- Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream
In this highly entertaining and informative biography, M. Jeffrey Hardwick profiles one of the most influential yet least chronicled figures of the twentieth-century American business landscape: Victor Gruen, architect of the enclosed shopping mall. Gruen's life story is atouchstone for important issues in American economic life since World War II, connecting consumerism, the rise of the middle class, suburban growth, and white flight in a chain reaction, the end result of which has been urban economic decline. The contours of this narrative are familiar; however, by focusing on the figure of Gruen, Hardwick brings fresh insight into the specific role of shopping centers in spawning the twin evils of sprawl and urban decline.
Many readers will be surprised to find that Hardwick locates Gruen's inspiration for the all-American mall in the most counterintuitive of places: the Mittel Europa of Gruen's native Vienna. Inspired by socialist planning and his memories of the city's lively streets and shops, the Jewish refugee began his new career as a retail store designer in the 1940s United States convinced of the economic power inherent in good design. Gruen tirelessly preached the gospel of design to American retailers from Fifth Avenue to Main Street, eventually winning converts among both local and chain stores who rewarded him with commissions across the nation. As Gruen's reputation rose, so did his ambitions: during the 1940s, he began to lobby retailers to consider how good planning could tackle the thorny problem of the automobile's impact on commercial centers. By the 1940s, American cities faced oppressive congestion in the downtown as well as the specter of endless ribbon development on commercial highway "strips." Gruen's answer: build comprehensively planned shopping centers with plentiful automobile parking. He was hardly unique in proposing this solution.
Planned shopping centers had appeared in increasing numbers since the 1920s and exploded on the American scene with the lifting of construction material limits after World War II. What made Gruen unique among similar commercial architects in the postwar period was his relentlessness in promoting shopping centers—and himself—as a cure-all for the urban problems caused by the automobile. Gruen saw shopping centers as devices for creating urban density in the American sprawl landscape. Their pedestrian-oriented central courts and walkways would liberate consumers from their cars to enjoy a relaxing shopping experience. [End Page 345]
Indeed, Gruen believed that shopping centers would save American democracy from the alienating effects of sprawl: lonely, isolated suburbanites could unite in its pleasant pedestrian atmosphere for communal activities and socializing. For Gruen, the shopping center improved upon the lackluster American downtown by transforming it into a clean, controlled fantasy version of the European walking city. For his clients, however, what clinched them was less the vision of community than the promise of captive pedestrian consumers—something Gruen eagerly played up in his promotional literature. Gruen's revolutionary design of the enclosed, climate-controlled pedestrian shopping mall represented the highest development of his theories of both the community-generating and consumer-manipulating retail environment. Yet Gruen, as Hardwick represents him, is completely unselfconscious about the contradictory aspirations for democracy and social control at the heart of his vision.
Gruen's hypocrisy did not end there. At the height of his fame, he publicly disavowed suburban shopping centers (all the while continuing to design and profit by them), turning his planning vision to the American downtown itself. It is hard not to suspect that Gruen's newfound desire to save cities in the mid-1950s was influenced by lucrative, newly established federal urban renewal programs. Yet Hardwick convincingly connects Gruen's urban turn to his planning vision: remaking the downtown with federal money would give Gruen an even larger canvas on which to create his controlled environments than the privately developed suburban shopping center. The elements of Gruen's vision, whether city or suburb, remained essentially unchanged: attractively landscaped pedestrian malls with ample...