Shopping malls: my family’s part in the world’s civic downfall


Southdale Shopping Center

The architect Victor Gruen ‘invented’ the shopping mall. He was the first person to come up with and execute the idea of a hermetically sealed shopping area – something that dovetailed with the imperatives of property development, retailing, as well as ideas of femininity and the need for places to ‘duck and cover’ as the American’s were, bizarrely enough, planning to do if subjected to a nuclear attack by the bad guys. His original purpose? To liven up the suburbs. He felt they were soulless and needed some civic life.

Was he mad? No – he was an idealist whose ideas got hijacked. The shopping malls initially had multiple civic spaces of many different kinds where people could congregate and socialise in various ways.  But the civic space didn’t earn its keep as well as retail space.

It’s an interesting story. My Dad once told me that we might have been related. In this day of Google and the internet I can confirm pretty quickly that we’re not. Though they spent their early years in the same city, Vienna, Victor was born Victor David Grünbaum. My father Fritz Heinz Georg Grün. So no dice.

But it’s an interesting and sad story if you can ignore the occasional ideological mannerisms of the author.

Towards the end of his life

Gruen claimed that real estate businesses had hijacked his concept of the shopping town and reduced them to machines for selling. He disclaimed paternity once and for all and refused to pay alimony to those bastard developments. He became interested in ecology, concentrated his attention on the concept of the self-sustained city and the cellular metropolis and was active in the anti-nuclear power movement.

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Fyodor
13 years ago

It’s a fascinating story. The Economist ran an article on Gruen and the rise of the shopping mall late last year. It takes a more balanced (IMO) view of the contribution of the shopping mall to American society and culture.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
13 years ago

A tragedy indeed. He invents a great thing and fails to appreciate how great it is.

Amanda
13 years ago

Fyodor said what I was going to. The Economist Chrissie edn was great reading.

CL's blog is back
CL's blog is back
13 years ago

would that be your gruenfather then?

David Rubie
David Rubie
13 years ago

From The Economist article

There is one crucial difference. Gruen wanted to improve upon the American city centre by modernising and Europeanising it. Mr Caruso, by contrast, looks to the past. He has tried to re-create a kind of prelapsarian downtown where there is no crime or homelessness. His romantic evocations of city centres are possible only because people have forgotten what downtowns used to be like. And they have forgotten, of course, largely because of the suburban shopping malls that Gruen built. It was necessary to kill the American city centre before bringing it back to life.

We’ve lived out here in the boonies for about 3 years now, and set foot in basically no enclosed shopping malls in that time. A quick trip to Brisbane over the holidays had us trawling one of the big shopping centres. I can’t tell you just how *oppressive* they feel now. Dark, crowded, filled with shops full of stuff that probably sounds great when you buy the franchise, but ends up gathering dust either in your shop or in your customers home (sports memorabilia tat? Tie rack? King of knives? Gah!). The car park outside seemed like a genuine breath of fresh air.

Caruso mentioned above seems about 30 years behind the times – there are lots of small Australian towns where the main street has been outside-mallified by paving over the road and expelling cars. At least you can see the sky every now and again. And, yes, the occasional homeless person causing the white middle class ladies to clutch their precious purchases closer to their chests.

James Farrell
James Farrell
13 years ago

It’s very hard to generalise about shopping malls. Muchl depends on the interface with the street and surrounding buildings. Parramatta Westfield is a hideous great box, sealed off from the rest of the suburb. The fortress-like concrete walls are an eyesore from any direction, and make the whole area pedestrian unfriendly. Parking and shopping is quite convenient, but eating in windowless cafes is oppressive. By contrast, Castle Towers, two suburbs away in Castle Hill, opens onto cafe-lined courtyards which in turn lead into the original street, integrating mall and ‘strip’ shopping, and keeping the latter alive. The external architecture is kitsch, but a lot better than the box format of Parramatta. I quite like Birkenhead Point too, though it’s not on the same scale as the others, so isn’t strictly comparable.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
13 years ago

One safe generalisation is that they are private property. The management decides what will take place in them. That excludes not only skateboards but anything of even remotely political character. Everything has to be nice and smiley like a commercial TV channel.

That’s their right. It’s private property. Just as once upon a time the king owned the streets and decreed what happened there.

The shopping mall is effectively a privatisation of public space and a dumbing-down of social interaction.