All under one roof: how malls and cities are becoming indistinguishable

Suburban malls may be a dying breed, but in cities from New York to Hong Kong, new malls are thriving by seamlessly blending into the urban fabric

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Sino Ocean Taikoo Li in Chengdu, China, an outdoor mall with streets
Sino Ocean Taikoo Li in Chengdu, China, an outdoor mall with streets / © Oval Partnership

“We didn’t expect to see stores,” says Yulia, as her husband browses for shoes in one of the shops lining the Oculus, the new focus of New York’s World Trade Center.

Visiting from Ukraine and on their way to the 9/11 memorial, they were beckoned by the Oculus’s unusual architecture: from the outside, the Santiago Calatrava-designed ribbed structure reminds you of a bird or a dinosaur skeleton; inside, it is teaming with tourists taking pictures with selfie sticks.

But the Oculus, named after the eyelike opening at the apex that lets in light, is more than a piece of striking architecture. It exists as a mall, with more than a hundred stores, and as a hub connecting office buildings in Brookfield Place and One World Trade Center with 11 subway lines and Path trains, serving 50,000 commuters every day. That’s a lot of eyeballs on shopfronts.

The mall company Westfield, of course, hopes that the tourists and transit users will stray to the stores. “The New New York Place to Be”, reads the mall’s tagline. “Shop. Eat. Drink. Play. All under one magnificent roof.”

Oculus was Westfield’s $1.4bn bet that New York, a city known for its love of the street, could also have a successful mall. And judging from the crowds, it counters the narrative that the mall is “dead”, like those thousands of empty suburban malls dotting the American landscape, “ghostboxes” decaying on cracked asphalt parking lots. […]