Arts + Design

The strange, surprisingly radical roots of the shopping mall

Nov 29, 2016 /
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Victor Gruen was an avant-garde European socialist who inadvertently designed that all-American creature, the mall. But, as Steven Johnson reveals, his master plan was way grander — and one we might want to build today.

Go to Minnesota, follow Route 35 southwest of Minneapolis to the suburban town of Edina, and take the exit onto West 66th Street. You will eventually find a building complex floating like an island in a gray sea of parking, its exterior a jumbled mix of branded facades: GameStop, P.F. Chang’s, AMC Cinemas. Although this building looks unremarkable, it ended up defining an era: It is the Southdale Center, America’s first mall.

Today’s malls have a mostly well-deserved reputation for being the ugly stepchild of consumer capitalism, but their intellectual lineage is more complex than most people realize. While it would come to epitomize the cultural wasteland of postwar suburbia, the shopping mall was the brainchild of an avant-garde European socialist named Victor Gruen. Born in Vienna around the turn of the century, Gruen grew up, as his biographer M. Jeffrey Hardwick puts it, “in the dying embers of [Vienna’s] vibrant, aesthetic life.” He studied architecture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, working under the socialist urban planners then in vogue. He built up a fledgling practice designing fashionable storefronts, and he designed but never built one large-scale public-housing project.

Like many left-wing Jewish intellectuals, Gruen fled to the US as the Nazis began marching across Europe. He arrived in America in 1938 not speaking a word of English, but by the next year he was designing boutiques on Fifth Avenue. He developed a signature style in his shop designs, with open-air arcade entrances flanked by giant plate-glass displays arrayed with goods. During the 1940s, his practice boomed; he built dozens of department stores across America. Echoing Le Corbusier’s famous line about a house being a “machine for living,” Gruen called his store environments “machines for selling.”

Yet Gruen never fully left his Viennese radical upbringing and its faith in the potential of large-scale planned communities. He hated the noisy, crass commercialism of unregulated spaces. In the 1950s, he gave a speech in which he denounced the banal landscapes of the post-war suburbs, calling them “avenues of horror … flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity — billboards, motels, gas stations, shanties, car lots, miscellaneous industrial equipment, hot dog stands, wayside stores — ever collected by mankind.”

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gruen began exploring more ambitious designs, and in 1956, just a few months after Disneyland opened its gates in California, Gruen completed work on Southdale Center. He designed Southdale as a two-level structure linked by opposing escalators, featuring a few dozen stores arrayed around a shared courtyard, protected from the weather by a roof. He modeled it after the European arcades that had flourished in Vienna and other cities in the early 19th century. But to modern eyes, the reference to European urbanity is lost: Southdale Center is, inescapably, a shopping mall.

Gruen’s design for Southdale mall would become the single most influential new building archetype of the postwar era.

Southdale was an immediate hit, attracting almost as much hyperbolic praise as Walt Disney’s park. “The strikingly handsome and colorful center is constantly crowded,” Fortune announced. “The sparkling lights and bright colors provide a continuous invitation to look up ahead, to stroll onto the next store, and to buy.” Most commentators focused on the vast courtyard space, which Gruen had dubbed the “garden court of perpetual spring,” where shoppers could enjoy sculptures, children’s carnivals, cafes, eucalyptus and magnolia trees, birdcages, and dozens of other diversions.

Gruen’s design for Southdale would become the single most influential new building archetype of the postwar era. Just as Louis Sullivan’s original skyscrapers defined urban skylines of the first half of the 1920s, Gruen’s mall proliferated, first in suburban America and then around the globe. Originally conceived as a way to escape the harsh Minnesota winters, Gruen’s enclosed public space accelerated the mass migration to desert and tropical climates made possible by the invention of air-conditioning. Today the fifteen largest shopping malls in the world are all located outside the US and Europe, and two-thirds are in countries with warm climates such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand. And while the mall itself would expand in scale prodigiously, the basic template would remain constant: two to three floors of shops surrounding an enclosed courtyard, connected by escalators.

But there is a tragic irony behind his success. The mall itself was only a small part of Gruen’s design for Southdale. His real vision was for a dense, mixed-use, pedestrian-based urban center with residential apartments, schools, medical centers, outdoor parks and office buildings. The mall courtyard and its pedestrian convenience were for Gruen a way to smuggle European metropolitan values into a barbaric American suburban wasteland.

Southdale was going to be the antidote to suburban sprawl. Instead it became an amplifier.

Yet developers never took to Gruen’s larger vision. Instead of surrounding the shopping center with high-density, mixed-used developments, they surrounded it with parking lots. They replaced his courtyard carnival with food courts. Communities did blossom around the new malls, but they were largely uncoordinated developments of low-density, single-family homes. Of course, suburbanization had many winds in its sails, but Gruen’s shopping mall was one of the strongest. Southdale was going to be the antidote to suburban sprawl. Instead it became an amplifier.

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The Southdale Center in 2009. Photo by Bobak Ha’Eri (CC BY-SA).

Gruen’s ideas nonetheless attracted one devoted fan who had the financial resources to put them into action: Walt Disney. The 1955 launch of Disneyland was a staggering success, but the triumph of the planned environment inside the park created a kind of opposing reaction in the acres outside, which were swiftly converted from orange groves into cheap motels, gas stations and billboards. Disney grew increasingly repulsed by the blight and so he began plotting to construct a second-generation project where he could control the whole environment, not just the theme park but the entire community around it.

Disney planned to design an entire functioning city from scratch, one that would reinvent almost every single element of the modern urban experience. He dubbed it EPCOT, short for Experimental Planned City of Tomorrow. While the Disney Corporation would eventually build a future-themed amusement park named EPCOT, it had nothing to do with Disney’s vision, which would have been a true community with full-time residents, not another tourist attraction.

During his exploratory research, Disney fell under the spell of Gruen. Gruen had included kind words about Disneyland in his book The Heart of Our Cities and he shared Disney’s contempt for the sprawling “avenues of horror” that had proliferated around the theme park. And so when Disney decided to buy a vast swath of swampland in central Florida and build a “Progress City” — as he called it — Gruen was the perfect patron saint for the project. Like Gruen’s original plan for Southdale, it was going to be an entire community oriented around a mall.

The fact that urban critic Jane Jacobs, who had an intense antipathy to top-down planners, saw merit in the Gruen model should tell us something.

Disney’s Progress City was to be profoundly anti-automobile. At the center of the city was a zone that Gruen had called the Pedshed, defined by the desirable walking distance of the average citizen. Cars would be banned from the Pedshed area, and new modes of transportation would appear to get residents downtown. Just as in Disney’s theme parks, all supply and service vehicles would be routed below the city through a network of underground tunnels. However, Disney died of cancer in 1966 while his project was still in the planning stages.

Why wasn’t a Progress City built? The easiest way to dismiss the Gruen/EPCOT vision is to focus on its having a shopping mall at its core. But the mall is too distracting a scapegoat and diverts the eye from the other elements that actually have value. The fact that urban critic Jane Jacobs, who had an intense antipathy to top-down planners, saw merit in the Gruen model should tell us something. Clearing out automobiles from entire downtowns; building mixed-use dense housing in suburban regions; creating distinct mass-transit options to fit the scale of the average trips; outing services below ground — these are all provocative ideas that have been explored separately in many communities. But to this day no one has built a true Progress City — which means we have no real idea how transformative it might be to see all these ideas deployed simultaneously. Mall or no mall, perhaps it’s time we tried.

Excerpted with permission from the new book Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Steven Johnson.