Validation or Neutralization: Public Memory and Identity in the Adaptive-Reuse of Downtown Retail Interiors

Presented by: Ziad Qureshi, Alan Bruton

The historical presence of downtown retail environments has been essential in the establishment of public life and memory in North America, and in the face of ongoing urban and social transformation they continue to offer unique design opportunities via their adaptive reuse at the interior scale. Theorists such as Koolhaas and Gruen have identified the vital nature of retail and commercial spaces to civic and urban experiences, stating that shopping itself came to constitute urbanity and that by the end of the 20th century it has defined the primary experience of the city. Despite this critical value, in the contemporary moment the decline of brick-and-mortar retail environments is well-documented, particularly in the context of the traditional suburban shopping mall. In light of this retail decline and subsequent impact on space, the reconsideration and adaptation of downtown retail interior environments is both an ongoing phenomenon as well as a valuable potential opportunity for the future - particularly with reference to their previous essential value to the civic life and memory of the city. Can the adaptive reuse of former retail downtown urban interiors ensure the contemporary viability of their urban redevelopment, while still retaining a continuity of civic and urban value in the public realm? Via their adaptive reuse to new spatial programs, how can former retail interior environments in the downtown context position themselves with regard to their previous lives and identities, and continue to find public relevancy while enabling new functionalities? This presentation posits how the adaptive-reuse of former downtown retail environments has pursued a variegated agenda of continuity with public relevance and memory, particularly via design at the interior scale that either features or excludes the identity and presence of previous spatial lives. The investigation will center on comparative exemplars of this condition of interior selective validation or neutralization, demonstrating how interior design decisions have impacted memory, identity, and public continuity and broader issues of preservation. Comparative and contrastive, the discussion includes the ongoing downtown retail adaptive reuse of the Victor Gruen-designed Dayton’s Department Store in St. Paul, Minnesota (1963/2017) as a mixed-use facility for urban revitalization; the Thomas Stanley designed Sanger-Harris flagship store in Dallas, Texas (1965/1990) and its iconographic arches and mural; and the reuse of the celebrated Daniel Burnham-designed Filene’s Department Store in Boston, Massachusetts (1912/2015) by Ireland-based retailer Primark. The research provides a means of understanding the historical value and present potential of downtown retail environments for broader urban life, as well as enables insight into future considerations for interior-scale design decisions relative to public identity and memory.


  • GRATZ, Roberta Brandes. Cities Back from the Edge: New Life for Downtown. New York: Wiley Press, 2000.
  • HOWARD, Vicki. From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
  • HORNER, Sarah. “Much of former downtown St. Paul Macy’s will become… parking.” Star-Tribune Minneapolis-Saint Paul, 03 May 2016.
  • KOOLHAAS, Rem (ed.). Selections from The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping: Project on the City Volume 2. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2002.
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