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The term ‘cathedrals of consumption’ refers to ‘self-contained

consumption settings that utilize postmodern techniques such

as implosion, the compression of time and space, and
simulation to create spectacular locales designed to attract
customers’ (Ryan, 2005:2). That is to say, ‘not only shops and
malls but also theme parks, casinos, and cruise lines, and other
settings including athletic stadiums, universities, hospitals and
museums’ (Ritzer, 2005:6, cited by Ryan, 2005:2). That they
can be considered as cathedrals refers to the way in which
consumption has replaced religion as ‘the dominant mode of
contemporary public life’ (Goss, 1993:294), and thus these
consumption settings have become, like the religious
cathedrals of old, ‘the most sensually satisfying social
gathering places in the community’ (Kowinski, 1985:218, cited
by Ryan, 2005:2).

In this piece I will locate the concept of ‘cathedrals of

consumption’ within the broader urban and social landscape of
UK and USA contemporary life, focussing specifically on
shopping malls. I will then go on to consider a somewhat literal
interpretation of the term, whereby shopping malls often bear a
close physical and symbolic resemblance to religious
cathedrals. In this way, as Goss (1993:295-6) states,

Developers have sought to assuage th[e] collective guilt

over conspicuous consumption by designing into the retail
built environment the means for a fantasized dissociation
from the act of shopping … and have promoted the conceit
of the shopping center [sic] as an alternative focus for
modern community life.
I am arguing, then, that malls have been designed in ways
which not only disguises their true material function
(Gottdiener, 2000:275), but in fact elevates the shopping
experience and allows the shopper to feel virtuous by
manipulating the psychogeographical sense of awe, ‘greater
purpose’ and ‘community’ generally associated with religious

Any attempt to locate an urban phenomenon such as shopping

malls within an historical and social context must concede, as
Hall (2006:6) states, that ‘the diversity of city types and
processes of urbanisation cannot be reduced to a simple, linear
evolutionary process’. Thus, what can be said about a city in
the UK or USA may be very different to patterns of urbanisation
in Developing or socialist countries. It is worth noting, then,
that I am writing here of post-industrial cities of the UK and USA
and I would argue that, with this focus, it is possible to see a
broad template of change, both physical and social, which can
be applied in a general way.

The development of contemporary cities can be seen in terms

of a shift from industrial to post-industrial, Fordist to post-
Fordist and modern to post-modern patterns of production and
consumption. These concepts relate to complex ‘physical,
political, economic, social, cultural and spatial practices and
processes’ (Jayne, 2006:13) which are by no means altogether
consistent even within one particular city (Hall, 2006:99).
However, broadly speaking there has been a shift which is
closely related to the rise of a consumer society, linked to the
post-war boom in mass production, and it is through this lens
that Gottdiener (2000) identifies the concept of ‘consumption of
space’ which, as will be seen, is highly important in the
development of shopping malls.

Gottdiener (2000:266-8), then, begins with the burgeoning

industrial cities of the early 1800’s where ‘neither capital nor
the state provided segments of land for free recreational use’
(2000:266) and cities where sharply delineated, both socially
and structurally, between the wealthy elite and the mass of
labourers. Yet the Victorian reformers of the late 1800’s,
‘concerned about the social evils of industrial capitalism’
(2000:267), sought to design cities with green, open spaces for
recreational use, such as the Garden Cities of England and the
City Beautiful movement in the USA. Industrial cities of this era
correspond to Fordist methods of mass production which are
centralized, standardized and inflexible – a model which can be
applied to political, cultural and social patterns and the physical
structure of cities (Jayne, 2006:15). At the same time, the
consumption of ‘specially prepared spaces’ (Gottdiener,
2000:267) was extended from city parks and encouraged

[The] commercial but inexpensive amusement spaces, such

as Coney Island in New York City and Brighton in England,
[which] provided alternative spaces for the masses to the
dreary, boxed-in areas of housing within the inner industrial
city (2000:267)

Whist the rise of tourism, at this stage of the early 1900’s,

remained largely the preserve of the upper classes, the scene
was set for the production of ‘safe’ spaces of consumption,
through the taming of nature for human use (2000:267).

In terms of the development of shopping malls, the most

significant changes began in the 1950’s when ‘the burgeoning
middle-class population along with well-paid segments of the
working class took up residence on an unprecedented scale in
areas outside the central city that were developed for housing’
(Gottdiener, 2000:268). This mass exodus to the suburbs, made
possible by the rise of the automobile and other cheap, mass
produced goods of the Fordist era, was further compounded by
the declining importance of industrial manufacturing and the
post-industrial rise of the service economy (Jayne, 2006:15).
Thus, it can again be seen that the economic model – that is to
say, the rise of specialist production, niche marketing and
decentralization – affects and is reflected in changing social,
cultural, political and structural patterns in the city.

The first malls, in 1950’s America, were developed to cater for

these new suburban housing tracts and were designed around
the growing use of automobiles. The earliest designers, like the
early city planners, had utopian dreams in mind: to provide
much-needed pleasant community spaces for human
interaction, much as the market-place had done in times past
(Ryan, 2005:4; Goss, 1993:297). Yet their dreams were not
fulfilled because, as Ryan (2005:5) states,

As soon as capitalists understood the great profit potential

that could be realized from manufacturing community itself,
there was no stopping their quest to extract profits from this

Shoppers were seen as dupes who could be ‘environmentally

conditioned’ with crude psychogeographical techniques (Goss,
1993:301) and, as more and more malls were built, so the
competition to attract customers led to ever-greater efforts to
pull them in. Thus, as Jayne (2006:80) states,

Architectural designers imploded traditional concepts of

urban form by managing to gather together all of the social
amenities and shopping experiences of the ‘traditional’
downtown city street to the suburbs, by playing with space,
light, representation and perceptions of safety.

Yet why this great need to dupe their customers? The answer to
this question lies not only in the proliferation of malls and
subsequent increased competition to attract customers, but
also in the need to override the conflicting discourses of
consumer society. Thus, as Hall (2006:111) states,

The cultural shifts within which consumption was implicated

made it far more than merely a functional fulfilment of need
but a significant leisure activity in its own right … where the
consumption of space and time is of equal cachet as the
consumption of designer goods.
Yet at the same time a vague, disconcerting conflict exists
within the consumer culture:

There persists a high-cultural disdain for conspicuous mass-

consumption resulting from the legacy of a puritanical fear
of the moral corruption inherent in commercialism and
materialism, and sustained by a modern intellectual
contempt for consumer society (Goss, 1993:294).

The ‘morality’ of consumption – a hangover from more religious

times, exemplified in the biblical notion of a camel passing
through the eye of a needle with more ease than a rich man
entering heaven – is, perhaps, deeply embedded within the
collective consciousness. This unease has been compounded in
more recent times by the work of such intellectuals as Veblen
(1953), Adorno and Horkheimer (1969) and Haug (1986) (cited
by Goss, 1993:294), who have condemned the emptiness,
falseness and homogeneity of the consumer culture. Little
wonder, then, that

The contemporary shopper, while taking pleasure in

consumption, cannot but be aware of this authoritative
censure, and is therefore … driven by a simultaneous desire
and self-contempt, constantly alternating between assertion
and denial of identity (Goss, 1993:295).

In order to address this conflict, mall designers needed to not

only disguise the true instrumental function of malls, but also to
promote a fantasy within which shoppers can feel good about
consumption. This is achieved through a variety of methods,
often involving some kind of ‘theme’, all of which serve to
promote ‘a fantasized dissociation from the act of shopping’
(Goss, 1993:295). A common theme is that of the idealized city
street, whether this is of ‘Ye Olde Worlde’ or ‘High Tech’ variety
(Gottdiener, 1995:89) or based on the bazaars and street
markets of more exotic locales (Jayne, 2006:80). Regardless of
the particular type of street depicted, the goal here is to appeal
to and exploit ‘a modernist nostalgia for authentic community,
perceived to exist only in past and distant places’ (Goss,
1993:296). What we have, then, is a carefully constructed re-
imagining of city streets, free of the uncomfortable aspects of
reality which may jolt shoppers out of their dreamlike

An idealized social space free, by virtue of private property,

planning and strict control, from the inconvenience of the
weather and the danger and pollution of the automobile, but
most important from the terror of crime associated with
today’s urban environment (Goss, 1993:297).

In this way, mall designers attempt to promote the sense of

community and democratic public space associated with the
marketplaces of old.

Yet alongside this well-documented city street theme there is, I

would argue, another theme built into the very structure of
many shopping malls: a symbolic association with religious
cathedrals of the past. Thus, as Kearl and Gill (1998) state,

Upon entry, one is immediately struck by the immensity of

the mall structure. The sense of vast, open, larger than life
space that one receives within both cathedrals and malls
induces the sense of awe, wealth and power … One receives
the sense of an unseen force or person being in control, of
some greater divine master plan.

In this way, despite, or perhaps because of, the secularization

of contemporary life, mall designers are able to tap into a lost
sense of awe and direction, so that, as Gottdiener (1995:91)

Individuals living in environments with few public spaces

and low-density demographics, can find something that
many of them lack and often crave when they enter the

This can be understood when we consider a Durkheimian

definition of religion which ‘involves the reaffirmation of
publicly standardized ideas, providing social solidarity and
linking the individual to the broader social order’ (Kearl & Gill,
1998) – a definition which can easily be seen to apply to
‘consumption’ in contemporary life. We need only consider the
UK and US governments’ entreaties for the public to ‘go
shopping and take holidays’ in order to uphold the economy
and defy the 9/11 terrorists (Jones & Smith, 2001), to
understand how it may be that shoppers can feel they are
‘performing a meaningful part of the contemporary organic
solidarity that binds not only individuals, but nations together’
(Kearl & Gill, 1998).

In conclusion, then, it can be seen that malls have been

developed within a particular social, cultural and economic
context. Designed around the increased use of automobiles of a
large, suburban population, they have become not only places
of consumption but spaces to be consumed in their own right.
Yet this concept of malls as spaces of consumption has been
used as a technique to disguise their true, material function
and distract shoppers from their ‘guilt’ around such
conspicuous consumption. To this end, designers have exploited
the nostalgia for community and safe public spaces by
employing a crude psychogeography. Whilst the replication of
bygone city streets and marketplaces is one, well documented,
method, I have argued that the structure of many shopping
malls instils a sense of awe which resonates with cathedrals of
old and allows the shopper to feel they are part of a spiritual,
not just a physical, community.