Mall Maker

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M. Jeffrey Hardwick. Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. 276. ISBN 0-8122-3762-5. (hdbk.).

Summary

In "Mall Maker", M. Jeffrey Hardwick seeks, among other things, "to make the conversation about consumerism and suburbia a little less shrill." (6) He believes that this will be possible by using the story of Victor Gruen, the creator of the American shopping mall, as a way to place the growth of the shopping mall and its role in suburbanization in historical terms, and understand it as a historical process.

"Mall Maker" is a biography, but not a comprehensive one. Hardwick is interested in Gruen's 30 years as a working American architect, a period spanning 1938 to 1968. More specifically, he is interested in "the relationship between Gruen's works and American culture," (6) and so personal details, his back story (Gruen came to America in 1938, as a refugee from the Nazi regime, in his mid-30s), and his career after returning to Vienna in 1968 (he lived another 12 years) are of secondary importance. Hardwick, while sympathetic towards his subject, is more interested in how and why Gruen shaped the public spaces in America, not in his complete life story.

Gruen came to invent the modern covered shopping mall only after a long and successful career as a commercial designer (he preferred that title to architect for much of his American career). In Vienna, he had already made a name for himself designing several distinctive store fronts. His first job in the United States was working on the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. That experience impressed him with the power of large-scale planning and the possibility of consumer culture to create and expand prosperity. It was also where he first learned to appreciate the centrality of the automobile in American society. He would never question or challenge that power, although he detested cars. That was not the only contradiction in his career.

Immediately after the World Fair job, he began a successful career in New York designing fashionable and influential storefronts on Fifth Avenue. His innovations included the use of the recessed arcade, a way to allow pedestrians to step out of the hustle and bustle of sidewalk traffic and be pulled into the store. Gruen already believed in the power of the physical environment to shape the emotions and desires of consumers.

One constant theme of Gruen's life was his relentless search for larger projects--larger "stages", he very well might have put it (he had a background in theater). So after only three years in New York City, he moved to Los Angeles, CA, where his new firm began designing chain stores. This allowed him to bring his architectural and design innovations into cities and towns all over the United States. Gruen was beginning the process of homogenizing and commercializing the American city that he would later deplore without ever accepting partial responsibility for his own role.

Los Angeles was an automobile-centered city in the same way that New York City was pedestrian-centered. Gruen soon found inspiration in creating attractive, attention-drawing storefronts designed to appeal to people in cars the way his earlier work targeted relatively slow-moving pedestrians. He became famous and sought-after for his ability to design commercial strip buildings and suburban department stores which made a virtue of their size and locations on highways and commercial main roads.

Eventually, he focused on the perceived limitations of these stores; they created sprawl and ugly commercial development in their wake. He sought to control and contain suburban commercial growth and decentralization by creating new communal spaces--he believed that shopping was an important, unifying activity. Consumers would come together in new public spaces built by private capital for both commercial and altruistic ends. Shopping centers would draw suburbanites to shop in an environment designed to encourage consumption while facilitating social and cultural mixing. Ultimately, Gruen succeeded in created the covered American shopping center--the "Mall". Gruen believed he was recreating the densely-populated, pedestrian-friendly public spaces which suburbanites had abandoned when they fled the cities.

He would move on to even larger projects, notably urban renewal with mixed results at best, but the shopping Mall remains his most lasting legacy. His attempts at downtown renewal were modest successes (his larger plans proved politically and financially insupportable), but they also essentially duplicated the form and function of the suburban shopping mall downtown; these "plans to remake downtown into a suburban shopping center suggest how pervasive the suburban lifestyle had become". (205) The de facto acceptance of racial segregation by Gruen's plans is especially glaring in the explicit appeals of these projects to white suburbanites. Perhaps it was easier to accept the power of consumerism to tie society together if one conceptualizes "society" as a homogeneous whole untroubled by strife and conflict.

Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

This account of the career of Victor Gruen is a brisk and readable account of his public career in American commercial architecture with a focus on his creation of the covered shopping mall. Hardwick explains in the introduction that he wants to add historical context and nuance to the debate over suburbanization and the commercialization of American life. By explaining Gruen's accomplishments in a chronological fashion, with emphasis on those experiences which informed his growth and development as a commercial architect and designer, Hardwick largely succeeds in placing Gruen's ideals and innovations into the context of the time without pontificating from a contemporary perspective. "Mall Maker" is sympathetic to its subject, although not blind to some of his shortcomings.

From one perspective, this is the story of how far socialist and progressive ideals can stray from their original premises. Gruen never lost his belief in the power of planned environment control to shape behavior and improve society, even as he came to rely on private capital and individual consumers rather than public authority and social classes. His faith in top-down expertise and rationalized planning was profoundly undemocratic, so it is sadly appropriate that one of his final major (and unrealized) projects was a proposal to completely redesign the Iranian capital of Tehran during the last days of the Shah.

His excitement with the possibilities of American life was in many ways selective--while he was passionate about saving cities, he never acknowledged that there was much in American cities worth saving. He was a dreamer and visionary who planned entire communities in order to deal with the sprawl and crass commercialism of an automobile-based culture, but he had no interest in mass transit and gave the automobile itself a central importance in his plans. But while his occasional hypocrisy and self-delusion can be baffling or irritating, there is a tragic quality to Gruen which keeps him sympathetic despite his flaws. He comes across as a man of true genius who lacked the self-awareness or clarity of vision to understand exactly what it was he was doing. He remade American civic space in ways which were appropriate and fitting for the technological, economic, cultural, social, and demographic realities of the time; yet he never seemed to understand why he was successful, or why his broader vision so often failed to take root. He retained his belief that consumerism was a means to an end, not an end in itself. (140) He marketed his commercial innovations as profitable enterprises which would also serve less tangible, more communally-minded functions. With the hubris of a man who believed he understood how to lure consumers into spending more money for the good of the economy and their own communities, he failed to recognize his own role in creating the sprawl and commercialism he openly detested. It was never his plans which were wrong.

Victor Gruen shaped American life, but he sought to control it and to better it on his own terms. He failed to do the latter, and by the end of his life he rued the effects of the former. He was a flawed genius who trusted his gifts better than he understood their limits.

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