The Creator Of Modern Shopping Malls Hated Them

“In this context, isn’t it obvious that ‘Chicken Little’ represents the sane vision and that Homo Sapiens’ motto, ‘Let’s go shopping!’ is the cry of the true lunatic?” —Dr. Peters, 12 Monkeys (1995)

In A Nutshell

Victor Gruen is credited as being the creator of modern shopping malls, but his vision of the mall was nothing like what we see today. In fact, he hated what his ideas were turned into by money-hungry developers. Originally, Gruen envisioned shopping malls as something of an urban paradise, with massive green spaces, fountains, and running water interspersed with stores of all sorts and public services like banks and post offices. It wasn’t long—only a few decades—before more commercially minded designers seized on the idea, turning it into what we know today as the shopping mall, and causing Gruen to disavow any affiliation with the tragedy.

The Whole Bushel

It’s a setup that many of us take for granted these days: the shopping mall. A ton of stores (usually with a few inexplicable duplicates), all packed into one convenient location. There are bright signs, lots of advertising, and (in a miasma surrounding certain stores) a cloying perfume meant to lure in the trendy. There’s undoubtedly a food court full of reheated mystery food and screaming children who are usually headed toward the amusement park or some holiday-themed attraction.

It’s a pretty dismal place, really, and it’s absolutely not what the creator of the shopping mall had in mind.

Victor Gruen is credited with being the mastermind behind the shopping mall, but really, the only similarity today’s malls have with his original vision is that everything’s in one centralized location.

Gruen was a native of Vienna. Being Jewish, he and his wife decided that the wisest thing to do in 1938 was to emigrate to America. It was there that he conceived of the idea of the shopping mall, with the first one being built in Detroit in the early 1950s. Sprawling across a huge swath of land, the outdoor shopping center had numerous green spaces. His next project, in Minneapolis, was the first to stack two levels of shopping connected with stairs and walkways, making it no longer necessary to walk from one end of the mall to another—now, you could just climb stairs. It was fortunate, too, because this one had 10 acres of shopping paradise.

But more important was the feeling that Gruen was trying to capture with his shopping malls, and it’s that which has largely been forgotten. He included large, green park spaces, lit from above through a giant skylight. There were gardens, there were birds, there were trees and a fishpond and walls of plants. There were art installations and artwork, fountains and running water . . . in short, there were all the best elements of every city center in the country brought to the suburbs. Gruen saw huge acres of land being converted into ugly commercial spaces, and with the shopping mall, he saw potential for a massive compound that would not only give consumers all that they could possibly want, but do it in such a way that would stop the unrelenting commercial sprawl that was devouring so much of the American landscape.

He wanted malls to be a place for socializing, a place where people could meet to have lunch in the park, watch the birds, and have a cup of coffee. He saw it as being as much about culture as it was about commercialism, and he saw a thing of beauty.

At first, it was like that. But by the end of the 1960s, shopping malls were little like the beautiful, grandiose buildings that Gruen envisioned and more like what we see today.

And he hated it. Gruen wrote a lot on the phenomenon that he had invented, and he took every opportunity to distance himself from it. He wanted nothing to do with what the shopping mall had become, writing, “I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”

Because karma often has a twisted sense of humor, Gruen has given his name to a phenomenon in the retail world that was born in the shopping mall. It’s the Gruen transfer, and it happens when you go shopping for one thing and become so overwhelmed by everything around you that you forget what it is you came for, and start shopping for the sake of shopping.

Show Me The Proof

The New Yorker: The Terrazzo Jungle
The Father of the Shopping Mall, Victor Gruen, was an Urbanist
Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, by M. Jeffrey Hardwick
PBS Frontline: A Brand By Any Other Name