What are the metal "things" atop the Pentagon City mall parking ramp?

Tim O'Connor, Arlington

Whoa, whoa, Tim buddy, not so fast. Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: It's not the "Pentagon City mall." It's not even the "Pentagon City Mall."

It's The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City.

It struck Answer Man that you hardly ever see the M-word anymore, as if retailers thought "mall" had unseemly connotations. That isn't entirely true, said the mall -- er, the concentrated retail center -- experts I spoke with. It's more that those four little letters are too small to contain the wonderfulness which the modern American shopping experience has become.

Shopping centers are "now being built on a larger scale," said Patrice Duker of the International Council of Shopping Centers. "They're more than just the place you do your apparel shopping."

Now they have 40-screen movie theaters and indoor climbing walls, white-tablecloth restaurants and Dave & Buster's. They've become "town centers" that attempt to recreate actual centers that towns used to have.

These megamalls are known in the industry as "entertainment centers" or "lifestyle centers." Developers want to differentiate them from the malls of old.

"None of the Mills centers have the word 'mall' in it," said David Douglass of the Mills Corp., which runs Potomac Mills and Arundel Mills. "We refer to them as shopping and entertainment destinations because . . . they're big, they feature more stores than a typical regional mall and they incorporate entertainment components."

The king of the "mall"-eschewers is Westfield, which, when it builds or buys a property, anoints it in its own image.

"Westfield is noted for its branding," said the company's Catharine Dickey. "Every shopping center in the county that it owns is 'Westfield Shopping whatever' -- fill in the blank."

It's a mouthful to say, "Honey, let's go to Westfield Shoppingtown Wheaton" (especially if, like me, you'll always call it Wheaton Plaza). But Catharine said in Australia, where the company is headquartered, people use "Westfield" as a synonym for "mall." (Of course, they eat Vegemite sandwiches there, too, and have their summers in the winter.)

I pointed out to Catherine that the address of Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis is 2002 Annapolis Mall Rd., an artifact of its pre-Westfield name.

"Yeah, well, I don't think that totally bothers us," she said.

Some places have withstood the forces of de-"mall"ification. The delightfully anachronistic Mall in Columbia, for example.

"Some people call it 'Columbia Mall,' " said Tony Summers, the center's retail marketing manager. "But it's always been the Mall in Columbia, since 1971."

Tony said other Rouse properties have gotten creative -- Durham's the Streets at South Point being an example -- but his mall has resisted, even after it added upmarket stores and changed its logo and "color palette."

When it came time to name the center that opened in 1989 across from the Pentagon, Michael P. McCarty of the Simon Group said: "The last thing we wanted to do was to include in that particular project's moniker the name 'mall,' which would tend to equate it with the other 12 malls in D.C. at the time."

It wasn't just a mall, and so they chose "Fashion Centre."

"There we were clearly trying to establish in the consumer's mind this was going to be a retail environment that contained upscale, better, fashion-oriented retailers," Michael said.

But why "Centre"? I'm pretty sure we kicked the British out of America so we wouldn't have to spell it in that foppish way.

"There was a time when people thought it was cute when you used the continental spelling, but that's gotten old, too," Michael said. "At the end of the day, does the consumer really care whether the E and the R are reversed?"

Where will the upscale/lifestyle/entertainment center naming craze end? Well, consider two centers that the Mills Corp. is building, one in Madrid, the other in New Jersey. They will go by the name "Xanadu," presumably in honor of Coleridge's "stately pleasure dome" and not the roller-disco movie starring Olivia Newton John.

But I digress, boy do I digress. What of those metal "things" atop The Fashion Centre at Pentagon City? They're on the top level of the parking deck and look a little like huge Venetian blinds frozen in place at an angle.

Karl Stumpf of RTKL, the architectural firm that designed the mall, said they were installed so residents in nearby apartment buildings wouldn't have to gaze upon an endless sea of vehicles from their balconies.

"It's actually just a visual baffle, so they're not looking at the cars," Karl said.

We can be sure it's an upscale, fashionable baffle.

The Fun Centre at Moss Hollow

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