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"The time was ripe for a new idea, for a new concept, for a new type of common effort by merchants to assure their continued existence by establishing a superior environment for their shoppers."

Victor Gruen, Centers for the Urban Environment

the regional shopping mall and the development of a new typology

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It never ceases to amaze me the amount of negative literature I come across in my studies at architecture school. From theme parks to highways to suburbia, architects and writers on architecture like to make their disapproval known about everything. But one target seems to stand out moreso than any other target: the shopping mall. In books and articles entitled “The Malling of America,” and “The American Mall: Towards a Corporate Control of Public Space,” just to name a few, the mall has been criticized as a promoter of mindless consumerism, as a catalyst of downtown deterioration, as a promoter of sprawl, and as a device which allows control of what was previously public space.


This is not to say that their criticisms are unfounded. And it doesn’t help that, until recently, not much variation in mall typology has existed that would have given the mall any sort of architectural merit. But where is the literature that talks about the mall’s benefits? I have yet to come across any. And yes, while I do agree with the criticisms brought forth above (I mean, how could you not), such authors in desperately seeking to prove a point, intentionally leave out how the mall can be beneficial. You wouldn’t know it by what they write, but yes, the mall does have benefits. Several in fact. To illustrate my point, imagine what a suburban area would be like without a shopping mall. While it may be romantic to think that people would go back to shopping downtown, do you really think that they would travel thirty or forty miles to do so? Let’s get real. Without a shopping mall, we probably wouldn’t have a unified centre. Instead, our principal streets would be littered with big box store after big box store, centred in a sea of parking, with no connections between them, except for maybe a little lane connecting their parking lots, if you’re lucky. If you’re not, then you would have to go back out on the principal road to travel between such establishments.
Fifty years ago, cities were plagued with similar situations. Right after the war, people were moving in droves to the suburbs. And while there are several reasons for why this occurred, commerce, in order to survive, had to follow its clientele. Many stores decided to relocate branches on stretches known as the ‘miracle mile,’ but it was becoming increasingly apparent that such roads were becoming overcrowded and could no longer serve the function of both moving cars swiftly and slowing them down to encourage them to buy.

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Department stores, which had considerable investments in their downtown locations and a reputable image to maintain, of which the Carson Pirie Scott store in downtown Chicago exemplifies, were at first reluctant to move to the suburbs.

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It was in this atmosphere that architect Victor Gruen pitched his concept to Oscar Webber, the president of the J.L. Hudson Company of Detroit, Michigan. Knowing that “Hudson’s is for Detroit what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris,” Gruen knew that two factors were at play: an intense base for development in the suburbs and an image that Hudson’s had to maintain.

Therefore, Hudson’s could not relocate to a substandard suburban development, but at the same time, it could not lose the customer base that suburbs could provide. As a result, Victor Gruen convinced Oscar Webber to build their own centres “established and designed in the great image of the parent company” [4]. The result was the creation of a new building type: the regional shopping mall. It was anchored by a well-known department store, which had considerable control over the development of its site, including the types of stores contained within the development and the design of the mall itself, as an effort to maintain its overall image. The first mall Gruen designed was Northland Mall, in Southfield, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. It was built in 1954.

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After its initial success, Gruen received several other commissions, including a commission by the Dayton Company to build a shopping mall outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

But unlike Detroit, where Hudson’s was the undisputable King, Dayton’s had considerable competition from Allied Stores Incorporated. Using Hudson’s as a precedent, Dayton’s declared its intention to create a regional shopping centre. So did Allied. But both realized that two centres anchored by one major department store would damage each other in competition. As a result, Allied begrudgingly accepted partnering with Dayton’s to create the Southdale Mall.

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Southdale Mall, built in 1956, was not only the first mall in the country anchored by two department stores, it was also the country's first fully enclosed regional shopping mall. Realizing that the climate of Minneapolis was unfavourable during parts of the year, the decision was made to fully enclose it. To save on costs, the mall was created with two stories, surrounded by a central atrium space. Escalators were included to ease travel between floors, resulting in a luxurious common space never before seen. Customers reacted favourably, thus setting forth the precedent of designing lavishly equipped ‘public’ spaces to make the mall a powerful attractive force.

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Although Victor Gruen designed the first shopping malls in the United States, he envisioned them to be public spaces, as shown in their actual uses for balls, symphonies, circuses, etc.

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And while his original centres contained post offices, daycares, and even in one case a petting zoo, the good number of malls built afterward were more or less ‘unifunctional’ centres, focused solely around commerce.

This was one of Gruen’s major criticisms of not just the shopping mall, but of suburbia in general. He noted that not only were shopping centres emerging, but so were civic centres, educational centres, amusement centres, performing arts centres, industrial centres, financial centres, cultural centres, and medical centres, just to name a few. Because there are so many centres that people are traveling to, and even more destinations in between, the result is the creation of a labyrinth, as summarized in the figure below; a labyrinth which renders any sort of public transportation system practically useless.

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Another criticism Gruen addressed concerning the shopping mall was the ugliness and discomfort associated with the seas of parking such centres demand. To add to this, such a condition makes any sort of integration with the mall’s surroundings practically impossible.

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[1] Gruen, Victor. Centers for the Urban Environment. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1973. 19.
[2] Chicago Landmarks: Carson Pirie Scott & Company Building. http://www.ci.chi.il.us/Landmarks/C/Carsons2.html
[3] City of Detroit Photobook: J. L. Hudson's Department Store. http://www.ci.detroit.mi.us/photobook/hudsons.htm
[4] Gruen, Victor. 23.
[5] Gruen, Victor. 28.
[6] Gruen, Victor. 36.
[7] Gruen, Victor. 39.
[8] Gruen, Victor. 32.
[9] Gruen, Victor. 38.
[10] Gruen, Victor. 87.

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