A half-century ago, architect Victor Gruen introduced America to the enclosed shopping mall. Before Gruen, there were two types of major shopping environments in the United States: the traditional downtowns, and the improvised shopping strips that lined highways of metropolitan areas. And although today's lifestyle centers and other Main Street-inspired developments don't look anything like Gruen's creations, they don't necessarily break from Gruen's way of looking at the world.
Born in Vienna, Gruen worked there until 1938, when the Nazi takeover of Austria forced him to flee to the United States. What he brought with him was a belief that architects must solve environmental and urban problems in addition to designing individual structures. In 1949, he established Victor Gruen Associates to do just that.
Throughout the 1950s, Gruen spelled out his philosophy: As people left the cities for the suburbs of postwar America, what they missed was a central place for shopping, walking, meeting neighbors or just spending time. Highway strip malls were uninspired, dangerous and single-use. In designing the automobile-based environment, then, architects should restore some of the satisfactions of the old pedestrian city, with new climate control technologies, within the safe walls of a mall.
“The shopping center is one of the few new building types created in our times,” Gruen observed in his 1964 book, The Heart of Our Cities. Gruen recognized that a mall could solve the problems of both retailers and of planners by moving the shopping environment away from the highway and forming an integral part of a new residential community. He credited Kansas City's Country Club Plaza with pioneering this new way of shopping.
No mere theorist, Victor Gruen Associates — among the postwar period's premier national architectural, planning and engineering firms — designed one of the first regional shopping centers, the Northland Shopping Center in Detroit, in 1954. It also conceived the first enclosed mall, Southdale Shopping Center near Minneapolis in 1956, and planned the first enclosed mall built in a central business district, Midtown Plaza in Rochester, N.Y., which opened in 1962.
Gruen succeeded at reconciling the needs of the auto-oriented suburban boom while creating a satisfying pedestrian friendly environment — if not in suburban communities, at least within the mall. His designs for shopping centers were profitable for their developers and focal points in their communities. While his ‘Mid-Century Modern’ designs looked to the future, he was providing “the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that…American town squares provided in the past.”
Gruen also sought a balance between the architectural rigor of Modernism and the pragmatic realities of a competitive retail environment. Comparing it to the balance between federal and state governments, he wrote, “The overall character of the center must be one of corporate strength through the strength of individuals.”
The statement is more prescient than perhaps Gruen imagined. On the other hand, his view of the future from the mid-20th century was not flawless. In 1960, for example, he concluded that if the postwar economic boom and technological innovation were projected forward, Americans would soon create an affluent society with plenty of leisure time. Clearly, America remains affluent, but it has not delivered the leisure in abundance that Gruen and other futurists predicted. His prediction that all shopping would be done in “planned, coordinated shopping centers” has not come true.
But Gruen's view of how the shopping center might eventually morph into something like a communal space seems to be becoming reality. He predicted that the intermediate and neighborhood shopping center would evolve, with commercial, social and leisure time facilities, protected green space, as well as a variety of residential uses to offer — like the town square, and today's lifestyle and mixed-use developments. Although these spaces are more privatized and aesthetically nostalgic than he would have approved, it all seems to have happened, and it all traces back to him.
John Kriskiewicz is a professor at the Parsons School of Design and Manhattan College, and a freelance curator.