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The Modern Agora - Remaking the American Mall - A Seoul Case Study

It was a scene from Disney's Beauty and the Beast, where an awestruck Belle is gifted the grand library and overcome with love and gratitude. That's what I felt the moment I stumbled onto the new public library at the epicenter of the Starfield COEX Mall in Seoul - South Korea. It's a bold, new idea and experience, something that retailers and mall developers should seriously consider in sculpting and revitalizing the American shopping mall for a new generation of consumers. It's not a coincidence that the Starfield COEX mall is located in the posh Gangnam district of Seoul; made universally famous by K-Pop sensation "Gangnam Style" - the first YouTube video to reach 1, 2 and even 3 billion views.

Interestingly, the inspiration for the library in The Beauty and The Beast came from Admont Abbey in Austria. ( Admont Abbey (pictured below) is the largest monastic library in the world and contains over 70,000 volumes of texts. It is spectacular and bewildering.

The Starfield library at the COEX mall, a colossal two-story space, containing over 50,000 books and periodicals, was opened to the public in May of 2017. It's not your traditional, city center library - it doesn't feel cold, quiet or contained. Rather, it felt inviting, social, warm, yet innovative. International magazines, predominately in English, were laid out beautifully by themes, open to any passerby. There's no permission or paperwork required to glance through the magazines. You could take your time, pick up what you wanted and get lost in its pages from anywhere in the 30,139 square foot space.

There are no books hidden away in dusty stacks that only a staff member could access with a proper paper slip request; volumes and magazines were laid out like the latest designs in a boutique shop that you could touch, peruse and try as you wanted. It felt very similar to hanging out in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, but there were no books or magazines for sale.

The area was spacious and open, with ceilings that felt they opened to the sky and endless walls of books your imagination could not even fathom. It's deliberately laid out, with open spaces for designer chairs and couches, in similar fashion to the collaborative spaces that are iconic to Silicon Valley start-ups; designed for collaboration or individual focus as needed. It made me feel rejuvenated, that I could pause and reflect, in a building normally designed for commercial exchanges and bustle.

It also has a coffee shop, a Kiehl's shop, a grocery store, a social media center and a presentation space for speakers and attendees. Throughout the week, you may find scheduled poetry readings, special guest lecturers, activities for children and themed performances, like travel experts and pianists. Most importantly, everything is free of charge and it is open 7 days a week, every day of the year.

I loved it! I wanted one for my own city. But who would pay for this and how did it happen in Seoul? Why was it bustling with energy and life, while our malls dwindled and atrophied?

Shinsegae Group won the 10-year contract to operate and manage the Coex Mall, the largest underground shopping center in Asia. Their innovative approach was a $5.3 million investment to create a "cultural complex for its customers and fulfill its corporate social responsibility." Along with the public library, the Coex mall also has over 200 retail stores, a post office, a blood donor clinic, the largest Megabox Movie Theater in Seoul and a spectacular aquarium (pictured below).

Somehow, what they revitalized here embodied an ancient tradition that goes back to ancient Greece. It was an epicenter - the spirit of city centers that goes back to ancient civilizations - what was formerly known in greek as the Agora.

In ancient Greece, Agora or "gathering place" was an open space in the heart of the city - where commercial, political, artistic and spiritual life came together (pictured below). In the Agora, one could find an eclectic mix of society - from poets and politicians to merchants, mistresses and servants. Activities and finds could vary considerably from city to city, including boxing and wrestling matches, freshly made baked goods and sweets, slave trading, fresh seafood, poultry and meats, wine and spirits, silk and rugs, and shoes, jewelry and dresses.

In the Agora of ancient Athens, a young poet, so moved and inspired by the philosophical queries and examinations of Socrates, he became a dedicated pupil until Socrates was condemned to death. That poet later became one of the most influential minds in western philosophy, more commonly known as Plato.

What makes the Starfield Coex Mall so unique is the infusion of a non-commercial cultural gathering space - for every generation - that fosters learning, reflection, inspiration and community. It understands the human need and social good to provide more than just material consumption, but intellectual and spiritual consumption that only the mind or one's imagination can fully absorb and appreciate. More importantly, regardless of your economic ability to pay, the public library is a welcoming refuge or inspiration for anyone with some time on their hands. As a result, a rich plethora of culture, art and beauty embodies the space - and a community thrives for everyone; not just for commerce and trade.

In America, traditionally, strip malls and mega malls was emblematic of wealth and commercialism in towns and cities. By 1987, 30,000 malls across the US represented some 50% of retail revenue. It wasn't just a place you could go to buy a pair of Converse or Levis, but where you would meet up with friends, play video games, watch movies, grab pizza or take a photo with Santa. Some were more high end than others, offering upscale brands and restaurants managed by celebrity chefs. It was the crux of social energy, where you felt revitalized around the mesh of people from all walks of life.

But then a gradual shift occurred which became even more pronounced with the influx of social media. The mall generation of the 80s, and 90s and 2000s were being replaced by millennials and Gen-Xers that begin spending less on the consumption of durable and non-durable goods, and more on services and experiential goods, like restaurants, concerts and travel. The latter was much more social and shareable on social media. It was more in the new spirit of carpe diem to share a pic of friends at a concert, than it was to post a selfie with your new LV bag on Facebook or Instagram. Millennials were opting to spend their dollars on bikes or ride-sharing rather than owning a car or buying a home. Exotic travel destinations provided the cultural and spiritual outlet that long days at the office drained from you. On the weekends, you would get together with your friends to dine, sip cocktails or watch Netflix Original Series - which had provided new depth and content atypical of Hollywood blockbusters.

National retail chains that didn't understand this shift or were late to reposition their brand and product offerings effectively, found themselves outdated. The staple mall brands like Borders Books, The Limited, Gymboree, RadioShack, JCPenney, Sears, Toys R Us, BCBG...had less appeal and struggled to reinvent themselves. Increasingly, lifestyle brands that emphasized innovation, differentiation, and a greater call to action - gave their patrons a greater sense of purpose. And like the outdated brands, the outdated malls also saw the heavy decline of visitors. People wanted different, digital over tangible, experiential over durables...yet malls and retailers offered more of the same and the ephemeral.

Though Seoul is not the only city where malls are more than shopping and commerce venues. In Manila, there are endless miles of malls that also serve as social epicenters - the one-stop shop for commerce, food, entertainment, culture and community. Wide open spaces with art and gardens are also mixed with cultural events for children, youth and adults. You planned your weekend mall visits for dining and shopping, but also to stroll the art gardens with friends or family, watch outdoor plays and concerts, and then go to karaoke or dance clubs.

We need to rethink and revitalize our malls and commercial spaces. Infuse cultural, intellectual and spiritual outlets that also inspire innovation and community. We may surprise ourselves by the peripheral benefits to our communities and cities - a more well-read, cultured and global populace.


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