glitzy store

The father of the American shopping mall hated what he created

As sociologists and urban planners debate the relevance of these classic American brick-and-mortar shopping spaces in the era of e-commerce and Amazon Prime Day, a group of architecture enthusiasts will gather this weekend to celebrate the birthday of Victor Gruen, the man known as “father of the modern shopping mall,” and the first annual Gruen Day.

“While it’s easy nowadays to dismiss enclosed shopping centers as boring eyesores, Gruen Day celebrates the important role they were originally intended to play in civic life,” they explain.

The celebration highlights Gruen’s role in creating what sociologists call a”third place”—safe, neutral public spaces outside of one’s home or work that, in Gruen’s words, “provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.”

Today shopping malls are seen as culprits in the rise of American car culture and the decline of walkable downtowns. But the inspiration for the shopping mall is in fact the town center of Vienna. Gruen, an Austrian Jewish architect born Viktor David Grünbaum, immigrated to New York with $8 in his pocket, and when he designed the first enclosed shopping centers in the mid-1950s, he envisioned a communal gathering like the one he knew back home, with a lively mix of commerce, art and entertainment.

Gruen’s first grand shopping complex, the 800,000-square-foot (74,000-square-meter) Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, had fountains, an aviary, and even a large art installation by the prominent mid-century artist Harry Bertoia. A socialist who hated cars (“Their threat to human life and health is just as great as the exposed sewer,” he once said), Gruen designed the development with long promenades and parking lots purposely built far away to encourage walking. In drawing Southdale’s original plan, Gruen imagined a medical center, schools and residences, not just a parade of glitzy stores.

“I am often called the father of the shopping mall,” he once said, reflecting on his career two years before his death in 1978. “I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”

Gruen would be pleased to see the recent changes in the reuse of malls that have fallen into decline. Gruen’s vision is perhaps embodied most completely in the skeleton of the City Center Mall in Columbus, Ohio. As the Atlantic reports, the space that closed down in 2009 has been converted into the Columbus Commons, a seven-acre park in the heart of downtown with a performance space, cafes, bocce courts, lush gardens, a life-size chess set and new residential buildings and retail shops.