Woke Culture as a Minimalist Mall Renovation for America
Los Angeles’ Hollywood & Highland Shopping Complex is undergoing a minimalist makeover that will erase its Faux Mesopotamian Kitsch aesthetic, including its iconic Elephant Statues. The shopping complex’s aesthetic was inspired by the Babylonian themed set of D.W Griffith’s 1916 silent film Intolerance, which has become a target of cancel culture. While many of LA’s Postmodernist malls have been demolished or underwent minimalist renovations, this is the first time that a minimalist mall renovation has been linked explicitly to woke iconoclasm, as there was a campaign during last year’s BLM protests by political activists as well as some LA architects to have the statues removed. It is noted that the film Intolerance was a response to criticisms of D.W Griffith’s previous work, Birth of a Nation, presenting a more exotic setting as a critique of bigotry.
Regardless, Chad Cress, the chief creative officer for the mall’s co-owner DJM stated about the renovation that “This is a real opportunity to move away from the clichés of Hollywood, red velvet ropes and big studios…The Hollywood of the future really needs to stand for something that is more inclusive of what our culture looks like today.” There was also concern that the mall’s sculpture, ”The Road to Hollywood” was out of touch with the MeToo climate due to resembling a casting couch. The alleged casting couch was already removed prior to the removal of the racist Elephant Statues. The motive for the renovation being primarily economic but fused with woke cancel culture captures the zeitgeist.
D.W. Griffith’s film Intolerance had as much of an impact on architecture as it did on cinema, inspiring LA’s Art Deco craze of the 1920s, including the Ziggurat inspired LA City Hall. Intolerance also inspired author Ray Bradbury’s 1970s essay “The Aesthetics of Lostness,” proposing that architecture seek inspiration from cinema. Bradbury’s essay ended up inspiring architect Jon Jerde’s Horton Plaza mall in Downtown San Diego, which recently underwent a minimalist renovation into a tech campus. A practical economic motive for these renovations is that structural simplifications might make mall venues more accessible to foot traffic but are antithetical to Bradbury’s call for a place to “safely getting lost”.
The Hollywood & Highland complex, which opened in 2001, is relatively new compared to LA’s other Postmodernist malls that were demolished or renovated. It opened at the tail end of the Postmodernist era in architecture which was future oriented while paying homage to the past. Its construction around the new underground metro station, coincided with the redevelopment of Hollywood Blvd. which is again experiencing urban decay. The mall generally catered to tourists while Angelenos derided it as tacky. The Intolerance design concept had great potential—comparable to the sort of immersive themes that one finds in Las Vegas—but the architects did not go far enough to create a truly notable location. While it was not of the same architectural caliber as many of the lost 80s postmodernist icons—and I have negative memories of getting stranded there with my wallet stollen—what is replacing it is totally banal and uninspiring.
These renovations are primarily due to the reality that malls have become economically obsolete, and are either being demolished or given a makeover in hopes of attracting a different set of business and customers. Now that most of these Postmodernist malls have been lost, there is a whole genre dedicated to mall nostalgia with countless Instagram Accounts. I produced a documentary project, with my friend, author and film producer David Cole, chronicling LA’s malls, both lost and existing (LA N O S T A L G I A: Part 1 Westside Pavilion).
The Westside Pavilion Mall in West LA mall was designed by Jon Jerde in 1985 and has been demolished since the documentary was filmed to become a Google office complex. The Westside Pavilion has significance as my local childhood mall from the 90s and mall nostalgia is huge for Millennials and GenXers. Besides the aesthetic appeal, mall culture is something from the recent past that represents lost middle class prosperity, and social capital. Dead malls are also the hypnogogic lost dreams of youth and a vision for a future that could have been. These iconoclasms eliminate a vision of the California Dream which is especially crucial as LA is relatively new and mall culture is a big part of LA’s identity.
Political and economic trends including urban decay, the internet, and late-stage capitalism are making quality public spaces increasingly scarce, privatized, or just incredibly bland and antiseptic. We see these historic preservation cycles with Art Deco not getting appreciation and protection until the 1980s, then Mid-Century architecture not until the 90s and 00s, but there is hardly any preservation for Postmodernist architecture from the 80s and 90s. Certainly many of these malls could be repurposed into more economically efficient uses while preserving their aesthetic. Traditionally historic preservation has been a lefty issue but I predict in the near future that woke arguments will be used to justify taking down older architecture on the grounds that their creators were bigots. Even the 80s are considered backwards in today’s climate such as a recent cringe Family Guy Episode.
Postmodernism had an optimistic vision for the future, while celebrating past genres, but also a sense of fun which is now missing. These minimalistic renovations are the very essence of late stage capitalism in that they conceal wealth power, and identity, are psychologically demoralizing, and symbolic of austerity with a veneer of social equity. These drab, colorless, scentless, and austere physical spaces match how society and media as a whole is becoming more sterile.
If you are going to demolish something at the very least try to replace it with something better. This applies to both architecture and to cancel culture as there is no vision for the future. This change is pushed by moral outrage campaigns and corporate gatekeepers, those who are totally mediocre and can’t create anything of value themselves. Woke cancel culture and minimalist renovations go hand in hand as they both sterilize the culture and lived experience and demoralize the psyche by taking the fun out of life.
Truly a great essay