Mall Living

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SECRET LAIR: Townsend and Yoto’s secret apartment was originally a 750-square-foot storage room situated within the mall’s parking garage. To furnish their clandestine apartment, the artists made a point to buy items from stores within the mall itself.

Thirty-six-year-old Michael Townsend and Adriana Yoto, 29, unofficially (and illegally) established a residence within Providence Place, a behemoth shopping and entertainment complex. In 2003, they took over an empty 750-square-foot storage room, which was walled off on three sides, in the mall’s parking garage.

With the help of a couple of friends, they snuck in 90 cinder blocks and an industrial door to build a fourth wall to close off the area. Inside, they set up the usual apartment furnishings: couches, a rug, a coffee table, lamps, a TV set, a china hutch, and even portraits on the walls. Whenever possible, they bought these items from stores in the mall itself. They ran electricity from an electrical cable connected to a working outlet in the parking garage. In all, Townsend estimates that they spent about $5,000.

While they weren’t homeless (the couple also lived in their own separate studio apartment), Townsend and Yoto and their friends spent quite a lot of time hanging out in their mall homestead. And things went on this way for four years — until late September 2007, when Townsend was caught by mall security and arrested by the police. He was charged with a misdemeanor for trespassing and given six months probation.

Howard Wen: What was appealing about living at the mall?

Adriana Yoto: We wanted to create a space that embodied the design ideology of the mall. Our end goal was to create a space that one would think was actually part of the mall. We wanted people to feel like they were walking into Crate & Barrel or into a page of Domino magazine.

HW: The interior design of a lot of mall stores is indeed appealing. So that’s what you were going for in your space — re-creating that kind of design sensibility?

AY: The micromanagement of creating clutter-free homes and all these different storage techniques, creating the perfect pantry, the perfect closets — I think a critical culture has emerged recently of hyperorganized homes prepared to be seen by guests at any moment.

HW: Before you got caught, did you have an end game in mind with this project? Was there ever a point planned in the future when you would be finished with it?

AY: We never thought of it as a “project” — it was sort of this hobby integrated into our lives, and we never thought anybody would find out about it. We never intended it to be public. So we never imagined the end. We just imagined constantly improving and evolving it.

HW: How did you sneak into the apartment each day?

Michael Townsend: There was an architectural anomaly in the building that essentially acted as a private entranceway for us. It was a passage between two walls that was at its narrowest about 11 inches and spread to about 2 feet. It was about 60 feet deep. If you stood outside the mall, in the right place, and threw a baseball with accuracy, you could throw it into our home. Once you went through this, and were in the space, you were then connected to exit doors and the system of doors and stairways that provided exits for the mall.

HW: Were there limited times that you could go in and out?

MT: No, we had 24-hour access through our private entranceway. And the garage is open 24 hours a day too.

HW: Did you have to walk through a parking garage or something like that?

MT: There were entrances from the garage portion of the mall to our space. The garage is architecturally a little over half of the mall.

HW: Were there security guards you had to go by? Security cameras?

MT: There is 24-hour security and a standard network of cameras. As it should be, it is not an overwhelming or oppressive amount, so movement is not restrictive. In the garage or through the mall, there are precautions to take, but through our private entranceway it was a clean shot 24/7.

HW: How did you get the building materials and furniture in?

MT: If it was really thin, like lamps, doors, cinder blocks, rugs, clothes, artwork — those could go through the “squeeze hole,” as we called it.

If it was larger, we had to be very, very, very careful and just get the object through any door that led into a network of stairs and hallways that was ultimately attached to our nondescript door entrance (which we could open from the other side or was left ajar most of the time.) Once you got through any door and were not visible, you were pretty safe.

HW: How did you shower and use the toilet?

MT: Bathrooms were in the mall. If we had been allowed to be there for the [full] year, we were going to get a membership at the Westin gym. The Westin is a luxury apartment/hotel attached to the mall, and we would have worked out there in the morning and then used their shower. But, alas, our dreams of getting buff and staying clean were shattered.

HW: Michael, you have come across in the news media as extraordinarily gracious toward the police. Were you surprised by the way they treated you, especially in this day and age of heightened security concerns?

MT: We were in a high state of panic nearly all the time. But we knew if the space reached a “plateau of completion,” the actions against us would be lessened. It’s an odd calculation.

Before the judge, they started reading the charges against me. They said, “He entered a storage closet, which gave him access to a ladder that went up to a loft space, where over the years he created an apartment.”

I’m watching the judge, and I see [his] expression change, and they start describing the apartment in full detail: “The apartment was fully furnished, had sectional couches, matching lamps ….” At that point, the judge called everyone close to him, and they talked for a while and said, “We gotta give this kid a misdemeanor charge.”

The cop who brought me to the police station said, “How am I going to write this up?” I was like: “Well, trespassing with an intent to decorate?”

AY: I think our commitment was our redemption.

HW: Do you have anything to tell others who are entertaining the idea of doing what you guys did? Or a warning?

MT: It’s worth noting that you can put a cinder block in a backpack. That means you can build a house anywhere you want.

Townsend and Yoto’s “Living in the Mall” project:

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