The Architects

Mall Man: Victor Gruen

Coming to America

The man universally credited with pioneering the modern shopping mall is Victor Gruen, an Austrian immigrant to the United States. Gruen was born David Victor Grünbaum to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria in 1903. He studied architecture at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts and subsequently opened his own firm in Vienna; he also performed satirical cabaret at night.

Gruen was forced to leave his native Vienna in 1938 (the same week as Sigmund Freud) as a result of rising antisemitism and the Anschluss, Austria’s incorporation into Hitlerite Germany and the compulsory acquisition of his firm. Gruen and his wife left with the help of a friend, who drove them to the airport (wearing a SS-uniform), where they caught a plane to Zurich, Switzerland and went on to England.

From there, the Gruens embarked on their journey to the United States via ocean liner; they arrived in New York City aboard Holland America’s Statendamm steamer “with an architect’s degree, eight dollars, and no English.”

Gruen would soon establish himself in the United States via a network of German-speaking immigrants (forming the Refugee Artists Group) and eventually was commissioned to design stores in New York City, among them fellow Viennese Ludwig Lederer’s leather goods store on Fifth Avenue. The result was a storefront unlike any other on Fifth Avenue, resembling an arcade in the entrance way, setting a “customer trap” - a concept new to America at that time. More commissions followed. Before long, Gruen had established himself in the world of shop design, but it was his forthcoming work that would alter the American landscape until today.

Gruen divorced, moved to Los Angeles, CA and remarried on Catalina Island in 1941. It is a lesser-known fact that Gruen tried to join the Army after the United States’ entry into World War II, but was rejected. In 1946, he founded his own firm, Victor Gruen Associates; Gruen’s childhood friend from Vienna, Rudolf Baumfeld, and designer Michael Auer soon joined. It would eventually grow to be one of the largest architectural firms in the United States with some 300 employees. This sets the stage for Victor Gruen’s upcoming work, which would change the face of America.

The Shopping Mall – Baptized in Concrete

In the early 1950s, Gruen’s overall vision manifested itself in his first large-scale project; he was hired to design Northland, an outdoor shopping center in Southfield, MI, just outside Detroit. It was still an “extroverted” center, where most of the storefronts faced the outside. When it opened on March 22, 1954, it was the world’s largest shopping center; observers and the media at the time heralded it as a glimpse into the future of American shopping. Outside its anchor store, the center was under open sky and featured smaller storefronts facing generous walkways and plazas, complete with extensive landscaping; it is noteworthy within the scope of this discussion, however, that it was surrounded by a vast parking lot.

Victor Gruen. Northland Shopping Center, Outside Detroit, Michigan. Victor Gruen Collection, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

After all, the project was on the forefront of the decentralization of Detroit, and Gruen’s goal was to recreate a desirable urban space outside actual urban space. At the same time, however, many also saw its opening as the beginning of the end of Detroit’s downtown. The center originally boasted 110 stores and was anchored by a Hudson’s department store. Aspects of Gruen’s original communal vision were evident in the presence of a post office, a bank, as well as fountains, auditoriums and artwork.

During the 1960s a cinema was added, and in 1974, Northland was enclosed and expanded (including a food court added in 1991). By the 1990s, however, Northland was already on a downward spiral that had engulfed many older malls across the country at that time. Newer and more upscale malls that had been constructed in the Detroit area added to the economic pressure, as did changing demographics of the consumer base.

As a result, Northland was faced with an increasing turnover of tenants, as well as loss of anchor stores. The last remaining anchor at Northland, Macy’s, closed on March 22, 2015, signing the mall’s death certificate exactly 61 years after its opening. The mall as a whole was officially closed on April 15, 2015.

While Northland marked Victor Gruen’s first major development of such scope, it would be another project that would ultimately crown him as king of the shopping malls – SouthdaleCenter in Edina, Minnesota. As with Northland, Gruen set out to design not just a shopping mall, but a communal gathering place that would contrast what he perceived to be a car-centric suburban lifestyle.

In that spirit, Gruen originally envisioned that Southdale Center would ultimately also incorporate schools, residences and also a medical center. Southdale Center opened just two years after Northland and is not only one of the very first fully-enclosed malls in the country, but also the first air-conditioned one, maintaining an indoor air temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24°C) throughout the year.

Southdale opened to great fanfare on October 8, 1956 with over 40,000 visitors in attendance. Within it, wide, open spaces and a “Garden Court of Perpetual Spring” boasted, among other things, a bird aviary, art, and a sidewalk-style café. Unlike Northland, Southdale has survived and is still operating today - after several renovations and additions.

The opening of Southdale Center marks the official birth of the modern indoors shopping mall and thousands like it were eventually constructed. In the United States, some 1,500 malls were built between 1956 and 2005, and they became a quintessential stage of American life. This is evident, for example, in the shopping mall’s prominence in film, particularly in works of the 1970s and 1980s. The list ranges from Blues Brothers to Back to the Future, The Terminator and all the way to George A. Romero’s highly acclaimed 1978 Zombie classic Dawn of the Dead, which is set almost entirely at Monroeville Mall, east of Pittsburgh, PA. In the movie, the mall serves as a fortress to protect the surviving human protagonists against an onslaught of the undead. The mall in Romero’s work became the centerpiece of human existence and the arena for its last stand.

However, despite its success, crucial aspects of Gruen’s original vision remained unfulfilled as the mall went on its triumphal procession across America – the communal aspects fell victim to the economic realities of the motorized world during that time. What was constructed over and over across the United States was not what Gruen had in mind. He felt that those shopping mall developments, since they omitted many of the communal aspects, distorted, even bastardized his original vision. He made that clear during a speech in London in 1978 - “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” Would he have been happier with recent developments and the ongoing metamorphosis of the mall?

Stories of Decay – Is the Mall Really Dying?

The triumph of the shopping mall is legend today, however, more recent reports of mall closures have been rather sobering: No new enclosed (classic) mall has been built since 2006 and some 15% of existing U.S. malls are expected to shut down or be converted to other uses within the next ten years, according to Green Street Advisors, a real estate analytics firm. Just as when they were operating, many closed and abandoned malls have become the subject of cultural appreciation – entire websites and YouTube channels have been dedicated to documenting abandoned shopping malls, which have become the subject of many urban explorers. Even in decay, the mall continues to radiate cultural significance.

“Once-proud visions of suburban utopia are left to rot as online shopping and the resurgence of city centers make malls increasingly irrelevant to young people,” wrote The Guardian on the decline of the classic mall in 2014. But while many have joined the swan song of the American mall, such sentiments might be premature; at the very least, a more-fine-grained observation seems in order to determine what is happening to America’s malls – are they declining, or are they simply changing?

According to data from CoStar, a real estate research firm, some 80% of the 1,200 malls operating in the United States today are deemed “healthy,” as compared to 94% in 2006. But while many observers believe the fate of the mall as we know it has been written, proposed concepts suggest otherwise. This is not to say that new construction of classic concepts is not pursued: American Dream Miami, for example, is a new 200-acre shopping and entertainment complex currently being proposed to be built in Miami, FL.

If completed, American Dream Miami would be substantially bigger than Mall of America in Bloomington, MN, one of the largest of its kind, covering 6,200,000 square feet. In addition, accounts of repurposing dead shopping malls do also exist. For example, The Arcade Providence, a downtown Providence, RI icon is now home to apartments and micro lofts for urban residents, while some retail space has been retained in the Arcade’s atrium.

Another tale of renewal comes from Atlanta, GA, where a dying mall on the city’s outskirts was transformed into Plaza Fiesta, catering specifically to the needs of a growing Hispanic population, advertising not just “home-cooked foods you grew up with,” but also “many community events.” In the light of these developments, it seems that successful repurposing of shopping malls does include communal and social aspects. Similar developments are also observable in new construction, much of which has been ongoing under the umbrella of new urbanism.

New Malls for a New Urbanism?

New urbanism, often also termed neotraditional development, refers to urban planning practices that were common before World War II and the rise of the automobile as compared to post-WWII suburbia. It refers to characteristics that include pedestrianization and a mix of residential, office and retail uses, yielding a walkable, multi-purpose neighborhood with a focus on community life – just as Gruen suggested.

Such mixed-use commercial developments today are labeled as lifestyle centers, which the International Council of Shopping Centers defines as „upscale national-chain specialty stores with dining and entertainment in an outdoor setting.” „The term was first coined by developer Poag and McEwen, who describes a „vision for a regional shopping destination comprised of better retailers, superior architecture and an inviting outdoor environment.“

While this theoretically changes the singular retail focus of the classic shopping mall, it seems that in many cases the most obvious differences between classic malls and lifestyle centers are the absence of a roof and anchor stores. In addition, developers focus on details like signage, cobblestone streets, fountains, and others hallmarks of a vision of an old-world town square. Will these developments bring communities closer to Gruen’s original vision?

The ongoing shift towards lifestyle centers has also been met with criticism; urbanists have lamented that while the centers do feature nice facades and cobblestone sidewalks, they fail to address the existing patterns of suburban development based on the automobile. “New Urbanism reproduces many of the worst aspects of the Modernism it seeks to replace, [it] promotes another style of universality that is similarly over reliant on visual cues to produce social effects,” wrote Michael Sorking in the September 1988 issue of Metropolis magazine.

Indeed, in the spirit of Gruen, one of the tenets of new urbanism has been the promise to relief traffic congestion and create walkable communities less reliant on individuals using their automobiles. Elsewhere, critics like Ruth Durack wrote in Places Journal, new urbanism’s focus on re-creating small villages within the scope of contemporary development demands raises doubts about its “dubious claims of sustainability.” Are lifestyle centers new malls in fancy clothes that now, 60 years later, fulfill Gruen’s vision? Have we come full circle, going back to the outward-facing mall, or are these developments rather adjustments owed to changing lifestyles and tastes rather than substantial changes in urban planning?

Victor Gruen relocated to his native Vienna in 1968 with his fourth wife. His thoughts on urban planning did not go unheeded in the Austrian capital, where they influenced the city’s urban development plan, eventually yielding the first substantial pedestrian-only areas in the city center.

However, there was ultimately no escaping his American creation, the shopping mall, which would come home to haunt him in Austria. Today, the colossal Shopping City Süd, located outside Vienna, stands as one of Europe’s largest malls. Victor Gruen passed away in Vienna on February 14, 1980.

Photo of Victor Gruen with Associates

Sothdale Center, Edina, Minnesota. American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

Northland Center, Southfield, Michigan.

Northland Center, outside Detroit, Michigan, openedn in 1954. It was a milestone development and the largest completely integrated shopping district in the world. According to Gruen Associates, emphasis was placed on the long range development of the shopping center and the creation of a desirable public urban space. Northland was demolished for redevelopment. The last anchor store closed in 2015, and demolition began in 2017.

American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.