WEST EDMONTON MALL
Ghermezian Brothers (founders) & Maurice Sunderland (architect), Edmonton, Canada, 1981
HOW BIG CAN A CLOSED SYSTEM GET?
Founded by the Iranian Ghermezian brothers as a regional shopping center, not unlike those popularly built during the decades following the post-war period, the West Edmonton Mall (WEM) has developed into an internationally renowned mega-mall. With a gross area of approximately 490,000 m2 (5,300,000 sq ft), the mall is North America’s largest shopping center –previously considered the world’s largest, shortly after its completion in the early 1980s.
This indoor city was built at an accelerated pace throughout three phases.
The project developed to engulf an area of nearly 24 city blocks, and has regularly been, within its first decade of operation, home to eight-hundred stores and services – in addition to adjacent parking lots and hotels. Among the extensive programs and attractions, housed at West Edmonton Mall are: Galaxyland, a waterpark, NHL size skating ring, miniature golf course, restaurants, and of course, retail stores to name a few. Although the WEM may be at first sight be understood as a singular mass in terms of its volume, in reality the mixture of leisure and shopping necessitates a series of diverse climates and makes the performative features of the center quite demanding. Inside this enclosed town, there are different microclimates, atmospheres and local activities, which produce a complex earth colony in terms of its atmospheric loads. The diversification of climatic zones is furthered by the sprawling character of the mall, which facilities the circulatory paths for consumers from one retail store to another in an intuitive manner – advancing the mall’s revenue productivity.
Dating back to its earlier years of operation, the WEM has maintained an
interest in energy reduction and lowering its large energy bills. In particular, the center has invested on lighting control systems in order to efficiently regulate lighting within shopping, diverse attractions, and its vast parking spaces. Recently, the mall increased its investment on water savings along with continued lighting improvements.
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 in the early 1980s, progressing from what was originally intended to be a regional mall to a billion-dollar mega-mall, to the huge architectural monolith as described by Colin Szasz. WEM clearly establishes local supremacy and expresses the capitalist sentiments held, by not only the developer, but also by society at the time. As Rob Shields writes, “malls, as interventions in the fabric of urban public space, are fragments of broader changes in the system of spatiality and concrete spatial practices at global, national, and local scales. ‘Postmodernism’ is a symptom of these changes along with the changing crowd practices by which individuals and groups actualize or deflect these new spatial arrangements” (Shields, “Social Spatialization and the Built environment”).
Shields continues: “What is being asserted at the West Edmonton Mall is
a new collective sense of place founded on the notion of having transcended the geographical barrier of distance which has so long kept the provincial capital of Edmonton culturally isolated, not only from the rest of Canada, but also from the rest of the world. This displaced sense of place also rests on a denial of locality.” (Shields, “Social Spatialization and the Built environment”).
The questions arising, nevertheless, go beyond the rise of a capitalist ethos in the early 1980s and its manifestation in built space. These oversized indoor cities are replications of whole ecosystems and urbanity at large. Most particularly, they are reproductions of distant famous cities, intentionally defying geographical boundaries given that Edmonton is in the periphery. Below the replica of this internal hyper-reality, lies a giant network of ducts and pipes charged to regulate the microclimates of Edmonton mall. And Edmonton is only one of hundreds of indoor cities currently being built in Asia, challenging our perception of reality both visually and physiologically.
EXTRAVAGANCE: Extravagance in wasting resources: a 2.5-acre indoor lake stocked with dolphins and grandly dubbed the “Deep Sea Adventure” tourists go on tours of underwater aquaria; there is a 18-hole mini-golf course; 40 restaurants, including 4 McDonald’s; a 10-acre water park (‘the biggest ever’ of course); and a 100000 sq ft 13-ride carnival midway, or funfair, with a 142 ft triple-loop roller coaster (also the ‘biggest indoor one in the world’, etc). This expansion of the “Fantasyland” carnival was accomplished with $20 million in tax concessions over 10 years, granted after the owners threatened to stop construction.
EYESORE: Drasitic scale within the Edmonton landscape.