Alexandra Lange on Mall Nostalgia, Romance Novels, and Twitch
A recurring theme in design critic Alexandra Lange’s work is unpacking how—and for whom—objects and spaces are designed. She explored the unspoken messages of office buildings for Apple, Facebook, and Google in her 2012 e-book The Dot-Com City, and surveyed how kids’ toys and physical environments impact their development in her 2018 book, The Design of Childhood. The ways in which outdoor public spaces, with their basketball courts, playgrounds, and skate parks, fail teen girls was the subject of a story she wrote for Bloomberg CityLab—one of many publications she has contributed to over the past two-plus decades.
Lange’s latest effort tackles the tangible and intangible frameworks of one of America’s most iconic institutions: the mall. Released last week, Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall (Bloomsbury) details the social, economic, and architectural forces behind shopping centers, and traces their rise, fall, and ongoing reinvention. Ever incisive, and neither nostalgic nor expected, Lange’s perspective offers a clever, approachable portrait of suburban marketplaces that touch on a fascinating array of subjects. These include how early malls, which were only accessible by car from city centers and therefore mostly out of reach for working-class Black and Latinx communities, have been complicit in segregation, and the mixed messages they send to teens by concurrently mounting arcades and “No Trespassing” signs. Lange also points out how common mall interiors (think: plentiful benches, wide walkways, and softly sloped ramps) lend themselves to senior citizens, who can use the shopping centers to gather and socialize, and the ways in which malls double as hubs for professional opportunities for women. All together, her book demonstrates how malls continue to play important roles in American culture, prompting Lange to explore how they will evolve in the future. In doing so, she makes a compelling case that malls—even in the midst of financial turbulence, inflation, the pandemic, and ever-growing e-commerce—can still bring people together.
To understand how Lange stays on top of goings-on in her field, we asked her to share her media diet with us. In doing so, Lange revealed a fondness for online archives, her fascination with romance novels, and why her two children are a potent resource for story ideas.
How do you start your mornings?
I usually wake up around 7 a.m., and do the Wordle and start the Spelling Bee in that pre-wakeup zone. I like to have that time, while still in bed in the dark, to ease into the day. I read a lot of books on the Kindle app on my phone, too. If I was reading a book that I was really into before I went to sleep, sometimes I’ll read that for a half an hour or so. Then I get up at 7:30 a.m., go downstairs, and have breakfast with my 11-year-old and 14-year-old. We still get the physical paper, the Times. I’ll flip through it, look at all the front pages, and read whatever articles strike my fancy.
Any daily go-to reads?
I have a tweet deck open on one of my computer’s windows all the time. Besides The New York Times, I get most of my article reads filtered through Twitter. It’s also where I get a lot of story ideas, or the push toward turning something into a story.
I like the design community on Twitter, and on Instagram as well. I’m connected to a lot of people on Instagram, including several other architecture and design critics: Mark Lamster, Carolina A. Miranda, Alissa Walker, and Diana Budds, to name a few. Seeing what they’re publishing and retweeting is really helpful. Because they’re not all located in New York City, sometimes I see things that I never would have been paying attention to otherwise. There are also many people I’m connected to whose names I don’t even know—and whom I’ve ended up chatting with.
What are some of your favorite newsletters?
For visual fun, I really like Elizabeth Goodspeed’s newsletter, Casual Archivist. She’s a good follow. For general cultural stuff, I subscribe to Anne Helen Petersen’s Culture Study newsletter and to Lyz Lenz’s Men Yell at Me newsletter.
There’s a woman named Virginia Sole-Smith who has a newsletter called Burnt Toast that is about diets, fatphobia, and food culture. I found my way into it through her talking about how parents imprint on their kids around food—that’s related to my whole interest in childhood. But now, I’m finding it really interesting in terms of clothing, fashion, sizes, and Gen-X hangovers about weight. She recently wrote a multi-part series called Jeans Science on how denim became popular. It was a terrific piece of design criticism, and came from the context of trying to find jeans for yourself today: things like who’s sizing them and who they actually fit, or why cotton and lacquer content matter.
Speaking of fashion, what are some of the resources you used in your research for your latest book?
I wrote the book during the pandemic, so a lot of the travel that I was hoping to do wasn’t feasible. I used a lot of online archives. I also ended up going down a lot of visual rabbit holes. There’s a whole slew of mall nostalgia websites such as Malls of America, Mall Hall of Fame, and The Department Store Website that have great pictures, maps, and accounts of malls all over the country.
I also started following a lot of Instagram accounts that post historic photos of malls, like @phildonohue, @luxurydeptstore, @rustbeltmallwalker, and @mallchitecture. I ended up using the Owings Mills photo from a dead mall photography Instagram account, @abandoned_america, in my book.
I have a difficult relationship with podcasts. I’ve been on a lot of them, and I have a lot of friends who were on them, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to fit them into my life for daily reading because I don’t commute. I take a walk every day, but I use that time to mull over things in my head.
That said, I miss my favorite podcast ever—Thirst Aid Kit—which is no longer with us. The two women who hosted that podcast, Bim Adewunmi and Nichole Perkins, talked about romance tropes and related them specifically to movie stars.
With other podcasts, I tend to pick a specific episode that intrigues me, sometimes for research. For example, I loved 99% Invisible’s episode on romance-book covers. Nice Try! did an episode on slow cookers. I especially liked that. They talked about how they’re used in the Orthodox Jewish community. I have a friend who’s Orthodox, and who is always talking about slow-cooker recipes. I was like, “Oh yes, I have heard this in action.”
I also love The War on Cars, which talks about how cities could be designed to better accommodate children. It sounds like this really narrow premise, but actually, they’re able to demonstrate it through so many different urban and design issues.
What are your favorite magazines?
As I mentioned, archives are great resources for my work. The New York Public Library added a historical archive of women’s magazines as one of its online databases. From home, I can look up a 1956 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal that has an article about how arcades are poisoning youth. The website has a lot of old architecture magazines digitized, too. For instance, I can look at a 1945 issue of Architectural Forum if I need to. Way back when I was writing my dissertation, I used to have to go to Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library—all the way from Brooklyn—to find a hard copy. I also love Elle Decor, which my friend Asad Syrkett is doing.
What books are you reading?
I usually have various piles of books that I’m reading for different projects. Right now, I’m reading Penny Sparke’s Nature Inside: Plants and Flowers in the Modern Interior. For something I’m writing about related to malls and landscape, I currently have a galley of Eva Hagberg’s When Eero Met His Match: Aline Louchheim Saarinen and the Making of an Architect, which is coming out in the fall. I also have a PDF galley of a book called Queer Spaces: An Atlas of LGBTQIA+ Places and Stories.
In terms of pleasure reading, there’s A Certain Hunger, and a book I’ve been meaning to read about Simon and Kirby’s romance comics. Love & Other Disasters, by Anita Kelly, is another great one. I started reading a lot more romance novels over the past couple of years. I read them in the evenings, and stopped watching so much TV. It’s very relaxing.
One of the things I love about the romance genre is how quick the uptake is. Romance writers write a lot, and many of them are self-published or e-published. Their books come out more rapidly than traditional publishing, so they’ll quickly [incorporate] new trends, information, and events into their stories. I learned what Twitch was vis-a-vis a gamer-based romance novel. I had to see it played out in fiction, then finally was like, “Oh, okay. Now I get it.”
Favorite TV shows?
During the earlier part of the pandemic, I tried to find a lot of shows that my family could watch together. It was hard to find something that everyone liked; most shows ended up being workplace comedies. We watched The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schitt’s Creek, and Parks and Recreation, and then, we kind of ran out of them. We recently tried Abbott Elementary, but after the first couple of episodes, we weren’t really feeling it. I’m sure somebody will say, “Oh, you have to see at least seven episodes before you get into it!” Maybe we’ll come back to it. It would be fun to have another family show.
Now, each person in our family has their own media diet—and I’ve gotten a lot of story ideas from my kids. I wrote a piece in November 2020 about Discord and teens, and how, during the pandemic, the platform became an important gathering place for a lot of them. That was totally from my 14-year-old, who got on Discord before I did and created a Dungeons and Dragons group there.
Any guilty pleasures?
I know other people have said this before, but I try not to think of things as guilty pleasures. That’s something that people talk about a lot with respect to romance novels, actually. I feel like it diminishes it as a genre, and diminishes your enjoyment of it. Especially in this moment, people should take their pleasures where they can—and not feel bad about them.