Thursday, February 24, 2005

Mall Captain and the World of Tomorrow

The first biography of Victor Gruen, the architect generally credited with inventing the modern shopping mall, contains some fascinating details about his life that confirm a lot of what I wrote about in THE MALLING OF AMERICA.

The book is called Mall Maker, by M. Jeffrey Hardwick, an expansion of his PhD thesis published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Hardwick is now an editor at Smithsonian Press.

From what biographical sketches were available when I wrote my book, I knew that Gruen was born in Vienna, fled from Nazi oppression to America, arriving (so the story goes) nearly penniless but with some architect's tools. He later wrote extensively about his intentions and designs for Northland Mall in Detroit, the first two level mall developed as the center of a mini-city complex, and then Southdale in Minnesota, which added to this design a roof covering the central common area to protect against Minnesota winters, and this is usually called the first contemporary shopping mall.

Gruen modeled his mall projects on European shopping arcades, such as the magnificent Galleria in Milan, and introduced such European ideas as cafes, plazas and urban gardens, attempting to make the suburban shopping mall the combination of a pleasant place to spend time and a community gathering place. He designed environments for people on foot, though he also had to accommodate the primacy of cars.

Gruen had to fight a lot of skepticism (no one will walk up to a second floor, nobody will walk through a mall if they can't park right outside the store, Americans won't understand cafes, etc.) but when Southdale was a hit, his ideas were streamlined into the cookie-cutter version of the shopping mall that spread throughout America beginning in the 1960s. Gruen, who founded the Gruen Associates architectural firm in southern California, designed more malls and tried to adapt his ideas to downtowns and entire cities. He was a enthusiastic man who younger architects at his firm referred to as "Uncle Bubbly." But he became disillusioned with what the shopping mall had become, and returned to live in Vienna, which is where he died in 1980.

My own mall odyssey began at Greengate Mall on the edge of my hometown of Greensburg, PA. For a relatively small mall in a corner of western Pennsylvania, it had the distinction of being designed by Victor Gruen himself. It was developed by the Rouse Company, headed by James Rouse, who was an enthusiastic proponent of Gruen's ideas, and came closest to realizing them in his downtown projects like Fanueil Hall Marketplace in Boston.

So it was with special interest that I learned some new facts about Gruen's life. The first one that instantly got my attention was his background in theatre. While working in his godfather's architectural and engineering firm in Vienna after World War I, Gruen (whose real name was Gruenbaum) acted and staged political cabaret. He later said he was trying to relieve "the basic sadness of this time."

The mall as a theatrical environment was probably my first independent insight, and it was not hard to come to, standing on the second level of Gruen's Greengate. There was even something like a proscenium arch framing the floor below, with its polished stone plaza, soaring central court, and plashing fountain. Even the trip from one floor to another became theatrical, with different views and experiences depending on the choice: the earth-toned stone staircase, the gleaming silver escalators or the futuristic glass-walled elevator.

The next fact that fit concerned one of Gruen's first jobs in America (though it's true he arrived with little money, he also had good personal and professional contacts, so he got good work even though he didn't yet speak English.) He was a designer for the 1939 World's Fair.

But of course! The original "World of Tomorrow," this fair formed our iconic ideas of the future. (You can see them in close to a pure form in the 2004 popcorn feature, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which is set in an alternate reality 1939.) Americans were introduced to new technologies, like television, and new ways of conceptualizing buildings, homes, cities and highways.

Much of the Fair itself was built using new plastic materials, like Lucite, which looked more substantial than they actually were. It was essentially the elevation of a stage set, especially the contrivances of movie sets, to the status of reality. That would happen big time in the shopping mall.

The Fair attempted to apply futuristic design and ideas to the American heartland and small town way of life, with its Perisphere soaring over "Democri-city". Its influence can be seen in Disneyland, with its contrived Main Street next door to Tomorrowland. (The first Disneyland was built at about the time that Gruen was designing his malls.) Gruen's malls also show this influence, being futuristic and yet familiar at the same time. I began calling the shopping mall Main Street in a spaceship.

Hardwick also unearthed the revelation that just after World War II, Gruen made a case for shopping centers as a national defense strategy. Scattered in suburbs, he argued, shopping centers would be harder than large cities for enemy airplanes and missiles to target, while providing well-equipped survival centers with "shelter areas."

Perhaps this has something to do with the fortress walls of shopping malls in later decades. This was another insight I had at Greengate: that it was the ultimate fallout shelter. This actually works on many levels to explain the mall's appeal, because it speaks not only to our need for joy and entertainment, to counter the basic sadness of our time, but it responds to our fears, and our need for shelter from them.

In the past year or so, I've gotten several emails and phone calls describing the destruction of Greengate Mall. One friend called me on his cell phone as he was literally passing the mall in the process of being demolished. Greengate started dying in the 1990s, and by the time I visited it in 1999, it was a shadow of its former self as a vibrant community center. It was eerie to be there then, because even though the mall was empty of people and many store spaces were abandoned, and there was some physical deterioration here and there, its basic structure was intact, including the gleaming floors and the soft splash of the fountain. It was a living ghost.

Now it's gone, the victim most recently of a nearby Wal-Mart. In its thirty-some years it became legendary, and people still tell stories about it, especially its fabled Christmas displays. It's interesting that Greensburg recently managed to preserve its architecturally significant old train station, virtually unused for decades but still there. They will have no such opportunity with Greengate, even though it was among the most architecturally significant structures of the postwar period in Westmoreland County, PA, with some national import as well. But no one is yet used to thinking of shopping malls as historic landmarks, and not many yet distinguish between the architecture of one mall and another.

Victor Gruen has never gotten much respect as an architect either. But now that several generations of buildings have passed, particularly in suburbia and the shopping mall form, the time is ripe for the reevaluation of Gruen as a designer, and of his particular designs. Unfortunately, all that is left of Greengate are photographs (though I don't know of any systematic attempt to document its architecture) and memories.

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