‘Theater of Shopping’ Traces the History of the Most Productive Shopping Mall in the World, Bal Harbour Shops

There’s a new book out about a really incredible mall in Miami. In ‘Theater of Shopping,’ architecture critic Alastair Gordon traces the history and growth of Bal Harbour Shops, an icon of South Florida which often takes the top spot as the most successful shopping mall in the world per square foot, and the family that created it, the Whitmans.

To walk through Bal Harbour Shops feels like walking through a garden packed to the treetops with lavish and luxurious shops. It’s an oasis, a mirage, and a retail fantasyland. Bal Harbour Shops pioneered experiential retail decades before anybody else had even thought of it. This is escapist retail therapy for the uber-rich. And all of that is very much on purpose, and very much the creation of one man, Stanley Whitman, and his family.

Bal Harbour Shops has been open for over fifty years, but the Whitmans trace their history in South Florida back long before its creation. They developed Espanola Way, the mediterranean revival oasis of shops, restaurants, hotels, and apartments, in the heart of South Beach. They built a large Art Deco hotel, the Whitman by the Sea, in Mid Beach. They owned stretches of Lincoln Road, previously the most exclusive shopping area of Miami Beach. The book starts by exploring this early history of the Whitmans, then continues quickly on to a deep dive into the creation of Bal Harbour Shops.

‘Theater of Shopping’ is a fascinating look at the design, construction, and evolution of Bal Harbour Shops, tracing the evolution of Stanley Whitman’s idea of a high end shopping center in the new Village of Bal Harbour, Florida, just north of Miami Beach.

“I never followed the shopping center formula” Stanley Whitman said of his creation of Bal Harbour Shops, although he knew the formula well. As Gordon elaborates on in the book, Whitman toured the country, exploring other early malls for inspiration, and taking bits here and pieces there for Bal Harbour Shops.

Although Whitman bought the land for Bal Harbour Shops in 1954 and set about collecting ideas and designing it right away, ground wasn’t broken until 1965. He took over a decade to research, plan, and design Bal Harbour Shops, and to attract the most exclusive Fifth Avenue boutiques.

He had many of the best shopping center architects in the country draw up plans and designs for Bal Harbour Shops. There was Welten Beckett and Victor Gruen, the inventor of the modern shopping mall, among many others. The renderings of the various design incarnations of Bal Harbour Shops in the book, some designed by the most interesting and innovative shopping center designers of the time, are fascinating.

As Miami and South Florida continued growing in the postwar era, to today, so did Bal Harbour Shops. The mall expanded over the years, adding a Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, and adding a second level in 1986. And Bal Harbour Shops is about to undergo its final expansion, which the book also covers, with a new western wing of shopping and a Barneys.

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