The Instagrammable Shopping Centre

Paul Noble, Mall, 2001-2. Pencil on four sheets of paper. Courtesy MoMA.

By the time the philosopher Walter Benjamin embarked upon the Arcades Project in 1927, the nineteenth-century shopping arcades at the centre of his magnum opus had all but disappeared from Parisian life. That was Benjamin’s contention; the arcade, an architectural phenomenon made possible by the latest technological innovations, had become a relic of modern life. With mass-industrialisation in the early nineteenth-century came glass and iron, materials that irreversibly changed the urban landscape into a space of spectacle and consumerism, a space that city-dwellers could experience at their leisure. Modernisation transformed the city, and the arcades embodied a culture of capital that came with it. But just as quickly as the glass and iron passageways appeared throughout the city, they would be rendered redundant by newer, more exciting innovations. As the art historian and critic, T. J. Clark, wrote in his review of the first English translation of Arcades Project in 1999, the arcades ‘were old-fashioned almost as soon as they declared themselves the latest thing.’1 Along came the department store, and then, as the twentieth century progressed, the mall.

In the twenty years since Clark’s review, today’s shopping destinations face the threat of their own extinction. At the turn of the millennium, the expansion of internet shopping was already posing a threat or, at best, an alternative, to physical retail space. The idea was floated in Rem Koolhaas’ mammoth Harvard School of Design Guide to Shopping in 2001 that, perhaps, e-commerce could alleviate the problems retail faced at that moment, when retail space was becoming oversaturated and new space was running low.2 For the most part, however, the first two decades of the twenty-first century have proven to be a bleak time for the physical shopping experience. The exponential growth of online shopping, alongside unprecedented technological advances that have made consumerism possible not only at the click of the mouse, but at the tap of a finger, has been devastating for brick-and-mortar retail. And even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, a change in consumer behaviour was affecting the sustainable future of shopping spaces, with a trend in spending on services overtaking that of goods by the end of the second decade.3 Over the past couple of years, department stores on both sides of the Atlantic have faced closure, shopping centre chains in the UK have fallen into administration, and the great British high street has been on the brink of collapse. The retail decline was not caused by Covid-19, merely sped up by it.

What, then, does this mean for physical shopping spaces? It’s a question that resounds through the (digital) pages of newspapers, business and fashion journals.4 With the emergence of pop-up stores, Instagram-savvy brands have identified a possible solution. The millennial pink in-store experience cultivated by beauty brands like Glossier is one such example of how the retail sector has cottoned on to consumer shifts towards the service industry.5

It’s clear, as Amanda Hess wrote for The New York Times in late 2019, that, in the post-shopping mall era, the ‘retail imagination has been transposed to Instagram, and shuttered storefronts have been infiltrated by “pop-up experiences” primed to monetise the selfie.’6 But the pop-up phenomenon is more a material manifestation of contemporary culture, than evidence of a permanent solution for physical shopping spaces.

As the retail crisis creates a growing retail wasteland, an alternative kind of shopping experience (one that isn’t quite so temporary) emerges. Koolhaas’ Guide to Shopping suggests that the reuse of ‘existing typologies’ could alleviate the looming retail crisis if e-commerce didn’t.7 And, sure: opening in 2018, Coal Drops Yard, in London’s King’s Cross’s recently-redeveloped Granary Square, is a high-end shopping destination combining two parallel nineteenth-century warehouses under one semi-covered arc-like structure, designed by Thomas Heatherwick (it’s worth noting that Heatherwick is responsible for the Vessel, a kebab-shaped ‘interactive sculpture’ in New York’s Hudson Yards – a $25bn private housing and shopping complex in the Lower West Side that opened in 2019). But reusing existing infrastructure isn’t such a recent phenomenon; in the 1990s, the former Birds’ Custard factory in another British city, Birmingham, was redeveloped into the Custard Factory, a space for creative start-ups and independent stores.

At both Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory, the connection to an industrial past is central to their image construction: the former boasts that innovation and creativity is built into its Victorian heritage; the latter cultivates a hipster-y charm that stands in stark opposition to the overtly-commercial Bullring shopping centre just down the road. Embedded within these spaces is a connection to the past and a lucrative, aestheticised placemaking that emphasises authenticity – an especially important factor in a digital, social media-driven age. There’s an attractiveness attached to ‘authenticity,’ something that has prevailed since old factory spaces in dilapidated areas of cities, like New York, were made into cool loft apartments for a generation of bohemian creatives in the 1980s. As urban sociologist Sharon Zukin observes, ‘No longer is seediness ugly, it is now a sign of authenticity.’8

As the service industry has taken over goods, the parameters of conspicuous consumption have also shifted. The ‘lifestyle experience’ is how architectural theorist, Brian Lonsway, describes the subtle aesthetic choices used to complement the interests of target consumers.9 And for spaces like Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory, where a creative, ‘edgy’ lifestyle is cultivated through its authentic-slash-heritage infrastructure, digital technology has been as essential as the buildings themselves. Photos of the public art murals and graffiti at Custard Factory often appear on the official Instagram account, encouraging users to experience the space’s ‘authenticity,’ which, in turn, is used to market its attractiveness. Meanwhile, the branding and marketing for Coal Drops Yard has been painstakingly strategised to be the opposite of ‘cookie-cutter’ malls;10 posts tagged by users on Instagram mimic this official strategy of celebrating quirky angles, carefully positioned coffees, and posed shots with the space’s nineteenth-century infrastructure in the background. One tagged photo sees the user pose with the brands of clothing he’s wearing also tagged, and the caption ‘Industrial Realness.’

In Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures, internet culture specialists, Tama Leaver, Tim Highfield and Crystal Abidin, note that, ‘Locations become recognised for their aesthetic potential.’11 Aestheticised placemaking at both Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory provokes users to take, and share, carefully stylised images of the space on social media, whilst also identifying with the lifestyle that these shopping destinations market. Undoubtedly, as visually cultivated as these spaces are on social media, they are also pleasant to wander around in real life (that is, if you’re the intended customer and not seen as a threat to the chilled-out atmosphere).12 And that photogenic quality is something that predates Instagram; as the architectural historian, Beatriz Colomina, argued in Privacy and Publicity, in the twentieth century, modern architecture has been fundamentally shaped by mass media.13 More recently, fellow architectural historian, Claire Zimmerman, has made this idea more explicit, stating that photographic practices are embodied within the architectural framework of buildings themselves. She takes up Reyner Banham’s concept of ‘imageability’ – that buildings should ‘perform like an image’ and thus be ‘retained like an image.’14 Today, as shopping destinations like Coal Drops Yard and Custard Factory incorporate the visual literacy of social media into their brand identity, perhaps the term now is Instagrammable; the Instagrammable shopping centre.

There’s a nuance to the Instagrammable shopping centre that sets it apart from the pop-up store. The visual cues provoking users to ‘create content’ aren’t quite so overt; think, the way the upper glass facade of Coal Drops Yard catches the afternoon sun, or how a string of fairy lights glisten in the evening at Custard Factory, rather than, say, a giant Adidas shoebox pop-up. To the digital theorist, Lev Manovich, the term ‘Instagrammable’ describes a specific style of Instagram image, one that shares the abstract characteristics of the New Vision photography of the early twentieth century.15 The movement’s ambition to view the world through the distorted lens of mechanical technology is mirrored in the images created through Instagram today. Of course, Instagram is more vernacular than an artistic movement, and a shopping centre is used by more than just those who want to capture its image.

What fascinated Benjamin about the Parisian arcades was the hunch that this nineteenth-century invention was a visual embodiment of history in the making, at the moment of its becoming and disappearing. Under the enchantment of the ‘phantasmagoria of capitalist culture,’ we are caught up in the magic of the arcade, of the department store, of the mall. The historian Bernd Witte sees Benjamin as being concerned that history, in a commodity-based society is unable to ‘generate anything qualitatively new, [but] perpetuates itself as a fashionable renewal of a corrupt and forever unchanging world condition.’16 All this is to say, the Instagrammable shopping centre has neither sprung up from nowhere, nor is it likely to save the retail sector from the real crisis it faces. But, in this moment of extreme change, the Instagrammable shopping centre presents a good indication of where we were, and where we may now be headed.


Ellen Madeleine Brown is a British writer and Courtauld Institute of Art graduate.

  1. T. J. Clark, ‘Reservations of the Marvellous,’ London Review of Books, 2 June 1999: 

  2. Juan Palo-Cascado, ‘e-urope,’ The Harvard School of Design Guide to Shopping, ed. by Rem Koolhaas and others, Taschen, 2001, pp. 366-369. 

  3. Austan Goolsbee, ‘Never Mind the Internet. Here’s What’s Killing Malls,’ The New York Times, 13 Feb 2020: 

  4. See: 

  5. Rebecca Liu, ‘Inside the millennial church of Glossier—the beauty brand that wants to be your best friend,’ Prospect, 15 January, 2020: 

  6. Amanda Hess, ‘Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall’, The New York Times, 27 December 2019, 

  7. Palo-Cascado, Guide to Shopping, p. 369. 

  8. Sharon Zukin, ‘Consuming Authenticity: From outposts of difference to means of exclusion,’ in Cultural Studies, 22.5, 2008, pp. 724-748. 

  9. Brian Lonsway, Making Leisure Work: Architecture and the Experience Economy, Routledge, 2009, pp. 159-161. 

  10. See 

  11. Tama Leaver, Tim Highfield and Crystal Abidin, Instagram: Visual Social Media Cultures, Polity, 2020, p. 72. 

  12. See 

  13. Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity: Modern Architecture as Mass Media, reprint, MIT Press, 1996, pp. 13-14. 

  14. Claire Zimmerman, Photographic Architecture in the Twentieth Century (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. 6-7; pp. 288-9. 

  15. Lev Manovich, Instagram and Contemporary Image (2017), p. 122: 

  16. Bernd Witte, Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography, trans. by James Rolleston, 2nd edn, Wayne State University Press, 1997, p. 186.