The Shopping Mall

Suburban mecca, consumer paradise, and sociocultural disaster.


When architect Victor Gruen (1903-80) celebrated the opening of his first shopping mall—the unimaginatively named Northland, in the northern suburbs of Detroit in 1954—he told reporters that “America would forever be changed with the arrival of his ‘Shopping Center of Tomorrow.’” Gruen was right, but in spite of his best intentions, the changes weren’t necessarily for the better. The Viennese immigrant (who fled Austria in 1938 in the wake of Hitler’s occupation) argued that his malls would not only serve as centers of American social life, but also halt the spread of soulless, aesthetically ugly shopping strips. In reality, his shopping centers encouraged suburban sprawl, helped usher in an era of consumption mania, and contributed to the collapse of communal culture.

Perhaps shopping malls would have realized their potential had Gruen not been so quick to compromise his ideals in pursuit of the almighty dollar. Or “found a way to create a shopping center that was not an island in a sea of parking,” writes Gruen biographer M. Jeffrey Hardwick in “Mall Maker” (University of Pennsylvania Press). Thirty years after his death, Gruen remains the architect most closely associated with the shopping mall, which explains why he’s “held responsible for singlehandedly shaping the stereotypical cultural wasteland of suburbia,” asserts Hardwick, who graciously agreed to answer my questions about Gruen’s legacy

Can you explain the term “Gruen Effect”?

It’s a feeling of complete disorientation and wonder when you walk into a store and the design so bedazzles you that you mindlessly but happily buy stuff. Many of the retail designers of Gruen’s era talked about this effect. The idea was that you would use psychology to move your shopper from a rational state into someone who would make impulse purchases. If you could do that you could make them feel they were having an enjoyable shopping experience and keep them there longer, which would inevitably mean they would spend more money.

How did the media and the American public react to the introduction of shopping malls in the 1950s?

They were gaga over them. They celebrated the idea of bringing downtown to suburbia, which seemed like a huge post-war achievement. It’s difficult to find a critical article in the fifties. In the sixties you began to see criticism, but not for a while.

Gruen’s ability to produce articles for magazines seems to have been a major factor in the acceptance of his ideas.

He got his start in shopping malls on a theoretical level—writing for magazines. He often expressed in writing what he couldn’t do in the real world. He was always thinking a step ahead, but writing allowed him to wax poetic about how wonderful shopping malls were going to be.

In “Mall Maker” you refer to Southland [the first enclosed mall, in Minneapolis] as Gruen’s greatest success and greatest failure. Why do you characterize Southland this way?

It was his greatest success in that it was the first covered shopping mall, and on a size that was unprecedented at the time. But he imagined that it would be incorporated into the surrounding community, which wasn’t connected in any way other than through the automobile. He also envisioned it as a more dense, mixed-use space, but in the end many of those ideas were left on the drawing board.

Is it true that Gruen believed malls would obviate the need for suburban shopping strips?

Gruen believed that by putting all the retail for the community at the shopping mall you could get rid of commercial strips. Aesthetically, he thought shopping malls should be hidden behind large berms. He also believed there shouldn’t be signage on the outside—that people would just know it was there. He also envisioned having apartment buildings, grocery stores, and hospitals—all right there. But a lot got cut out in the realities of development.

Yet he continued to design malls, knowing that he was contributing to suburban sprawl?

Correct. It’s not like he turned down commissions because he was so idealistic. He continued cranking them out. Though he was always critical to some degree, it wasn’t until after he left the U.S. [moving back to Vienna in 1968] that he really let loose and pointed his finger at developers and critiqued the American suburban lifestyle.

How did Gruen view his legacy?

He truly believed in the 1920s socialist idea that you can improve people’s lives if you improve the environment. He latched onto this in such a way that it gave him confidence in all of his architectural creations. Because of this, admitting failure would have been very difficult for him. If anything, he would have said that he had good ideas and that other people bastardized them.

That said, in dark moments late at night maybe he wondered about the monster he helped create. But he gave no inkling of that, except in his last book, where he was critical about what he saw as an aesthetic wasteland in America. In some ways that was a self-critique because he was attacking what he helped bring about. 

Do you think we would have come to the same place anyway?

Yes, eventually. Architectural historians who are purist would say that Gruen wasn’t a good architect and that his ideas were a dime a dozen. What he was good at was promoting ideas, repackaging them and making them palatable.

Care to make any predictions about the “shopping center of tomorrow”?

I always laugh because every year there’s an article on the [impending] death of the shopping mall. It always says there are too many malls and Americans can’t support them all. But they have become a flexible form. Retailers are pretty creative, and they endlessly reinvent retail in suburbia in ways that closely resemble the mall’s original ideas.

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