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July 18: Victor Gruen’s Shopping Mall

July 17, 2015

artikel-120-1-mittelArchitect Victor Gruen (Gruénbaum), who designed America’s first indoor shopping mall (the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, 1956) and outdoor pedestrian mall (in Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1958), was born in Vienna on this date in 1903. A lifelong socialist, he fled from the Nazis in Austria in 1938 and landed in Los Angeles in 1941, where he founded his own architectural firm and began landing commercial office contracts. By the 1970s, his firm had designed more than fifty shopping malls in the U.S. The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell has called Gruen “the most influential architect of the 20th century,” given how his shopping mall concept transformed how Americans shop, nearly eliminated “Main Street” commercial zones, and amplified the centrality of the automobile in daily life. Gruen originally intended, however, for his malls to be not the disrupter of community life but the anchor of new communities. His “full vision for the mall was more than just shops,” writes Roman Mars. “He imagined them as mixed-use facilities, with apartments, offices, medical centers, child-care facilities, libraries, and (since it was the 1950s) bomb shelters.... Over time,” however, “Gruen saw that in erecting these malls, he was draining life from the actual cities. So... Gruen got involved in urban renewal projects, drawing directly on some of the lessons learned in his suburban shopping malls and applying them to struggling downtown.” Ultimately, the designer of modern shopping malls became one of their harshest critics, even calling them “concentration camps.”