Malls: A History of the Suburban Shopping Mecca

The indoor shopping mall is an American icon. They can be found in nearly every suburban area in the US. But these temples of consumerism were first designed by a socialist, who wanted to create a common community. And today, the “mall” is quietly fading from the scene.


Indoor ice skating rink in a mall in Florida

The “shopping center” is an old concept. Ancient Rome had its Forum, which was lined with rows of open-air shops selling everything from pottery to wine and bread. And for 2,000 years afterwards, every sizable town or city had its central marketplace where merchants and artisans could gather to hawk their wares. As European and American society became more and more urbanized during the late 19th and early 20th century, this custom became codified into the “downtown”, the inner-city “business district” where streets were lined with row upon row of shops and restaurants.

But by the 1940’s, however, “downtowns” were declining as some of the harsher realities of urban life began to set in. Urban city centers were crowded, dirty, and unpleasant places. The new American “car culture” increased the congestion and pollution. Cobblestone streets that were once open avenues for pedestrians and bicyclists now became snarled with traffic and parking. “Downtowns” became areas of poverty and crime. And as more and more people fled to the suburbs to escape the city (in the civil-rights-era US, much of this was due to “white flight”, as the well-off moved out of town to avoid having to deal with “those people”), they were left without any easy access to the downtown shopping areas.

Enter Victor Gruen. Gruen had been born in Austria, where, during his lifetime, he had seen the once-quaint city centers of Europe turn from boulevards of shops and cafes to smoke-belching urban quagmires. When the Nazis came to power in Germany and annexed Austria, Gruen, who was a Socialist and a Jew, was targeted for arrest, and he fled to the United States in 1938.

As an architect, Gruen also brought with him a vision–a conception of a new type of city which would do away with the crowded and dirty commercial streets of downtown (he called them “avenues of horror”) and replace them with a modern version of the old traditional town square, where pedestrians once again strolled past shops, parks, fountains, outdoors cafes, and theaters. As a Socialist, Gruen wanted to bring people together, to gather in common places and form a community–so his “malls” would be surrounded by houses, office buildings and workplaces, all within walking distance. (Gruen hated “cars”, with all their noise and congestion and pollution.) And, in the innovation that would change the commercial world, Gruen planned to enclose the entire “town square” within a set of walls and a roof, to protect all of the shoppers from the weather (and also from any of their fellow citizens who might be criminally-inclined). In effect, Gruen planned to bring the best parts of the city “inside”, and to keep the rest “outside”.

Gruen first presented his concept in 1943, when the trade magazine Architectural Forum ran a contest for the “postwar city of the future”. The editors were not impressed.

But in the 1950’s, Gruen finally got his chance. For several years, suburban areas had been constructing their own small versions of “downtown”, to give their residents a place to shop without having to go into the city. These consisted of two or three large department stores with rows of small open-air independent shops and restaurants in between. Gruen himself designed such a “strip mall”, called Northland, outside of Detroit. Then in 1952, the Dayton’s Department Store chain made plans to open a new shopping center in Edina MN, a suburb of Minneapolis. It was to be called “Southdale”. They hired Victor Gruen to design it, and gave him a free hand. For the first time, he could bring his vision to life.

The Southdale Mall, as it came to be known, opened in 1956. It was an amazing new concept for the time. The Mall consisted of two large department stores, Dayton’s and Donaldson’s, with a row of 72 small shops, stacked in two floors, in between. But the pedestrian “avenue” was enclosed within a single building, almost as large as an entire city block. Glass roofs allowed sunlight to stream in. The central courtyard, overlooked by the upper level of shops, had fountains and potted trees and flower gardens. There was an aviary with caged songbirds, and a fish pond with waterfalls. Surrounding the courtyard were a number of restaurants and cafes, with tables set up for “outdoors dining”, indoors. Here, Gruen hoped, people could gather to talk and stroll and debate and socialize just as people used to do in the old town squares and boulevards of Paris and Berlin and Vienna. And the entire massive structure was enclosed and heated–instead of slogging downtown through snow and slush, shoppers could sip coffee at the cafes comfortably in their shirtsleeves even as the harsh Minnesota winters raged outside. It was, as the Mall’s advertising trumpeted, an “Eternal Spring”. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. On the day the Southdale Mall opened, 75,000 people crowded in to experience it.

The effect was electric–literally. Every suburban area in the US and Canada suddenly wanted its own Mall. For most, the local Mall was the only place in town they could go that was heated in the winter and air-conditioned in the summer. They became favored hangouts for teens (who quickly became known as “mallrats”). During the next few decades, over a thousand indoor malls opened, with each one vying to be larger and grander than the last. When the West Edmonton Mall opened near Alberta, Canada in 1981, it was dubbed a “mega-mall”: it had 800 shopping stores, a hotel, an amusement and water park with rides, an artificial indoors lake, a zoo, and a church. Near Minneapolis MN, the birthplace of Gruen’s “mall”, the Mall of America opened in 1992; today it has 520 stores and is the largest mall in the US (it was the subject of its own TV series). But even the North American mega-malls were eclipsed in the 2010’s as newly-rich Asian nations like China constructed their own versions. The Golden Resources Mall in Beijing has over 1,000 stores, making it twice as big as the Mall of America.

Gruen, meanwhile, was horrified. He had planned his enclosed “town square” as part of a larger community, in which shopping, workspaces, homes and recreational areas would all be integrated into one pedestrian-based community, remaking and transforming the modern city. Instead, suburban malls turned into big sprawling money-making machines, drawing the cars that Gruen hated from the cities out to the suburbs and sucking consumers in for all-day shopping sprees. In 1968, Gruen left the United States and moved back to Austria, where he denounced the phenomenon that he had created, referring to shopping malls as his “bastard developments”. He died in 1980.

And today, the malls he created are being killed as well. By the 1990’s, the spiraling growth of suburban shopping malls had become unsustainable. New malls began cannibalizing old ones, luring away their customers and putting them out of business. Former mall staples such as Toys R Us or Barnes and Noble began leaving the malls and opening their own super-stores. The 2008 Great Recession hit malls hard, and no new large indoors mall has been built in the US since 2009. Consumer tastes also began to change–after spending all day inside at work, people now wanted to go outside to relax. City governments began to modernize and revitalize their “downtown” districts, turning them into “lifestyle centers” in which entertainment, shopping, and parks occupy large open areas of space, alongside office buildings and apartments. Ironically, it is a concept that is much closer to Gruen’s original vision.




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