestions from the public, asking what they would like to see in phase three of the mall , which shows that the people of Edmonton also had a say and were free to put forth ideas as to what they wanted this mall to be. Gottdiener further explains that space is an object of consumption, can be used as a political instrument and is an element in the class struggle. Space itself is an element of society’s productive forces in its form and design. This explains many things. The mall is the ultimate object of consumption in the consumer society. A building as huge as West Edmonton Mall no doubt holds serious political clout for the owners. This is exemplified by the fact that the mall was so easily built despite a mountain of zoning changes that had to be made, and by the fact that the provincial government has guaranteed numerous loans on its behalf. The mall is a perfect example of the class struggle of society as well. Look at the overhead view (fig. 2) and one can see that it is surrounded by a moat of concrete parking garages, only those in cars are truly welcome. And once inside, you are expected to spend or leave; like within all shopping malls, loitering is not tolerated and only those with money need enter.
We can cite the ‘build it and they will come’ phenomenon that is so indicative of the 70s and 80s to explain why the people came to the mall in such huge numbers . Such a huge mall, or any type of building for that matter, is sure to attract attention. As the mall increased in size, it went from local landmark to national news to international record-holder. By building it so large, the mall automatically attracts people who just can’t resist going to see the biggest or best. It obviously works; as stated earlier, the mall attracts millions each year from around the world. It should be noted that a mall the size of West Edmonton Mall would normally be expected to require a population of nine million people in its immediate area. Edmonton hasn’t yet reached one million in population, and yet the mall is successful. The ‘build it and they will come’ attitude is not limited in its definition to the size of the building, however. It is not size alone that matters, although that is definitely important. The mall includes many things that one would never have seen in any other mall at the time—leisure facilities, numerous restaurants and theme streets. The addition of these aspects helps attract even more people to the mall. More than a shopping centre or a social hangout, West Edmonton Mall has become a place where you can get away from everyday life. The desire to get away and escape is as common in society now as then with things always so hectic. The knowledge that people are always ready to escape for short periods of time is used in deciding what attractions to include. At the Water Park, one can spend the afternoon in the sun, under the glass roof. You can experience the thrill of a roller coaster in Galaxyland. Take a trip to New Orleans (Bourbon Street) or Paris (Europa Boulevard). As Nader Ghermezian himself said, “we traveled the world to see where people like to go. But they couldn’t go to everything in one day. So we have put it all under one roof.” Sounds like a dream, but the freedom of our society makes it possible to turn such a dream into reality. That desire to get away from life, or in the case of mall management, to get people away from the outside and into their magical world, is also evident in the plan. Figure 6 is the plan of the mall from figure 5 with the arrows indicating its entrances removed. The mall has about 50 entrances, but see how many you could find on this plan if you had never seen it before, and you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a dozen. The reason for this is simple. The mall wants you to come inside, however you can, but then not be able to leave easily. Therefore, a large number of entries are poorly defined doors into the major anchor stores, which you will have to go through on your way in and out (and maybe buy something). Also, everyone is expected to arrive by car (there is but a single bus terminal along 87th Ave.), so you have to drive into the parking garage to find an entrance. Once you find one, and they aren’t well defined from either interior or exterior, you are sucked into the mall and forget (at least temporarily) about what you left outside. The non-event of the entry is key, as it makes you forget about ever coming in to the mall in the first place, as if you had always been there. This makes you less likely to be ready to leave and re-experience that entry as an exit. The reason for all this is that the longer you are in the mall, the more likely you are to spend, and here we arrive back at profit motive again. So now you are inside, looking at the plan or ‘tourists’ map’ (fig 1) and you see that there are a ton of things you can do besides shop. Also look at figure 7 which shows the space use layout of the mall, and you’ll notice that to get to any of these other activities, you have to walk past storefronts. Profit motive again, hoping you will do a bit of impulse buying, even if you had no intention of shopping in the first place. This is keenly thought out. In the age of consumer culture, everyone is up for buying something; all they need is a bit of a push. What sets West Edmonton Mall apart here are those attractions, which are used along with major stores as anchors. This deviates from the typical major-store-at-each-end layout in mall design as defined by Victor Gruen in that it also includes the attractions as anchors and places them all around the perimeter to trap one inside. It must be noted that keeping one in for as long as possible to get them to spend as much as possible is the true reason that these attractions were included in the building. This is the one aspect where the profit motive doesn’t have a direct result but was used in ingenious planning to achieve the same goal. The attractions only take up about 15% of the mall’s total space and as such can’t be expected to be a major profit generator but are great way to get people inside and keep them there. It is clear that the mall is laid out and designed by a capitalist at every turn and profit is always key.
Simon, in Mapping American Culture, suggests that the modern shopping mall is the formal garden of the 20th century, which is very accurate. He quotes Clifford as saying, “a garden is man’s idealized view of the world, and because most men are representative of the society of which they are a part, it follows that fashionable gardens of any community and any period betray the dream world which is the period’s ideal.” West Edmonton Mall follows this idea perfectly. It is a garden in the sense that it artificially represents the garden and everyday life as the formal garden artificially represents nature. It has fountains, plants and the rigorous planning and organization of the formal garden. It represents the profit motive held by the capitalist society and the expresses the civic boosterism of Edmontonians of the day. After analyzing the plan, it is not hard to see that the mall clearly expresses all of the major attributes of society of the late 1970s and early 1980s though its design. West Edmonton Mall is a machine to generate profit above all else. That part of its reason for being is clearly stated in the plan. The seigneurial-like grid of suites, the major tenants and attractions on all sides and the placement of entrances all combine to create the most efficient money making machine we know how. The Ghermezians were seen as crazy for building something so large and extravagant, especially a shopping mall, but this is a free world and they realized that this was a good way to generate profit. They likely realized that in the days of consumer culture, the shopping mall has taken on new status as the social centre of a city. But they also realized the profit potential of tourists. It is a ‘building for Edmonton,’ a shopping mall that is the ultimate getaway from winter at much less cost than going to Florida. Yet it completely blocks itself off from the city in which it sits by its mundane and purely functional brick and concrete exterior surrounded by major roads on all sides. West Edmonton Mall seems to be a balance of both of these realizations. The plan of West Edmonton Mall demonstrates the ideals of the people of Edmonton in its novelty and size and the ideals popular within a capitalist, profit-driven, consumer-oriented economy which was the norm for the day.
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West Edmonton Mall Website: http://www.westedmall.com