Book club: Mall Maker

Book: Mall Maker by M. Jeffrey Hardwick
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
Reviewer: M.E. Jacobs
My thoughts: 9 out of 10

Mall Maker chronicles the life and career of Victor Gruen, the architect and urban designer who almost single-handedly transformed the American way of life. More specifically, the book delves deep into his philosophies behind revolutionising the downtown store front of the 1940s, the popularisation of shopping malls in the 1950s and the revitalisation of city centres in the 1960s. His concepts have in part been adopted and implemented worldwide, showing how truly influential one man’s ideas can be.

Having fled Vienna in the 1930s due to Hitler’s invasion of Vienna, Gruen used his European background to transform retail and public spaces in both downtown and the relatively new phenomenon known as the suburbs. The author manages to give the reader a glimpse into Gruen’s mind while still being unbiased by disclosing contemporary critique and arguments against his ideas.

Victor Gruen arrived in the United States in 1938, just in time to be part of the groundbreaking 1939 World Fair. America at that point had not yet entered the war but was still very much in the grip of the Great Depression. There were many factors at play in the new environment he found himself in and they all seemed to fit him perfectly. Having been an architect in his beloved Vienna, Gruen now had to reinvent himself in this new country. With American architects having a somewhat narrow-minded view of storefront design, Gruen was one of only a few architects working in the field. Ironically, in Europe, storefront design was seen as a very respectable profession and with his experience, was seen as an expert.

When the United States finally entered World War II in 1941, it signalled the beginning of a residential revolution. Partly because of the war and the popularisation of the automobile, suburbanisation started to rise. Suddenly there were thousands of new households living far away from downtown who needed a place where they too could enjoy shopping. Gruen had an amazing knack for designing retail spaces that catered to both the motorist and the pedestrian, something we take for granted today. He wanted to recreate his Vienna, where people came together at the European arcade or piazza to wander the streets and sip coffee while watching the goings-on of passersby. His suburban shopping centres proved to be so successful however, it drew retailers, and thus customers, away from the city centre.

With downtown now in decline, Gruen set his sights on the “suburbanization of downtown”, bringing his tried and tested shopping centre back to the city. Although he did have success in this field, the suburban domination of retail was there to stay, due in great part to Gruen himself. In the end, Gruen became disillusioned with America and moved back to Vienna. He had tried to influence American values to be more in line with the European way of life, but ultimately failed.

Mall Maker is an absolute must-read for anyone working in retail and urban development, if only to understand the problems around today are by no means new.

What I learned from Mall Maker:

With the shopping centre’s dominance having come to an end in the United States, it is a fascinating read on where it all started, and why. Gruen’s eventual objection, and rejection, of the shopping mall stemmed from developers having copied only part of his concept. The shopping mall, in his mind, was to be part of a larger development, always with the community and pedestrian first and foremost in mind. It is also interesting if not somewhat disheartening to see the same problems still milling around, sixty-five years later. Urban renewal and retail development was big business in the 1950s and 1960s yet somehow we seem to believe they are new issues to be tackled and solved.

It is also quite interesting to learn why many shopping malls worldwide followed the same architectural design, which initially was solely meant as backlash against the American 1950’s flashy if not gaudy retail strips. The book also conveys the message of why shopping centres, which some once believed invincible, are in decline. They are by no means new, almost three generations of people have grown up with the concept of the shopping mall and very little will impress a public who has seen almost every possible shopping centre design. Some new developments do seem to be more successful, in part because they follow Gruen’s complete plan, which included residential and office developments, not just the shopping centre alone.

Selected quotes:
● “Your property is no better than its environment” – Victor Gruen
● “In Gruen’s mind, little separated public benefit from private profit.” – M. Jeffrey Hardwick
● “You (Victor Gruen) should have left downtown, downtown.” – Architect Frank Lloyd Wright
● “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” – Victor Gruen, commenting late in his career on the changing face of shopping malls.
● “For Europe, the thoughtless copying of the American shopping centre has been truly catastrophic.” – Victor Gruen