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MALL TALK

A space station with a parking lot

December 10, 2006|Tim Cavanaugh | Tim Cavanaugh is the Web editor of The Times' editorial pages.

IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that throughout the post-World War II ascendancy of the indoor shopping mall, American culture was haunted by a vision: the vision of the space station. The off-world colony appears again and again in the period's popular culture: The 1959 children's classic "You Will Go to the Moon" envisions a space station as a combination ship's quarters and soda counter. The space station in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" boasts a brand-name hotel. The Bruce Dern vehicle "Silent Running" depicts the last forester in the solar system tending a grove of redwoods inside a habitat near Saturn.

Most spectacularly, Rick Guidice's illustrations for a NASA space station study and for Gerard K. O'Neill's 1977 manifesto, "The High Frontier," envisioned the space station -- with heartbreaking, Thomas Kinkadian ecstasy -- as a perfect world of vast atriums and terraced, landscaped residences, a sort of spinning, air-locked Sausalito, where swells would hang out on sunny decks and gather in manicured gardens.

These visions expressed a popular desire of the Space Age: the wish for an airtight paradise. Given enough human ingenuity, any environment could be re-created indoors. The impulse for a self-contained environment, a natural-artificial community, powered the creation of domed football stadiums -- and reached its absurd terminus in the Biosphere 2 experiment of the early 1990s.

The classic "introverted" shopping mall of the postwar period has been defined in many ways -- a grim, sterile prison; an efficient "consumer trap"; a promising "third space" in a nation rapidly losing its town square environments to exurban sprawl.

More than any of these, however, the mall was the closest most of us will ever get to a space station. Its central walkway resembled nothing so much as the centrifugal rim of the classic bicycle-wheel spaceport. Its open, multiple tiers captured the sense of airless airiness we all imagined would be a feature of the off-world habitat. It was possible to believe that gravity was slightly lower near those skylights. The fake sylvan groves, the artificial fountains, the false spontaneity of the common areas with their tables and benches -- it was all real because it was so obviously invented. Even the lighting pattern -- tiny bulbs designed to kick in at sunset to reduce the sense of time passing -- boldly announced the mall's independence from Earth's obsolete 24-hour cycle.

The space mall and space station share a sort of birth year. In 1954, Collier's magazine completed its serialization of Wernher von Braun's "Marsprojekt" series, complete with Chesley Bonestell paintings of the spinning-wheel space stations from which the Red Planet would be conquered. That same year, Viennese designer Victor Gruen created the indoor mall template with the Southdale shopping center in Edina, Minn.

From there through the 1980s, the spaceport of dreams and the mall of reality eerily tracked the hopes and anxieties of the country. The artificial environment was not just an exciting progression but a necessary safeguard against the various apocalypses -- killer bees, overpopulation, the greenhouse effect, nuclear holocaust -- that were always five to 10 years away. If the space station provided an escape from a planet going to hell, the mall was widely seen (and frequently condemned) as a respite from cities free-falling into unstoppable crime. Inside our airtight, radiation-shielded, zombie-proof environments, we could still thrive

Of course, it turned out the planet wasn't going to hell, at least not as advertised. The human extinction event still hasn't happened, nobody's eating Soylent Green and major cities experienced an unexpected renaissance in the 1990s.

This good news turned out to be the death knell of the artificial paradise. The contained mall -- typified in Los Angeles by the hermetically sealed Beverly Center -- has yielded to extroverted, upscale shopping centers like the Grove. As it happens, people like being outdoors. Space station plans were gradually winnowed too, and the International Space Station that straggled into low-earth orbit a few years ago was not even a shadow of the original idea. The last gasp of the vision came in "Star Trek's" Deep Space Nine station, whose two-story central promenade closed the loop -- now it was the space station that was trying to look like a shopping mall.

The indoor mall rose -- and fell -- with the vision of the space station. Like all futuristic dreams, it could survive anything except a better future. At a time when you can get whatever you're looking for with a few clicks on a mouse, it's hard to imagine anybody ever wanted to creep around Chess King, General Nutrition Center or Orange Julius in search of material relief.

Amazon.com is the shopper's equivalent of unmanned space exploration -- a better, less heroic way to see the universe, and one that makes the shiny dreams of the past seem vaguely embarrassing. When NASA announced plans for a moon base earlier this month, the space agency might as well have said it was bringing out a new eight-track player. The space mall and the space station -- glamorous icons of futurism -- ended up having no place in the future.

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