The Father of the Shopping Mall
December 24, 2003 9:09 AM   Subscribe

The Father of the Shopping Mall "His most remarkable innovation--unveiled in Edina, Minn., in 1956--was the first enclosed shopping mall, a climate-controlled community of retailing under a single vast canopy. But it was intended to be more than just a place to shop. It was to provide a center to otherwise centerless developments, offering community, entertainment and even enlightenment. Gruen lamented that Americans, at the time, were living 'detached lives in detached houses.' With his shopping-center designs, Mr. Hardwick writes, 'Gruen hoped to offer a corrective to this grim and soulless American environment.' "
posted by jamsterdam (30 comments total)
Well I daresay the dictionary definition of "complete and utter failure to achieve your goal" should have a picture of Mr. Gruen. Every mall I've been in has been pretty much the epitome of grim and soulless.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:14 AM on December 24, 2003

it's not the monument to the god that is the problem, it is the god itself. this week i stand in awe as the hordes flock to their churches and worship the god of consumption.
posted by quonsar at 9:19 AM on December 24, 2003

That brings up a good point, quonsar. While I find it easy to bash the mall, I sometimes ask myself what is the difference between the mall and the quaint outdoor shopping area in the trendy neighborhood. Well, the latter usually has better coffee shops at least.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 9:22 AM on December 24, 2003

what is the difference between the mall and the quaint outdoor shopping area in the trendy neighborhood

Trendy neighborhoods buck consumerism epitomized by the proverbial mall by shopping outdoors. Rebels.
posted by pedantic at 9:31 AM on December 24, 2003

You can protest on the street outside your neighbourhood coffee shop, if they start selling coffee made with slave-labour.

Not so easy on the private property mall.
posted by Blue Stone at 9:38 AM on December 24, 2003

I should also mention that Southdale (the Edina mall), is quite nice...even 50 years later. It is still one of the most appealing malls in the Twin Cities. It is routinely renovated and always feels fresh. Conversely, the Mall of America is feeling a little dated.

I do think Gruen would be quite happy with his still strong vision in Southdale. It seems to me he had the foresight to try to solve a suburban problem -- that in suburbs, nearly everything becomes mutually exclusive.
posted by pedantic at 9:56 AM on December 24, 2003

Malls are just too efficient; people seem to form emotional relationships with things or places based on their quirks and rough edges.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:58 AM on December 24, 2003

Could've sworn that we've done Gruen before, but I'm too lazy to look the thread up jest now.

At any rate, the Gruen Effect - the intentional confoundment of wayfinding cues, in the hope that customers will get disoriented and spend more time and money in a mall - is very much a live issue in architecture and development. The man's thought has had a huge influence on the way commercial spaces are developed.

I find the Gruen Effect disrespectful and, at root, a tacit admission that the items for sale are not in themselves of sufficient interest to compel attention - that you've got to trick people into buying. Distasteful, innit?
posted by adamgreenfield at 10:06 AM on December 24, 2003

That brings up a good point, quonsar. While I find it easy to bash the mall, I sometimes ask myself what is the difference between the mall and the quaint outdoor shopping area in the trendy neighborhood. Well, the latter usually has better coffee shops at least.

It really depends. Usually the "trendiest" shopping areas are the ones that ironically have the lowest rent and therefore can support niche businesses. I don't know what is is but there is just something about malls that just seems to favor the franchise owner. In our local mall independent local businesses seem to have an average lifespan of about 6 months. The handful of strong family businesses have been there since the mall opened when I was a kid.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:21 AM on December 24, 2003

There's a Yiddish word that sums up this whole mess quite precisely.

The word is Farpotchket

It means "Something which is all fucked up as a result of an attempt to fix it."
posted by troutfishing at 10:25 AM on December 24, 2003

As I'm reading more about Gruen and his vision, it is unfortunate that the Gruen Effect has the name it has.

Gruen said in this article (read gives the best insight I've found so far into his feelings before and after malls became a staple):

But arguably, today's malls are a far cry from Gruen's original concept that was less about recreation and entertainment. Rather, his concept promoted sustainability. He lamented that building suburbs enabled us to gobble up the landscape mowing down everything natural and beautiful. "It is the unique accomplishment of our era," he wrote, "that, for the first time, we are able to destroy faster than nature can replenish."

Incidentally, Southdale doesn't offer helicopter service (1/2 way down) anymore.
posted by pedantic at 10:26 AM on December 24, 2003

Additionally, I rescind my previous comment stating that I would think Gruen would be proud of Southdale.
posted by pedantic at 10:31 AM on December 24, 2003

Now I know who to blame for malls. The road to hell is paved etc...
posted by Grod at 10:42 AM on December 24, 2003

strangelefty, the outdoor shopping areas in trendy neighborhoods are better than malls because malls only have outlets of major chains while those outdoor areas have some unique businesses that are owned by locals. And if you've got a local pizza shop that's been owned by the same guy for over 20 years vs. Bertucci's, you're gonna have a better communal feeling in that neighborhood.
posted by gregb1007 at 11:16 AM on December 24, 2003

Malls belong down in Hell. Maybe Hell is coming to us?......

OhMyGod - The Millenium, The Antichrist! - RUN!......

Seriously though, Jamsterdam - this is a great find. But I have a bone to pick with the author of your WSJ story who says that while most people consider "Marx, Freud and Einstein [as] the MittelEuropean trio who gave us the modern world", Gruen should also be in that pantheon. Perhaps Daniel Akst is correct in this, but I'd say that Edward Bernays - 2nd cousin (on both sides of the family!) to Sigmund Freud and considered - along with Ivy Lee - to be the cofounder of modern PR, advertising, and propaganda techniques - should be placed in the pantheon first, before Gruen.
posted by troutfishing at 11:41 AM on December 24, 2003

gregb1007, I'm not so sure. I'm thinking of Broadway and Spring and Prince Streets, in SoHo. For every unique local shop, there's ten Armani Exchange/Phat Farm/J. Crew/Skechers/Old Navy outlets - and this used to be a genuinely avant garde neighborhood.

I'd rather the place had the honesty to roof the streets over and call it for what it nakedly is, a mall.
posted by adamgreenfield at 12:08 PM on December 24, 2003

The problem with malls is that they are too safe, too controlled, to pure. The beauty of cities, what made Rousseau fear and loathe them, is that they are places where people of different backgrounds, classes and races, meet and exchange goods, ideas, skills, etc.

Modern democracies and liberal thinking can be traced mainly to urban centers, to places where people have no choice but to learn to live with, tolerate and respect the other.

Suburbs were invented in 19th century England as an escape from the perceived decay of newly dense and democratic cities, as a place for the upper middle class to safely secret away their mates and progeny while the brave men foraged each day in the vile city.
The delicate women and children on the other hand could live unpolluted by the poor, the foreigners and other undesirables. You can still see traces of this origin in modern suburbs across the US and Europe, with mostly white/rich people living in the burbs, and mostly black/latino/arab/poor people living in the cities. "Urban" is in fact used as a euphemism for the poor and discriminated ("Urban Music", for example).

In this context, the mall is key. It is a place where you can pretend to be in a city, walk down faux-streets, eat at a bad imitation of a city square, run into other people who look, talk and think like you. (This is of course not so extreme, with malls varying both in affluence and race).
Malls allow people to have some of the benefits of living in a high density area (i.a.: access to shopping options), while not exposing themselves to the unpredictable elements of real cities.

The problems with malls are the same as with suburbs in general: they encourage closed, endogamic communities; they hold themselves aloof from the larger community in which they in fact participate (think of the housekeepers who have to travel from inner cities to idyllic suburbs), sharing in its benefits and not necessarily in its costs; they're dependent on ubiquitous cars, with their associated energy, pollution and financial issues. They're uniform and faceless. It's extremely hard to differentiate a mall in Tel-Aviv from one in Santiago, Chile. Serendipity is cancelled out, risk and reward reduced to their minimum expression. Malls are always the same, controlled window displays based on focus groups and gestalt theories.

There's a reason why malls symbolize the un-cool: they're safe, sterile, cowardly places. Holding pens for consumers.
posted by signal at 12:58 PM on December 24, 2003

signal, great analysis but there's something you missed. There are some suburbs that are a hybrid between the inner city and the luxury suburbs that you talk about. Just like the inner city, they have the diversity of all kinds of different ethnicies, low-income folks, and there's confict, voilence etc. But just like the luxury suburbs, they are filled with sterile malls, national chains, fast-food places.
posted by gregb1007 at 1:44 PM on December 24, 2003

gregb1007: You're right, and perhaps my monologue presented a too simple social panorama, and a false dichotomy between cities and suburbs. As you point out, in the US and especially in Europe and Latin America, for example, you have huge lower-middle and lower class suburbs, with the same basic structure as richer enclaves, with sterile tracts of housing, malls, etc.
The thing is all these pseudo-cities are segregated. The beauty of actual living cities is that bankers work and live next to or near shoeshiners, use the same services and generally share the same basic quality of urban life.
If you see an urban community as an ecology, it makes sense for people of different wealth and status to share the same infrastructure; the rich have an interest in poor people's problems not out of the kindness of their hearts, but because they share them. It's much to easy to ignore the decay of inner cities if you live in someplace called Pure Valley.
posted by signal at 1:59 PM on December 24, 2003

signal - a great monologue nonetheless. What of the interrelationship between the development of suburbs and the growth of automobile culture - with regard to the intentional effort on the part of the burgeoning auto industry to buy up and dismantle trolley lines in urban areas around the country, replace them with inadequate bus lines, and so encourage automobile ownership? : This led to the insidious feedback cycle of Sprawl = more autos and more autos = more sprawl.

In Europe, population density was higher, so land was at a premium. This discouraged sprawl and mall-ish phenomenon : and the trains and trolleys were never dismantled wholesale (as in America)

Malls are a predictable outgrowth of auto culture....and now that the genie is out of the bottle, it's next to impossible to stuff it back in.
posted by troutfishing at 2:11 PM on December 24, 2003

signal, yes the segregation of the poor and the rich in the suburbs is a reason this country is turning conservative. If someone grows up in a neighborhood where they get a shiny new (not used) car by the time they turn 16, they probably won't worry about the people who aren't doing as well as they are. I've had some people tell me that universal healthcare is a bad idea because everyone they know already has healthcare anyway.
posted by gregb1007 at 3:00 PM on December 24, 2003

Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, WA seems to be exactly what Gruen had in mind. There's free live music and lots of places to sit and talk, eat, read, or play. People are always sitting at tables outside of the Wizards Of The Coast and playing card games and chess. It's got a nice mix of big chain stores and small independent shops, as well as a library, police station, mini-city hall, and a grocery store.
posted by ukamikanasi at 3:12 PM on December 24, 2003

Interesting story in the NYT on this today: An Enormous Landmark Joins Graveyard of Malls
posted by amberglow at 3:26 PM on December 24, 2003

The second enclosed mall in Minnesota, Apache Plaza, is planned to be demolished soon. Meanwhile, the nearby 1961-built Har Mar Mall is doing just fine, thank you.
posted by gimonca at 9:21 PM on December 24, 2003

Chris Rock :

"Every city has two malls: the white mall, and that mall the white people used to go to. That mall must be something awful to actually keep white people from going. "It’s too black in here." White people like black people the way they like their seasoning: Just a dash.

I hate the black mall. There ain't nothing in the black mall but sneakers and baby clothes. I guess that’s all they think we’re doing: running and fucking."
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:34 PM on December 24, 2003

stavros - ouch.

But what's a running fuck? I've heard that the "Mongol Horde" horsemen perfected the art of rape on horseback - would that be a running (or galloping) fuck?

I know some dead malls - even some white dead malls!
posted by troutfishing at 12:33 AM on December 25, 2003

Gruen lamented that Americans, at the time, were living 'detached lives in detached houses.' With his shopping-center designs, Mr. Hardwick writes, 'Gruen hoped to offer a corrective to this grim and soulless American environment.' "

Wow, there's some historical revision / facelifting going on in that statement.

I was alive at the time -- the sense I had, and still have, was that malls were about commercializing community and capitalizing on it. Ya know, like Amway -- turn your best friends into customers! Kill the downtowns and turn up the social engineering.

"Grim and soulless" is a lot more descriptive of malls than the outdoors where people used to cluster. So from my POV, Gruen at best fucked up bigtime.
posted by Twang at 11:38 PM on December 25, 2003

troutfishing -- "white dead malls" -- instantly reminded of the "Night of the Living Dead" sequel set in a mall (forget which one ... Dawn?)
posted by Twang at 11:51 PM on December 25, 2003

So, it's all HIS fault? Previously, I had a good impression of Minn.
posted by ParisParamus at 5:12 AM on December 26, 2003

Twang - It was "Dawn of the Dead", I believe. psst - watch out for Paris, I think he might be a brain-eating Zombie.

Paris - A friend of mine used to tell me that Minn. had an unusual number of crimes of passion - such as depicted in "Fargo", but this was before that movie came out - like husbands or wives killing their spouses and then getting rid of the bodies by feeding them into wood-chippers.....that sort of thing.

It's probably all hearsay - I'm sure they're a good, decent, God-fearing people.

Plus - crimes of passion aside - crime is generally very low, due to the fact that you can almost always track the footprints of criminals in the snow, except during the months of July and August.
posted by troutfishing at 10:15 AM on December 26, 2003

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