The tragic story of the American shopping mall is well-known by now. Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect, emigrated to the United States after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. In 1954 he designed the first outdoor suburban shopping plaza, near Detroit. Two years later, in 1956, the Gruen-designed Southdale Center opened in Edina, Minnesota. It was the first enclosed shopping mall in America. In the six decades since, up to 1,500 malls were erected across the country. Then people stopped building them.
Precious few have been erected in the last decade, but plenty have been shuttered, and as many as half of the remaining could close within the next 10 years.The reasons are many, including economic downturn, the rise of internet commerce, the decline of the suburbs—even just the opening of newer malls, which cannibalize older ones.
Americans loved malls, then they loved to hate them. Good riddance to these cathedrals to capitalism, many think, as they pore over apocalyptic photos of abandoned malls in ruins. This trope runs so deep that it’s begun feeding on itself. The latest example: Bloomberg recently published a bizarre video game, styled like bad 1980s computer entertainment, about the glorious desperation of managing a dying American mall.
Gruen had meant well. He wanted to import the pedestrian experience of modernist, European cities like Vienna and Paris into America, where the automobile was king. By creating places for community in the deserts of suburbia, he hoped to lure people from their cars and into contact with one another. The malls would be for shopping, yes, but also offer food, relaxation, and green space. In his original conception, malls would also connect to residential and commercial space, medical care, libraries, and other public spaces. Even though unrealized, this idea was not that different from today’s New Urbanists, who advocate denser, more walkable mixed-use development in cities broken up by the dominance of the automobile.
Gruen would eventually disavow his creation, expressing disgust for how malls had exacerbated rather than ameliorated urban sprawl—not to mention exporting it globally, infecting the Old World with this land-use virus of the New.
But Gruen never renounced commerce itself. He was a master of commercial design. Before malls, Gruen designed retail shops and storefronts in New York—gorgeous, lithe, glass-fronted facades that renounced the ornate and busy complexity that had preceded them. These shops, designed during the Great Depression when retail sales were hardly easy, were meant to draw customers in, tempt them to stay, and then to make purchases. The Gruen effect, it came to be called. The mall might have turned out to be bad urban planning, but it was never bad mercantilism.