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British Association for American Studies


Issue 7, Spring 2005 Article 1


Issue 7, Spring 2005 Article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 7, Spring 2005

Reimagining the Shopping Mall: European Invention of the “American” Consumer Space

Paul Edwards
© Paul Edwards. All Rights Reserved

Little tables all over those marble streets, people sitting at them eating, drinking or smoking – crowds of other people strolling by – such is the Arcade. I should like to live in it all my life [1]

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (1880)

Sitting in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Mark Twain reflected on the “vast and beautiful Arcade” recently completed in the northern Italian city of Milan. Admiring both the architecture and use of space, Twain temporarily dreamt, albeit with his usual ironic tone, of abandoning his travels around Europe and remaining in a Milanese shopping arcade.[2] The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele was, and indeed continues to be, an impressive example of late nineteenth century, neo-classical architecture, occupying a central place in Milanese urban life; a place for commerce as much as a place for relaxation and people watching. Despite the practical possibility of remaining in the Galleria all his life, however, Twain quickly grew bored with it and moved onto his next set of observational “trampings”. Milan’s gallerias had little architectural echo in the America of the late 1870s. With mass industrialization and immigration creating the teeming cities of Chicago and New York, there seemed little time or space to sit and watch crowds of people strolling by. The spirit of hardwork and individualism evident in John Winthrop’s City on a Hill survived intact and America’s urban spaces have reflected that spirit throughout the nation’s history. Perhaps Twain was most impressed by the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele because he had seen nothing to resemble it in extensive travels around his own country, no urban spaces to sit and watch city life pass him by. Eighty-five years after Twain’s Milanese people-watching, another iconoclast, the architect Robert Venturi, explained his failure to adopt a plaza for his entry to redesign Boston’s historic Copley Square: “The piazza, in fact, is ‘un-American.’ Americans feel uncomfortable sitting in a square: they should be working at the office or home with the family looking at television, or perhaps at the bowling alley”.[3] Venturi’s America of the 1960s and 70s seemed to be the first society in history with no need for the architecture of public, urban space that Twain had admired in Italy all those years earlier.

Venturi’s comments ignored one public space that already existed in American’s cities, albeit removed from the increasingly deserted downtown areas, one with much in common with the gallerias that Twain took such pleasure in. By 1965, the suburban shopping mall was well on its way to becoming an established part of American life. Providing an opportunity for one-stop shopping, alongside spaces to sit and meet with friends, the suburban mall could serve much of the communal function offered by the traditional, and much mythologised, town square or European gallerias and piazzas. The archetype for these malls was Southdale, designed by the Viennese-born architect Victor Gruen, which opened in 1956 in the suburbs of Minneapolis. With 72 stores, anchored by two major department stores, all arranged in a two-level design around a brightly lighted central court with free parking for 5000 vehicles, Southdale signalled a new paradigm in the way Americans would shop, away from distant downtowns and disorganised “Miracle Miles”. As one contemporaneous architecture critic writing in the influential Architectural Forum was moved to remark: “Here [at Southdale] we see architecture fulfilling one of its most creative roles: building a new kind of environment”.[4] The shopping mall signified a remarkable change in how Americans used and thought about their urban space.

In the ensuing 50 years, the shopping mall has become the signifier of all that ails American public space. Beginning with Neil Harris in the mid 1970s, cultural critics have highlighted many of the social, architectural and cultural negatives engendered at the mall.[5] In 1985, William Kowinski’s celebrated The Malling of America identified the mall as the key site in explaining American culture and society, from the oft-quoted “retail drama” of consuming in the mall to “mallrat” kids escaping the confines of both school and home in spending their evenings “growing up” at the mall.[6] More recently, both James J. Farrell and Sharon Zukin have used the mall to interrogate America’s obsession with consumption, taking different methodological approaches but arriving at the conclusion that America needs to change its shopping habits be it in or out of the spaces of the mall.[7] Lizabeth Cohen in A Consumers’ Republic has suggested that the centrality of the shopping mall in American culture has led to the nation’s “public spaces” becoming more commercialised, privatised and feminised than they had been before the advent of the mall.[8] The mall, for many, has become the terrible signifier of American society obsessed by image, pseudo-individuality and, perhaps most importantly, fetishised consumption. In designing Southdale, and its open-air precursor, Northland, Victor Gruen forever changed the spaces in which America shopped.

In this paper, I argue that the shopping mall is not the exceptionally American space that cultural critics and historians on both sides of the Atlantic would have us believe. With historical foundations in the Agora of Greek antiquity and the Milanese galleria that Twain admired so much, the mall updated the trans-historical combination of community and commerce in one urban space. The designer of Southdale, Victor Gruen brought to the mall an understanding of that history of buying and selling, which combined with his experiences of living in inter-war Vienna led to the creation of a Europe-inspired and designed new shopping space out in the automobile dominated American suburbs of the 1950s. Although built in a time and space uniquely American, Victor Gruen’s shopping mall was an attempt to bring the refined, communal spaces of European central cities to the vacuous, soulless space of 1950s American suburbs.[9]

The America of the 1950s in which Southdale emerged was undergoing a remarkable and rapid transformation in its urban space. Returning servicemen, aided by cheap government loans, flocked, with their families, to the good life of the suburbs, encouraged by the affordability of the automobile and a new federally funded Interstate Highway system of more than 42,000 miles. The Levittowns of Long Island, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were the most well-known examples of this dramatic change in American metropolitan space. The suburbs were growing everywhere. By 1950, the national suburban growth rate was ten times that of central cities, and in 1954, the editors of Fortune magazine estimated that more than 9 million people had moved to the suburbs in the previous decade.[10] As consumers increasingly pursued their individual suburban dreams, downtown retailing stopped being so important. Unplanned, roadside strip developments sprung up along most commuter routes in an effort to attract shoppers, but the rapid expansion of suburbia meant that it was increasingly difficult both to attract customers and to predict where they would want to shop.[11] Gruen proved more aware than most of these rapid changes and proposed a new site for retailing that could also act as a “coalescing” space away from the private spaces of the automobile and the suburban home.

Despite his status as a pre-war Jewish émigré with a string of successful architectural projects in America to his name, Victor Gruen has received none of the critical attention of his architectural contemporaries, Walter Gropius or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.[12] Only in 2004 did the first major work on the career of Victor Gruen emerge in M. Jeffery Hardwick’s Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Well researched and fluently written, Mall Maker takes a biographical approach and convincingly positions Gruen as an influential and important figure in American space, as the “architect” of the shopping mall. Before 2004, the most significant publications on Victor Gruen were the works of the British planning historian, David R. Hill, in “Sustainability, Victor Gruen, and the Cellular Metropolis” (1992) and “A Case for Teleological Urban Form History and Ideas: Lewis Mumford, F.L. Wright, Jane Jacobs and Victor Gruen” (1993). Hill not only places Gruen alongside canonical figures in planning thought, but makes the case for the European origins in Gruen’s work as vital for understanding the possibilities for regional and environmental planning, while maintaining the urban intimacy proclaimed by the likes of Lewis Mumford or Jane Jacobs.[13]

Others have examined Gruen’s career, including Howard Gillette Jr., Fabian Faurholt Csaba and Søren Askegaard and, more recently, Timothy Mennel, but none go significantly beyond examining Gruen as the father of the shopping mall.[14] Perhaps that is because of his concentration in the hyper-commercialised field of retail architecture or perhaps because he had none of the clear, modernist ideology that dominated the functional designs of a Gropius, Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe. But Victor Gruen should not be dismissed as an architect of little influence who had the fortune, be it good or bad, to design one of the epochal spaces of the twentieth century. Gruen was a thinker as well as a practitioner and had a coherent ideology of his own. He was a humanist and a socialist who believed in improving the built environment by building for the enjoyment and relaxation of people. Gruen was a pragmatic and successful architect who got projects built, but he was also a humanist, interested in people more than buildings, and heavily influenced by his time in pre-1938 Vienna. His designs for the shopping centre clearly show these influences; with the mall, Gruen was building more than just a machine for shopping.

Gruen began his American career designing New York Fifth Avenue jewellery and clothing stores. In designing such stores, he took advantage of his earlier Viennese career in which he had designed seven small stores. But Gruen’s work quickly progressed into the emergent suburban department branch stores in the 1940s and 50s.[15] By the early 1950s, he had firmly established himself as a successful store designer. His work on Milliron’s department store in Los Angeles and his innovative store designs for Bay Fair Shopping Center in San Leandro, California won him numerous awards.[16] However, even in these early stages of his architectural career, Gruen saw himself as more than just a designer of stores. As early as 1943, Gruen and his partner, Elsie Krummeck, had responded to the call of Architectural Forum for visions of post-war America by proposing a new kind of shopping space.[17] Following the end of the war, Gruen observed, “the building boom, higher income levels, and the increased use of automobiles” had “accentuated the development of suburban shopping facilities and engaged the attention of more and more retailers”.[18] Such unorganised retail growth, he argued, could not continue. Roadside shopping facilities were no longer sufficient to serve, let alone attract, the suburban consumer. Only by bonding together with other stores in cooperative enterprise, Gruen argued, could storeowners integrate their activities within the local scene and begin to predict shopping patterns again. Gruen proposed building shopping centres, populated by a wide range of stores, which would also act as social centres for surrounding communities.

Gruen’s vision for the mall reflected his architectural experience in inter-war Vienna. Lacking the formal training of his more well-known émigré contemporaries such as Walter Gropius or Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Gruen’s designs for the mall combined romantic ideas of pre-war Europe with a pragmatic modernism. Gruen began studying architecture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1917, under the tutelage of the modernist Peter Behrens, now known as the father of industrial design. Forced to leave school following the death of his father in 1918, Gruen went to work in the architectural and construction firm of Melcher and Steiner. Engaged in this firm for more than eight years, Gruen’s practical experience of building far outweighed any theoretical, formal learning. Despite his deficiency of formal architectural education, Gruen lacked nothing in intellectual depth or profundity. Behrens and Adolph Loos proved to be key influences on Gruen’s architectural thinking, along with the work of the Viennese, Camillo Sitte and Frenchman, Le Corbusier. Behrens inaugurated industrial modernism, directly influencing such luminaries as Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, while Loos achieved renown for the lack of ornamentation in his functionalist buildings. Such proto-modernism combined with Camillo Sitte’s focus on human scale and aesthetic pleasure in architectural design to provide the intellectual foundation for Gruen’s thinking on the shopping mall. Perhaps most importantly for the construction of malls, his practical architectural background encouraged him to reject the prevalent dogmas of modernist architecture and instead embrace the practicalities of completing successful projects in a profession dominated by commercial considerations.[19]

With a training in some of the key European architectural ideas of the early twentieth century, a delight for the pre-war Vienna of his youth and a pragmatism born from his experience in the construction industry, Victor Gruen used his experience of retail design to apply himself to the needs and problems of the American suburbs of the 1950s. His solution was Southdale Mall, a “new environment in 20th Century life, not only for shopping but for many other activities as well”.[20] More than just a practical solution to the obvious problem of declining downtown retail sales, his shopping centres were to be an ideological counterpoint to the increasing suburbanisation of America. Gruen believed that the post-war growth of suburbia had outstripped the facilities provided for it. As a result, he argued, “suburbia had become an arid land inhabited during the day almost entirely by women and children and strictly compartmentalized by family income, social, religious, and racial background”.[21] For Gruen, Southdale could fill that emerging void and reverse social and cultural homogeneity. The mall could become a community focal point, encouraging, “a new outlet for that primary human instinct to mingle with other humans – to have social meetings, to relax together, to enjoy art, music, civic activities, the theater, films, good food, and entertainment in the company of others”.[22] Such a centre could provide the variety, heterogeneity and community of his own youth that Gruen felt was sadly missing from America’s suburbs.

Gruen’s theorising on this matter grew directly from his experiences in Vienna. He remembered the inter-war Vienna of his youth as Europe’s “center of intellectual and cultural life”. His vision of urbanity came directly from the cafés of Vienna, where a cross-section of peoples would gather and discuss culture, politics and everyday life. Frequently in speeches, as his biographer M. Jeffrey Hardwick illustrates, Gruen would pair “slides of European cities with American shopping centers”.[23] Venice’s Piazza San Marco would be juxtaposed with Detroit’s Northland. More than his own experiences, Gruen saw a direct intellectual link between the origins of civilised Europe and what he felt could become a civilised America. After all, buying and selling was “as old as mankind;” “In the Greece of antiquity the merchant spread his wares under the colonnades of the Stoa, a building especially designated for his activity”.[24] The spaces of the Agora had numerous functions as citizens would stroll in the square, discuss the topics of the day, transact their business, “while philosophers, poets, and entertainers argued, recited and performed”. The Agora was the centre of city life, and “in this colorful, lively, dynamic environment commerce had its share”.[25]

While antiquity provided one intellectual and spatial model for the mall, a more recent paradigm were the gallerias and arcades of France and Italy. Gruen argued that the conditions of nineteenth-century European cities shared much in common with post-war American suburbs:

The conditions of the streets were rendered so disagreeable and unsafe that walking on narrow or nonexistent sidewalks became an unpleasant experience. Thus merchants, bonding together, in cooperation with many outstanding architects, created new, exclusively pedestrian, weather-protected areas in the middle of building blocks, connecting one major street with another.[26]

By the 1950s, walking in America’s suburban shopping districts had become an impossible task. The dangers of the horse and carriage had been replaced by those of the automobile to the detriment of both pedestrians and retailers. Explicitly, Gruen wrote, the mall was directly “inspired by the pedestrian areas of the gallerias in Milan and Naples”.[27] In intellectually positioning the mall in this way, both temporally and spatially, Gruen successfully historicized the space of the mall; for him, “the colonnades, gallerias, and covered arcades of European cities found contemporary expression in the covered mall”.[28]

Gruen’s efforts to position the mall as an historic continuation from earlier, European shopping experiences found expression both in his writings and the aesthetics of mall design. Speaking in 1954 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, he argued that the mall recreated an “old architectural form – the square or plaza”. There people could “relax – not just shop”. The built spaces of Southdale would allow people to “attend fashion shows, concerts and exhibits of everything from new cars to paintings”.[29] Architecturally, Gruen expressed himself through concern with human scale, commodity and delight. While this terminology came from the ancient Roman architect, Vitruvius, Gruen updated it a little, noting how: “In clusters of shops surrounding medieval churches, in the Italian piazza . . . historic market places had one thing in common, an intimate relationship between architecture and the human being. In the language of the Architect all these had HUMAN SCALE”.[30] Similarly, at the mall, Gruen designed space “in which the structure does not interfere or impose upon the conditions of commodity and delight”.[31] This meant the establishment of clean lines and structurally neutral space that allowed the introduction of mall “furniture” that could help construct, for the pedestrian, the sensation of delight. For Gruen, “Trees and flowers, music, fountains, sculpture and murals, and the architecture of free-standing structures” were “vital parts of the over-all composition”.[32]

Gruen’s plan for Northland Centre in Detroit illustrates how he aimed to achieve these aims in built structure. Open-air Northland consisted of a cluster of one-storey buildings grouped around the three-storey J.L. Hudson Department Store. Between the individual stores were attractively landscaped garden courts and pedestrian malls. At the time of its completion, Architectural Forum praised Northland as a “classic in shopping center planning, in the sense that Rockefeller Center is a classic in urban skyscraper-group planning, or Radburn, N.J. in suburban residential planning”.[33] Narrow walks and lanes lead the “customers from the transportation area into a series of generously dimensioned squares and plazas, each one of different size and character”. Gruen designed these open spaces between buildings “in accordance with the pattern found in European cities”.[34] Colonnades, protecting shoppers from the weather, surround all buildings and connecting, covered walkways allow crossing from one structure to another without exposure to the weather. The architecture aims to “achieve impressiveness and unity by simplicity and straightforward design”, standardising the design of all tenant buildings while allowing individual expression with store signs (but only under the overall control of Gruen).[35]

Gruen was most concerned with creating space that would attract shoppers and, once there, provide them with the relaxing environment envisioned in Camillo Sitte’s earlier call for aesthetically pleasing public spaces which reinforced civic culture. For Gruen, this meant recreating many of the qualities of the European piazza, designing space that was visually appealing, comfortable and relaxing. The central mall space at Northland illustrated Gruen’s attempt to provide both visual spectacle and comfort. Situated between Hudson’s department store and tenant stores were a series of seating areas for relaxation, consisting of both benches and low walls. The most striking aspect of this space were the extensive flower beds, in which spectacular blooms operated both to break up the sightlines of the square, making it into a more intimate space than would otherwise be the case, and to create a park-like quality. Mature trees further emphasised this sensation, hiding some of the shopping space from view and providing shade in summer. These park-like qualities differentiated the square from the surrounding stores, defining it as non-shopping space. The colonnades in Northland, surrounding Hudson’s, not only served to shelter the shopper from the weather but the solid overhangs and columns further separated shopping space from non-shopping space. Within the general shopping mall environment there were spaces firmly demarcated as away from the experience of consuming; spaces that provide an area both for relaxation and the enjoyment of non-intrusive visual spectacle. This explicit differentiation between shopping and non-shopping space reflected Gruen’s desire to recreate the experience of the European central city in which people could both shop and sit in nearby parks and gardens or cafés, unmolested by the demands of commerce.

Gruen frequently merged the language of the European central city with a more recognizably American vernacular to position, aesthetically, spatially and historically, his mall designs. He felt that it was important to maintain variety in store design, suggesting that otherwise the mall “owner risks monotony and complete lack of ‘downtown’ personality”.[36] Similarly, he justified the use of basements for the separation of service vehicles from shoppers, pointing out how, “Basements are to the large, regional shopping center what side streets are to the downtown area”.[37] However, despite the language used, the downtown to which Gruen referred was not the automobile dominated downtown of 1950s and 60s America, but an historic, romanticised European vision of that downtown. Gruen felt that the conscientious mall designer should “study the anatomy of the organically or sensitively planned old urban pattern which consists of a rich vocabulary of clearly defined urban spaces”.[38] He argued that this would help the mall designer to reproduce urban qualities at the mall. For example, an architect could learn how in the historicized city, “through narrow and intimate lanes one reaches in surprising fashion spacious ones of different sizes and shapes. There are no endless, straight, and uniform avenues; there is always something new and unexpected around the corner”. This design approach could be recreated in the mall by developing: “The entranceways from arrival areas to the main shopping streets [which] can, through their dimensioning and their treatment, assume the role of sideways and byways, of intimate lanes and mews”.[39] Gruen wanted his mall to be a new version of his romantic vision of the European city and by and large, at Northland he was successful. As the reporter for Ladies Home Journal observed: “Something of the Vienna waltz pervades Northland”.[40]

As critically praised as Northland, but moved entirely indoors, Southdale contained a “children’s activity area with a miniature zoo”, a sidewalk café, subtropical trees, plants and flowers, and a bird cage “populated by feathered folk happily existing in the spring-like temperature”.[41] With two large department stores, along with the by now usual mix of clothing, footwear and variety stores, innovations at Southdale included opening three nights a week and providing “fair and mild” shopping conditions all year around, away from the extremes of Minnesota weather. While the primary innovation at Northland had been the removal of vehicles from the shopping environment, situating people as the key “traffic” at the mall, Southdale moved everything inside; not only had traffic been removed but so had the weather. By placing shopping indoors, Gruen overcame the climate extremes of Minnesota and achieved space that catered to the every need of the suburbanite. Ordered around the central garden court, from which it was “possible to see almost all of the stores”, Southdale provided community, human-scaled space.[42] In these pedestrian areas, Gruen wrote, he was able to re-establish, “the enjoyment to be found in the contemplation of architecture, landscape and the arts”.[43]

The architectural centrepiece of Southdale, and what still sets it apart from many malls built today, was the garden court. Sharply distinguished from shopping areas by its openness and airiness, the garden court allowed people who visited the mall to remove themselves from shopping. The “attractions” of the court were all positioned in or near the centre of the courtyard encouraging shoppers to turn their backs on the stores; it was a non-shopping space. With this design, Gruen positioned Southdale as not only a place for shopping but also one that encouraged a wide range of social and cultural activities. It resembles the plazas and piazzas of European central cities. A sidewalk café attracted people to the centre even when stores closed on Sundays. One 1956 commentator observed the European qualities at Southdale: “In the square is a sidewalk café. Shoppers will walk on pavement of red brick a la [sic] Copenhagen, Denmark. And there are antiquated areas remindful of an old Roman road”.[44] As a public, weather-protected space, the garden court became “not only a meeting ground but also, in evening hours, the place for the most important events, as for example the yearly ball of the Minneapolis Symphony”.[45] It was a space designed for people, as distinct from shoppers, that merged “art works, contemporary architecture, rich decorations and furnishing into a background of beauty and relaxation”.[46] Southdale brought European high culture into a space of European design, encouraging mid-westerners to enjoy everything that the Viennese could.

The shopping mall in America failed to develop according to the European principles that Gruen had laid out for it, however. Suburbs and suburban shopping continued to grow with little or no concerted effort to plan these new American spaces. Statistics on the growth of shopping malls following the opening of Southdale in 1956 are difficult to pin down accurately, primarily because of the lack of an accepted definition of what a mall constitutes.[47] In 1960, the Urban Land Institute estimated that there were approximately 100 regional shopping centres with a minimum of 350,000 square feet of floor area and at least one major department store.[48] A shopping centre of this size would meet the minimum definition today of what we think of a shopping mall. Smaller, self-contained shopping centres, including a minority of regional centres, developed at a remarkable rate of growth. Historian Lizabeth Cohen suggests that there were 940 shopping centres by 1957. By 1967, there were 8,000 shopping centres selling goods totalling $54 billion and by 1976 there were 17,520 shopping centres in America.[49] The economic impact of these suburban shopping centres on downtown America was hugely significant. By 1971, shopping centres accounted for more than 50 per cent of all retail trade in twenty-one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.[50]

Alongside this remarkable growth in the number and retail trade reach of suburban shopping centres were the cultural changes that they brought to American urban and suburban space. As an article from the Urban Land Institute noted in 1960: “Of all changes in the American scene in the past ten years, the modern shopping center is still the most striking”, the mall had introduced “new merchandising concepts and architectural patterns”, which had “extended into every city in the United States”.[51] Following the financial successes of Gruen’s designs at Northland and Southdale, an exponential growth in copycat shopping malls followed. Despite having no relationship to the European ideals of Northland or Southdale, almost all successfully achieved a profit. Placing a wide variety of stores within a controlled environment and with plentiful free parking close to suburban tracts proved popular enough without the environmental or community-oriented considerations that Gruen had used in his malls.

The majority of architects and architecture critics bemoaned the poor quality of mall development in the years following Southdale’s opening. A 1962 publication by the editor of Architectural Record complained that whilst great “numbers of shopping centers are being built across the country”, the “unhappy truth is that the overwhelming majority of them are neither good to look at nor a real pleasure to use”.[52] James S. Hornbeck felt that mall developers and architects had ignored the spaces between and around stores, the parking areas and the relationship of centres to the highway and the surrounding residential community. He argued that only “when more owners appreciate the importance of such an environment and the unique role of the architect in achieving it can large numbers of shopping areas benefit in both financial and human terms”.[53] The architect Cesar Pelli was more direct observing how “the formula” for malls had become “trite” and bemoaned that “everyone has learned how to reduce it to a mimimum”.[54] A mere six years after the acclaimed opening of Southdale, developer James Rouse, writing an article in Architectural Forum questioned “Must Shopping Centers Be Inhuman?” He suggested that shopping centres had lost their sense of human scale, with huge parking areas, “the massive factory-like buildings, the enormous unbroken spaces, the store fronts and signs all add up to a big project imposed on a community rather than a warm and friendly market place growing out of the community”.[55] The suburban mall had become a formulaic collection of stores with few or no features designed to distract from the shopping experience or encourage the rest, relaxation and communal activities of Gruen’s European-influenced spaces.

One of the highlights of the Third Annual European Conference of the International Council of Shopping Centers, held at the Hilton Hotel in London in February 1978 was a speech given by Victor Gruen. The delegates at the conference knew the reputation of Gruen well, as the designer of Southdale, more than twenty years earlier. However, Gruen was not in London to reminisce about his achievements in reshaping the spaces of retailing; instead, he was there to warn those in attendance about the development of shopping malls and the damage they were doing to European cities.[56] In his speech, “Shopping Centres, Why, Where, How?” Gruen argued that the shopping centre in America had “no future at all” and that signs of its downfall were “already recognizable” and would “express themselves increasingly with every year that passes on”.[57] He went on to criticise the shopping mall as an extreme “expression of the effort of substituting naturally and organically grown mixtures of various urban expressions by an artificial and therefore sterile order”.[58] By way of clarification to his no doubt somewhat bemused audience, Gruen provided a brief history of the development of his two most paradigmatic mall developments at Northland and Southdale. At both sites, Gruen told his audience, he had given “thousands of citizens living in an area without desirable shopping facilities a place to meet, walk and rest in a landscaped setting free of automobile traffic”. Besides shops and department stores, they offered spaces for “cultural and festive activities, a community centre with auditorium, a post office, medical offices and even a theatre”.[59] He was able to achieve this because of the interests of the department store-developers, Hudson’s in Detroit and Dayton’s in Minneapolis, who proved “deeply concerned not only with the quality of their own stores, but in a paternalistic manner with that of the entire centre and all of its tenants carried by the conviction that their qualities had to measure up to the high standards which they had set for themselves”.[60]

However, in the ensuing twenty-two years since the completion of Southdale, Gruen’s dreams for the use of the shopping mall for human-centred and environmental ideals had been derailed by the pursuit of profits as only “those features which had proved profitable were copied” in future developments.[61] Rather than benevolent local developers building shopping centres to serve the needs of an established neighbourhood, “anonymous real estate enterprises” built a “shopping machine” large and powerful enough that “it could be located almost anywhere, on the cheapest land available, and because of its gigantic scale people would flock to it even if they were forced to travel dozens of miles”.[62] Those developers proved more interested in making a “fast buck” than designing shopping centres that could provide the retailing and communal central space for the ever-expanding suburbs. Such suburban shopping centres soon became the accepted practice, “dragging the last remaining activities” out of central cities, “somewhere to the periphery and if possible to locations outside the city boundaries, in order to save taxes”.[63] But Gruen felt that a backlash was growing amongst Americans, with opposition to increasing air pollution, “loss of landscape quality, loss of small local shops – and the rising costs of car ownership”.[64] European retail developers in his audience still had the opportunity to avoid the worst of American malls, which would cause even more damage to the central cities of Europe than they had in America. Gruen proposed for his listeners a grander vision in which they would devote their energies to the “future-directed much greater, more useful and more exciting task of revitalizing or establishing our newly to be created integrated multi-functional centres for tomorrow”.[65] Gruen’s shopping experience of the future had to be a part of the enitre urban pattern.

The response of the audience to this speech has not been recorded, but given its majority composition of retailers and developers, it is likely to have been somewhat muted and even confused. Surely, the inventor of the shopping mall was not advocating ceasing development of such immensely profitable centres of consumption. Those who had closely followed the career of Victor Gruen, however, would not have been so bemused. As early as 1968 in an article in the important Architectural Review, Gruen had begun to question, publicly, the development of shopping malls.[66] He argued both in architectural publications and the American press that the shopping centre had become too successful for its own good. Developers had taken his idea for a communal, centralising space in the American suburbs and transformed it into a “selling machine”. By 1978, the mall in America had become all-pervasive to the extent that failed developments were now occurring because centres were being built too close together, failing to take account of the needs and demands of the surrounding populace. Downtown retailing had all but been eliminated in many cities and the decline in facilities of variety, culture and urbanity had not been adequately replaced by the monofunctional spaces of the suburban mall. As one profile of Gruen in the Los Angeles Times later that year observed: “Rare is the man who conceives an idea that spreads around the world and then disowns his own progeny”.[67] But Victor Gruen disowned the shopping mall and all that it represented and showed no regrets for doing so.[68]

To us in the twenty-first century, the shopping center as vibrant, cosmopolitan urban space is an absurd notion. Today malls, in America, Europe and around the world, have become homogeneous Meccas of shopping, with no space for any activity but consumption, be it in stores, food courts or multiplex cinemas. However, Gruen never intended that destiny for his malls. Throughout the 60s and 70s Gruen became increasingly disillusioned with the development of the shopping mall, finally denouncing them in London for failing to become “what I was aiming for, namely the creation of a counterpart to the typical organically grown European city as it still existed at the time”.[69] By then, European developers had learnt the lessons of the mall from America as huge, out-of-town regional centers sprang up over the countryside and suburbs of Western Europe. This horrified Gruen, who, having retired back to Vienna, witnessed the destruction of a more historic urban pattern than America had ever had; the “thoughtless copying of the American shopping center” had been “truly catastrophic”. Gruen maintained his belief in the vitality of European civilization: “The economic rape of central city areas was a much more serious crime in Europe where cities had grown organically, often over thousands of years, and were important expressions of urban form offering opportunities for human communication, for culture, for the arts and civic virtues”.[70] Ironically, soon after Gruen moved back to Vienna, he found, just south of the central city, a mall had been built. The intellectual roots of the shopping mall, which had originated in a European, socialist, quasi-utopian humanist vision, had been corrupted by the demands of capital and exported back to Europe as a ruthless tool, a machine devoted to consumption. Today this American model dominates world shopping space.[71] But we should not ignore the mall’s European and utopian origins, which suggest an alternative future, even today. The tragedy for Victor Gruen, as Malcolm Gladwell reminded us in the New Yorker last year, was that he “invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America”.[72]

University of Nottingham


[1] Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (London: Chatto and Windus, 1880), 495 musing on the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan.

[2] Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 495

[3] Quoted in James Sanders, “Toward a Return of the Public Place: an American Survey”, Architectural Record, 173.4 (Apr. 1985): 87-95, 87

[4] “A Break-Through for Two-level Shopping Centers”, Architectural Forum Dec. 1956: 114-123, 117

[5] Neil Harris, Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990). His discussion of the mall in this book is based on his article “Spaced Out at the Shopping Center” first published in The New Republic 13 Dec. 1975: 23-26. See also Margaret Crawford, “The World in a Shopping Mall”, Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space ed. Michael Sorkin (New York: Hill and Wang, 1992)

[6] William S. Kowinski, The Malling of America: An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise (New York: William Morrow, 1985)

[7] James J. Farrell, One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seductions of American Shopping (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003) and Sharon Zukin, Point of Purchase: How Shopping Changed American Culture (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[8] Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage, 2004)

[9] Other historians have noted Victor Gruen’s European origin and its influence on his design approach. See M. Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and David R. Hill, “Sustainability, Victor Gruen, and the Cellular Metropolis”, American Planning Association Journal 58.3 (Summer 1992): 312-326. This article expands on these points, examining the intellectual, spatial, and cultural linkages between the shopping mall and the Greek agora of antiquity, nineteenth century gallerias and inter-war Vienna.

[10] Statistics taken from Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 238 and Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias: The Rise and Fall of Suburbia (New York: Basic Books, 1987), 182

[11] For contemporaneous reflections on this problem see, for example, Geoffrey Baker and Bruno Funaro, Shopping Centers: Design and Operation (New York: Reinhold, 1951) and “Suburban Retail Districts”, Architectural Forum 93.2 (Aug. 1950): 106-110

[12] Rightly acclaimed as the founder of the shopping mall, Gruen also worked on significant projects in housing, retail and urban planning including housing for the Gratiot Projects in Detroit and urban redesign in such disparate cities as Boulder, Colorado, Fresno, California and Rochester, New York.

[13] Hardwick, Mall Maker; Hill, “Sustainability, Victor Gruen, and the Cellular Metropolis”; and David R. Hill, “A Case for Teleological Urban Form History and Ideas: Lewis Mumford, F.L. Wright, Jane Jacobs and Victor Gruen”, Planning Perspectives 8.1 (Jan. 1993): 53-71

[14] See Howard Gillette Jr., “The Evolution of the Planned Shopping Center in Suburb and City”, Journal of the American Planning Association 51.4 (Autumn 1985): 449-460; Fabian Faurholt Csaba and Søren Askegaard, “Malls and the Orchestration of the Shopping Experience in a Historical Perspective”, Advances in Consumer Research 26 (1999): 34-40; and Timothy Mennel, “Victor Gruen and the Construction of Cold War Utopias”, Journal of Planning History 3.2 (May 2004): 116-150

[15] M. Jeffrey Hardwick discusses Gruen’s early career in detail in Mall Maker, 48-117

[16] See “Victor Gruen Recognition” (undated) Victor Gruen Collection, Accession Number 5809, Unprocessed Box 1, Folder “Victor Gruen: Biographical Data and Listing of Work”, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY (hereafter VGC Box No., Folder “Title”)

[17] Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck, “Shopping Centers”, Architectural Forum 78.5 (May 1943)

[18] Victor Gruen, “Dynamic Planning for Retail Areas”, Harvard Business Review 32.6 (1954): 53-62, 53

[19] Gruen discusses the early influences on his career in Victor Gruen, “John Peter interviews Victor Gruen”, Library of Congress John Peter Collection, Transcripts, Box 3, Title 32-33, Folder “Gruen, Victor”

[20] Victor Gruen and Larry Smith, Shopping Towns, USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers (New York: Reinhold, 1960), 140

[21] Ibid. 21

[22] Victor Gruen and Lawrence P. Smith, “Shopping Centers: the new building type”, Progressive Architecture (June 1952): 67-109, 68

[23] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 133

[24] Gruen and Smith, Shopping Towns, USA, 17

[25] Ibid. 18

[26] Victor Gruen, Centers for the Urban Environment: Survival of the Cities (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1973) p 14

[27] Victor Gruen, The Heart of Our Cities: The Urban Crisis, Diagnosis and Cure (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 194

[28] Victor Gruen, “Retailing and the Automobile: A Romance Based upon A Case of Mistaken Identity”, Stores and Shopping Centers ed., James S. Hornbeck (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962): 96-114, 106

[29] Quoted in Kay Miller, “Southdale’s Perpetual Spring”, Minneapolis Star and Tribune 28 Sept. 1988 Sunday Magazine: 8-23, 10-11

[30] Victor Gruen, “Shopping Centers of Tomorrow”, Arts and Architecture (Jan. 1954): 12-17, 13

[31] John Winter, “Gruen, Victor”, Contemporary Architects ed. Ann Lee Morgan and Colin Naylor, 2nd ed. (Chicago: St. James Press, 1987), 361:2

[32] Gruen and Smith, Shopping Towns, USA, 148

[33] “Northland: a new yardstick for shopping center planning”, Architectural Forum 100.6 (1954): 102-119, 103

[34] Gruen, Centers for the Urban Environment, 28

[35] Ibid. 30-31

[36] Larry Smith and Victor Gruen, “How to Plan Successful Shopping Centers”, Architectural Forum 100.3 (Mar. 1954): 144-147, 192, 145

[37] “Northland: a new yardstick for shopping center planning”, 111

[38] Gruen, Centers for the Urban Environment, 83

[39] Ibid.

[40] Quoted in Hardwick, Mall Maker, 131

[41] Victor Gruen, “The Regional (Shopping) Center”, Technical Bulletin 104 (June 1963) n. pag.

[42] Dudley R. Koontz, “Southdale Shopping Center: An Investment in Good Planning”, Buildings (Oct. 1958): 34-37, 35. VGC Box 22 Loose.

[43] Gruen, “The Regional (Shopping) Center”

[44] Barbara Flanagan, “He Brought Charm to Southdale”, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune 7 Oct. 1956 Southdale Supplement: 26. Also cited in Hardwick, Mall Maker, 131

[45] Gruen, Centers for the Urban Environment, 37

[46] John A. Wickland, “$20,000,000 Southdale Center Opens Monday”, Minneapolis Sunday Tribune 7 Oct. 1956 Southdale Supplement, 1

[47] Even as late as 1999, the Urban Land Institute felt it was necessary to define what a shopping mall is to those interested in its development. See Michael D. Beyard and W. Paul O’Mara et. al., Shopping Center Development Handbook 3rd ed. (Washington D.C.: ULI – the Urban Land Institute, 1999)

[48] Statistics from Homer Hoyt, “The Status of Shopping Centers in the United States”, Urban Land 19.9 (Oct. 1960): 3-6, 3

[49] Statistics from Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic p 258 and Downtown Idea Exchange (Oct. 1967) VGC Box 54, Folder “Shopping Towns USA – Revised edition”, 1

[50] Seth S. King, “”Suburban ‘Downtowns: The Shopping Centers”, Suburbia in Transition ed., Louis H. Massoti and Jeffrey K. Hadden (New York: Franklin Watts, 1974): 101-104, 102

[51] Hoyt, “The Status of Shopping Centers in the United States”, 6

[52] Hornbeck, Stores and Shopping Centers, 89

[53] Ibid.

[54] Quoted in John Hannigan, Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis (London: Routledge, 1998), 91

[55] James W. Rouse, “Must Shopping Centers Be Inhuman?”, Architectural Forum 116.6 (June 1962): 104 -7, 106

[56] M. Jeffrey Hardwick comments on this significant moment in the career of Victor Gruen, which was widely reported and republished on both sides of the Atlantic in popular and trade press at the time, in Mall Maker 216-221. However, our interpretations of this important speech differ as I suggest that Gruen proposed a grander, yet possible, vision for the mall in Europe, whereas Hardwick argues that this moment formed part of Gruen’s “jeremiad” against the mall and his retreat “more and more into the realm of fantasy” (218).

[57] Victor Gruen, “Shopping Centres, Why, Where, How?”, Third Annual European Conference of the International Council of Shopping Centres. Hilton Hotel London. 28th Feb. 1978: 1-18. VGC Box 32, Loose, 2

[58] Gruen, “Shopping Centres, Why, Where, How?”, 12

[59] Victor Gruen, “The sad story of shopping centres”, Town and Country Planning 46.7-8 (July/Aug. 1978): 350-353, 350

[60] Gruen, “Shopping Centres, Why, Where, How?”, 6

[61] Gruen, “The sad story of shopping centres”, 351. Also cited in Hardwick, Mall Maker, 217

[62] Ibid. Also cited in Hardwick, Mall Maker, 217

[63] Gruen, “Shopping Centres, Why, Where, How?”, 9

[64] Gruen, “The sad story of shopping centres”, 352

[65] Gruen, “Shopping Centres, Why, Where, How?”, 18

[66] Victor Gruen, “A New Look at Past, Present, and Future Shopping Centers”, Architectural Record (Apr. 1968): 168-171

[67] Neal R. Peirce, “The Shopping Center and One Man’s Shame”, Los Angeles Times (22 Oct. 1978): Part IV

[68] For an alternative reading of Gruen’s repudiation of the shopping mall see Hardwick, Mall Maker, 210-224

[69] Gruen, “Shopping Centres, Why, Where, How?”

[70] Gruen, “The sad story of shopping centres”, 351

[71] See Chuihua Judy Chung et. al., Project on the City 2: Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (Köln: Taschen, 2001). The observation on the Viennese mall comes from Malcolm Gladwell, “Annals of Commerce: The Terrazzo Jungle”, New Yorker 15 Mar. 2004: 120-127. M. Jeffrey Hardwick makes the same observation in Mall Maker, 217-8

[72] Gladwell, “Annals of Commerce: The Terrazzo Jungle”, 127