The new town plaza
THE PLAZA of our grandma’s days was the place where the community gathered. People came mainly on “market day” when families sold their produce, home-made and handcrafted items and the season’s harvest—fruits, vegetables, grains. Here, men and women shared ideas, made conversation and built the ties that kept their community together. It was, in a way, a barometer for the social, political and economic development in the town. It measured the status and values of its society.
During those days, a plaza was both park and marketplace. It was also an open hall for musical performances, a platform for political demonstrations, the arena for athletic competitions and the venue for community celebrations. In other parts of the world, they are known as town squares, carrying out the same functions but with variations in the activities with each echoing the culture of its people.
These informal outdoor gathering spaces gradually became more structured and permanent with shops and eateries growing at their fringes to become fixtures to cater to the ever-growing population of what were once small towns. As the quiet town grew, so did its plaza transform. The evolved plaza is now a controlled environment enveloped in concrete and glass and bustling with just about the same amount of commerce, community living, entertainment and chaos. Today’s town plaza is the mall.
While malls are known primarily for the shopping, many don’t recognize that it has essentially replaced the town hall and its surrounding institutions including the likes of civic centers and churches. Today, Sunday Masses are held in the malls, and we find government agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Bureau of Investigation operating satellite offices within.
A wealth of info
Shopping malls hold a wealth of information about the community it serves. The metrics available from the urban plaza now include preferences in film, fashion, art and food, whether for the discerning or the mainstream. Here we can spot food trends (mochi balls anyone?), fashion fancies (metal-studded platforms?) and lifestyle aspirations (more furniture, accessories and lighting stores, and now even more beautiful malls!).
This enclosure filled with facts and figures carries a myriad of multisensory experiences that can either be enjoyable: the smell of bread and coffee; the music of a band or small orchestra playing live; or irritating: the same band or orchestra through a bad audio system, the overload of advertising posters and graphics. It can also be (un) forgettable: like the recent spate of robberies and shootouts that for some have marred what could have been a happy and relaxing day out. Undeniably, a mall bears the signs of the times.
I wonder how crowded it got during the market days? My claustrophobic nature goes into panic mode during packed mall visits, which is why I absolutely love strip malls and their semi-open structures that allow for views of the sky and the surrounding landscape. It feels spacious no matter how busy it gets. In the ’60s and ’70s, strip malls were quite popular but were overshadowed by the larger malls that were built vertically as a consideration to rising property prices. Remember Angela Arcade and Bricktown? Single-structure malls filled the cities and strip malls were relegated to the suburban areas.
Back in the city
Although I love the convenience of the one-building shopping mall, I’m glad that strip malls are back in the city. The thing I like most is that they integrate the experience of being sheltered and protected with the liberating feel of the outdoors: enjoying all that modern retailing has to offer while being close to nature. Hot sun and drizzles included.
Fortunately more and more developers are able to find the happy middle ground, integrating more greenery, sunlight and natural ventilation into their structures. Strip malls like Filinvest’s Westgate, Ayala’s Bonifacio High Street and even SM’s Mall of Asia have somehow brought the shopping experience a step up, if not a step outside. Then there are the flourishing weekend markets and even the poor man’s talipapa that pop up and out of little communities.
Next time you enter a mall through those X-ray machines, ceremoniously patted and bags inspected by the security guards with sniffer dog in tow, there’s no need to think of it as merely shopping. Meet up and hit-chat with friends, get your business done, sit alfresco and sip your coffee park-side. Enjoy. Explore. You can even do a bit of shopping.
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