Segment from Counter Culture

Mall About It

Scholar Jeff Hardwick discusses Victor Gruen, a socialist who pioneered the development of the modern American shopping mall, and the conflicted relationship he had with his creation.

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NOTE: The following transcript corresponds to an earlier version of this show. Some passages may not match the rebroadcast audio above.

BRIAN: We just heard about the advent of the department store towards the end of the 19th century. Now we’re going to jump to the middle of the 20th century and consider the origins of another American innovation in buying and selling, the shopping mall.

ED: Consolidated shopping areas had been a feature of urban life as far back as the 1920s. But they weren’t pretty. They were congested and often poorly built open air strips or ribbons of stores. And when the suburbs started taking shape in the ’40s and ’50s, architects and planners were determined to not reproduce that kind of blight. This meant zoning against commercial space, which in turn meant towns that were almost exclusively residential. There was hardly anywhere for suburbanites to go for art or entertainment or commodities, except back to the city.

BRIAN: Into that scene stepped a man named Victor Gruen. He was a Socialist Jewish emigre who fled the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. And over the next two decades, he would become perhaps the most influential architect of American malls. Gruen wasn’t the only one planning suburban malls, but he was unique in his desire to make malls that were grand, public places, not just places to buy stuff, but places to see art, to mingle, and to have a social experience.

JEFF HARDWICK: So Gruen continually is writing about how what he calls these regional shopping centers are going to bring culture and amenities to the soulless suburbs.

BRIAN: This is Jeff Hardwick, a biographer of Gruen’s.

JEFF HARDWICK: He imagines that you’re going to have merchants essentially subsidize public culture in the suburbs, and they’re going to be able to enjoy this public art and plantings and concerts. I mean, he sees the shopping mall– and this is probably his most naive point– as the center of a mixed use community. He really pictures that you’re going to have offices and hospitals and medical centers and apartment buildings all connected to the shopping mall.

BRIAN: Bringing them all together, that sounds almost socialist.

JEFF HARDWICK: Right. You know, it’s funny, like drawing a straight line from his socialist beliefs in Vienna to work on the shopping malls to his eventual distaste for American shopping malls is kind of tough, because I feel like he makes so many compromises along the way.

BRIAN: Yeah.

JEFF HARDWICK: But he definitely tapped into an American tradition of the idea of if you plan the environment of the city or the suburbs and you control development, it will have a beneficial effect on both people and the environment.

BRIAN: And architecturally, how did this play out? What was different about the way Gruen designed malls compared to those ribbons or those strips?

JEFF HARDWICK: Yeah. It’s a good question. So in many ways, I think of Gruen as a middling architect. He’s not that innovative architecturally, but planning-wise he’s very innovative. So in his best example, Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956, it opens up and it’s got I think a three-story aviary. It’s got a goldfish pond. It’s got this massive court, which is called I think the Garden of Perpetual Spring.


JEFF HARDWICK: And that’s what Gruen latches onto. He keeps making the case to developers, you know, you invest in 300,000 tulips. You plant 5,000 trees. Hire an artist to design these sculptures that kids can play on.

And all of that is going to uplift middle class Americans. It’s going to make them have fun. And if they have fun, they’re going to stay longer. And if they stay longer, eventually they’re going to spend more money.

BRIAN: So Gruen, by the end of the 1960s, returns to Europe disgusted with some of the very malls that he built. What was he most upset about?

JEFF HARDWICK: Right. It’s a tricky question. You know, Gruen is nothing if not, ever since the beginning of his career in the States, very conscious about his image. And so I think you have to take it with a grain of salt. The classic comment is in a 1978 speech in London, he says, I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments. And what he means is they’ve ruined his fantastic idea, this idea that’s going to bring culture to the suburbs. And Americans, because of their crass commercialism, have destroyed that vision.

And you know, part of that’s true. Developers do realize that you put up a five-story poinsettia tree at Christmastime, people are going to stop and stare and think it’s just amazing. But a lot of those other pieces end up falling by the wayside, because they don’t directly produce profits.

And yet at the same time, Gruen, he makes his career on shopping malls. He continues building shopping malls from ’56 all the way through when he leaves his firm in ’68 and returns to Vienna. And so he imagines that the shopping mall is this gift to Americans that they have in his words bastardized in some way, yeah, by making it solely focused on the marketplace.

Jeff Hardwick is the author of Mall Maker, Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Hardwick’s also a program officer at the National Endowment for the Humanities, which we should point out is one of the funders of this program.