Victor Gruen Wanted to Make Our Suburbs More Urban. Instead, He Invented the Mall

How we ruined Gruen's plan for more walkable, tight-knit American downtowns.

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Wikimedia Commons/Mark Byrnes

Victor Gruen, regarded by many as the American shopping center's pioneer, would have been 110 today. 

Born in Austria, Gruen emigrated to the United States in 1938. In 1951, he founded his own firm "Victor Gruen Associates" out of Los Angeles. He hoped to bring his Vienna-like tastes in urbanism to rapidly suburbanizing America.

The firm quickly became one of the nation's busiest, providing master plans and shopping centers for municipalities around the country.


A 1968 urban renewal film presented by Victor Gruen and Associates titled "Fresno: A City Reborn" 

His first mall, built in 1954 in suburban Detroit, was seen as the future of American shopping. Unlike so many of the fully enclosed malls that came after, the two-million square foot center included outdoor space (eventually removed), auditoriums, a bank, a post office, local retailers and a supermarket.

It was an early stab at new urbanism -- a chance to shop and run errands without the drawbacks of driving downtown.

But what the typical American mall did become, instead, was a formulaic collection of fully enclosed space occupied mostly by national retailers and surrounded by seas of surface parking. That upset Gruen who said in a 1978 speech, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”

The architect, who died in 1980, would probably be happy to know the American shopping mall is on its way to becoming a relic. 

Underperforming malls are closing or reinventing themselves in ways that are closer to what Gruen aspired to. As our own Emily Badger reported last year:

Americans haven’t particularly outgrown the consumer impulse that Gruen detected. We still love to flock to dense agglomerations of Body Shops and Cinnabuns and Brookstones. But now those places look increasingly like open-air "lifestyle centers," with condos above or offices next door. Some of these places are just the old mall in a new Main Street disguise. But when you add residences, and cut Gruen’s mega-block into what actually looks like a downtown street grid, that begins to change things.

Gruen wanted to create better versions of American downtowns, mixed-use complexes for a diverse range of people but with less traffic congestion and decay. Instead, the typical shopping mall he hated so much had spread around the world. 

The architect eventually returned back to Austria towards the end of his life, only to find a new shopping center nearby, one he referred to as a "gigantic shopping machine." The man had not only seen his grand ideas for a better built America twisted into something he opposed but those same diluted visions had traveled back to his home country with him. As Malcolm Gladwell concluded in a 2004 New Yorker article about the shopping mall pioneer, "Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America." 

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