This is a shopping center.
Photo: Justin Lane / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock
In this country, we believe in opportunity and overcoming impossible odds. We consider it an article of faith that even, say, a ruinous mall dud can recover by providing people with three-pack of undershirts and oversized candy. It’s a vision that drew investors to the cobbled promise of the Meadowlands, where a new mall has emerged from the spongy earth. Around 2007, a mirage dubbed Xanadu materialized next to the New Jersey Turnpike, a large jumble of structures wrapped in an assortment of brightly colored patterns, like a table gift from the gods. But before the packages could be opened, the Great Recession wiped out those good deals, leaving a shell that then governor Chris Christie called “by far the ugliest fucking building in the world. New Jersey, and possibly America “.
Still, a new set of developers persevered. The doomed pleasure dome has been redesigned, repainted and renamed American Dream – and voila, a full color elephant has been transformed into a white elephant.
In the fall of 2019, the Bergen Record celebrated the accomplishment of run through a 23 year history of the vicissitudes and postponements of the site and ending with a sigh of relief: “Now, barring an unforeseen problem, a small part of the dazzling shopping and amusement center, with its mountains Russian, its world-class shops and restaurants and the artificial ski slope will open on October 25. Alas, there was an unforeseen glitch. The resort was still planning various ribbon cuts the following March when the pandemic shut it down. Just over a year later, the company behind it, Triple Five, defaulted on a $ 1.2 billion construction loan.
On a stormy weekday afternoon, the newly reopened shopping town was bafflingly serene. Maybe it was just a momentary lull. Perhaps with the pandemic ebbing, crowds will abandon their online shopping carts and return to physical stores. Or, at least, families may crave indoor entertainment of the kind that requires bulk square footage. This location is not primarily for picking up school supplies or refreshing a wardrobe; it is live. There is a water park with a wave pool, an ice rink, an amusement park and a ski slope that from the outside looks like a huge slide on stilts. The spiritual heart of the place may be TiLT – A Tracy Lee Stum Optical Illusion Museum, where visitors can have their photo taken recalling the face of the Statue of Liberty or riding a hot dog flying through the sky over Manhattan. Such stimulation may require a break before your next outing – a retreat in Grisini, for example, where you can drink a cup of coffee at a window counter, with views of the highway, the parking lot tundras and the mountainous mass of the MetLife Stadium. The sight appears to be a sharp disappointment. Who needs what’s on the other side? Leave your problems outside. So life is disappointing, forget it! Life is good here.
Why brave the inconstant outdoors when you can snowboard in perpetually perfect powder or ride a roller coaster without braving the summer humidity? Big Snow (as the slope is called) might not swallow up as much terrain or challenge nature as wildly as Qatar snow dunes, or offer a ride as long as the Alpine Center in Bottrop, Germany, but it provides the definitive response to anyone gentle enough to claim that the best use of a sensitive and polluted area is ecological restoration. Why protect wetlands when you can just squirt money into them like PCBs from a chemical plant?
Ten years ago, the GH + A architectural firm, in collaboration with Adamson Architects, overhauled the design of the nearly completed structure to make it less intrusive. They triumphantly achieved their goal: The American Dream Mall is no longer the ugliest building in New Jersey, or perhaps America. It struggles so much to avoid ugliness, in fact, that, like the sky itself, it blends into the atmosphere. The design is a collection of watered down references to more extreme models. With its curvilinear white atriums, escalators disguised as ramps and lighting strips that emphasize its plunging contours, the interior suggests a pale echo of Maxxi, Zaha Hadid’s museum of modern art in Rome, but without the energy. kinetic. A ghostly keepsake of Xanadu lingers in a few fireplaces painted with a thatch of stripes in groovy 1970s tones of lilac, mauve, and tangerine and accessorized with triangular ottomans.
On my way to Primark, passing a dead Century 21 store, I felt the cool breeze of ersatz authenticity on the back of my neck. Looking up, I saw that I was standing under a barrel vault, clad in dark wood and coffered in addition. For some reason, that otherwise unremarkable length of hallway deserved a special ceiling, the clubby, old-fashioned antithesis of all those white spaceship atriums. A little further on, I hit a rotunda – a parking lot entrance hall, really – with an icicle-shaped chandelier dripping from the ceiling. As I wandered through the atriums and escalators, I craved a bit of authentic and exuberant exuberance, that embodied by the smiling pumpkins and hallucinatory flowers of Yayoi Kusama at the New York Botanical Garden’s summer show. . Kusama’s work has appeared in shopping malls in Honolulu and Tokyo, but East Rutherford opted for a discounted version of real art. In the center of a courtyard, giant letters in the colors of the rainbow express LOVE. Robert Indiana, call your office.
To reject all of this as out of date is to be generous: it is not out of date sufficient. Attacking it as a generic isn’t quite fair either. I wish it had been more empty, like the sprawling, neutral Costco hangar in Teterboro, which brings together the entire North New Jersey demographic mix in what has to be one of the most diverse places in the country. American Dream is shy where it could have been scandalous, sporadically whimsical where it should have been simple. (The shiny marble slabs strewn among the unpolished tiles suggest builders were making the most of a limited supply.) Architects should now have learned from Las Vegas to fake with panache. Here, the design is half-heartedly daring and almost apologetic. It’s like stealing a car for a ride and then hitting the speed limit.
Like so many in America, the entire space is suitable for the taste of 6 year olds. A colonnaded portico apparently made of jelly candy and topped with a mini Statue of Liberty leads to a chain of candy stores with the shit name It’sugar. The hallways are as wide as airport lobbies, so kids – and adults, for that matter – can twirl and run until exhaustion, have their cries muffled by mellow background music, and stroll on electrified stuffed animals on wheels. In this child’s view, the frame around the fantasy, that is to say the architecture, does not matter. If the close-ups are crisp and the colors vivid enough, then the white steel structure above the head doesn’t spoil the feeling of limitlessness, but simply fades into distant skies. The whole thing is designed in portrait mode, so that the foreground dominates and everything else blends into a utilitarian blur.
Evocations of dark forests and fairy tales receive the same ruthless treatment. In the garden courtyard, lawn gnomes and fiberglass rabbits frolic on mounds of moss that have been killed, dehydrated, chemically treated, and dyed to make it look alive again. This taxidermized down is draped over small buttes and hangs, Spanish-style, from sinuous arches that vaguely resemble branches of living oaks. The stuff also includes a small wrought-iron kiosk above a winding path that should really lead to a pitcher of juleps. Here and there, overly green greenery is dotted with plastic daisies the size of trash can lids. The jumble of references is a bit bewildering: What are Sleeping Beauty’s companions doing on a pre-war plantation in northern New Jersey? – but it is in the nature of dreams.
As I explored this off-brand county, I kept thinking of the gardens of the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, a tropical glass-roofed Eden that makes the Ford Foundation looks like a terrarium. A few years ago, I spent most of an evening exploring the rivers, waterfalls, islands and (real) lush vegetation of the hotel’s four connected atriums. The place is a marvel of interior-landscape architecture, where temperature, light and humidity are kept in a state of unchanging perfection. The East Rutherford crew did not dare to emulate this level of artificial romance; apparently the American dream does not include horticulture.
After a while, I began to suspect the fantasy was anxious, befitting a struggling establishment shut down by a pandemic and rocked by a retail revolution. In an adorably apocalyptic bloom of fantasy, the new aquarium imagines New York as a drowned city. Sharks fly above Art Deco skyscrapers planted in the middle of the reefs. The Brooklyn Bridge is submerged. The metro cars sleep with the fish. If your kids ask you, “Mom, what’s the worst climate change scenario for coastal cities? Or if they claim a literal representation of an underwater investment, this is where you just explained.