Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mall Field Report: Barton Creek Square

Most people probably take the entire atmosphere of Barton Creek Square mall for granted. There are actually two atmospheres interacting simultaneously, the environment constructed by the mall and the different interactions of individuals visiting this environment. I was immediately aware of the carefully created space I was walking into: signage, seating spaces, wall and floor coverings, even the structure of the building itself had been meticulously and purposefully designed a certain way for a certain reason. Nancy , the manager of Barton Creek Mall, described the mall’s interior decoration as “country club casual”, a genre often repeated under many different titles. This concept is generally interpreted through neutral tones and expensive materials, such as leather and granite, combined with the more playful elements of a typical mall, such as colorful store fronts. This mall was a perfect environment to examine different levels of consumerism and I chose to focus on how consumers behave and react to the process of shopping in a controlled environment. I found special interest in the decoration of the mall, gender and socioeconomic relationships in shopping, and concerns with a layout “hierarchy” of stores.
The first thing that struck me was the “outdoor” elements that had been brought in. Sunlight beams in from the numerous skylights throughout the mall, large scale potted plants are scattered between the carts, seating areas and the food court, which is modeled after a terrace- complete with a decorational awning and garden gate. I found all of this particularly interesting since malls were first created to shield the shopper from the elements but now, in a supposed effort to make the customers more comfortable, this mall has brought visual references from the outdoors in, blurring the distinction between indoors and out. Perhaps this is because Barton Creek Mall is situated on a scenic loop and the foliage attempts to acknowledge that. Of course, patrons are still shielded from weather inside an enclosed, air-conditioned space. It is peculiar that shopping centers are evolving into “ Lifestyle Centers”, such as the Domain in North Austin, where shops open to the outdoors, but the enclosed space of a mall still seems to be preferred by shoppers. I find it ironic and slightly humorous that malls incorporate so much of the outdoors in their décor when their purpose as a structure is to protect their patrons from it.
The seating areas provided in different parts of the mall have a distinct purpose: to provide a comfortable space for the mall customers where they can wait, rest, reflect, etc. There are benches, in addition to these areas, scattered around the mall, but more people tend to gather in the designated spaces. Perhaps this is because the furniture is more comfortable, or that the spaces tend to not face outward into the mall, or maybe it is just our individual perceptions of this type of furniture. These seating spaces recall typical American living room. They usually have a couch or two and few armchairs, maybe even a small table. The couches are always large and covered in leather, suede, or other rich fabrics. Chairs in these areas have large arms and plush backs. The mall has thrown our perception of a domesticated space into a very public place. It is interesting to watch how people interact with these spaces. I observed mostly men or families occupying the seats. They behave a lot like one would presume people act in their personal spaces, even though they were in public. Some sleep, read or fuss with their shopping bags, kids play their hand held video games, a mother even breast-fed her infant. People seem to almost forget their public setting when surrounded in the physical and mental comfort of these seating areas.
The most overwhelming aspect of the mall however, has to be the mass amounts of signage. Directories, storefronts, promotional posters, advertisements - the list goes on and on. The mall contains an overwhelming amount of graphic work, which in turn seems to define American consumerism. It is impossible to not be a consumer in our culture. We are constantly bombarded with symbols, signage, and printed works all trying to communicate different messages to us. People have adapted to this chaotic visual world by ignoring most of it. This realization brought a lot of different issues and shopping patterns to my attention. Patrons frequently get lost in the large complex because of their disregard for maps and directional aide. I don’t believe this to be the fault of the individual designer, but rather our consumerist society for causing this culture where patrons pay little attention to signage. Although it is notable that most directional signs in Barton Creek Square seem over simplified and maps are difficult to navigate through.
These issues also forced me to investigate the separate storefronts around the mall. They all differ not just in logos but structurally- doors, entrance shapes and sizes, etc. For example, the Apple store front is very simple: flat glass panels with silver panels above them and the trademark apple logo in the middle. While, the Hollister store front jutes out into the mall walkway with a tiled awning, dressed mannequins, and more foliage. This is definitely trying to market individual store identities. How and why we consume can help us explain deeper societal issues. I realized that in my own shopping patterns I only shop at certain stores in the mall whose identities I am familiar with or can somehow relate to. This causes me to ignore most other stores that I do not find particularly appealing from the outside. Watching certain groups of people allowed me to see that I am not alone in this. Stereotypes prevailed and certain types of people went in to their allotted stores without straying too much from their socially determined path. This also relied on a hierarchy of stores within the mall. People tend to flow towards department stores more than anything else and pay the least amount of attention to carts along the walk way. In our discussion with Nancy, the mall manager, she suggested a direct correlation with the cost to lease these spaces and their customer volume. I think that there is a lot more to investigate there, however, about location, convenience, and the implied and conceived atmospheres in different sections of the mall.

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