Victor Gruen’s Shopping Towns U.S.A. cover

Victor Gruen’s Shopping Towns U.S.A.

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Victor Gruen was a designer, architect, and urban planner. But for many, he is best known for creating the modern mall.





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Victor Gruen’s Shopping Towns U.S.A.

American Dreams

Victor Gruen was a designer, architect, and urban planner.

But for many, he is best known for creating the modern mall. He is also known for designing over 50 malls including the Kalamazoo Mall – the first outdoor pedestrian mall in the United States – and the master plans for the cities of Fort Worth, Kalamazoo, and Fresno.

In 1960 he wrote Shopping Towns U.S.A. in which he lays out his vision:

Victor’s Vision

“The basic need of the suburban shopper is for a conveniently accessible, amply stocked shopping area with plentiful and free parking.”

“This is the purely practical need for which the shopping center was originally conceived and which many centers most adequately fulfill. Good planning, however, will create additional attractions for shoppers by meeting other needs, which are inherent in the psychological climate peculiar to suburbia. By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities, shopping centers can fill an existing void. They can provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past." (p. 23-24)

Merging Two Worlds

Merging Two Worlds

His vision put the newer shopping trends brought on by suburban residential developments and the new form of “mass” transit – the automobile – on the continuum begun by ancient and medieval outdoor marketplaces and continued by town squares, indoor shopping arcades, and department stores.

Image by Wikimedia Commons

A Unified Endeavor

For him, the shopping center would be a new planning pattern where individual businesses would band together to:

“create greater commercial effectiveness though unified endeavor” and not just stores strung out along existing roads." (p. 140)

These new buildings would be pedestrian friendly, allowing people to eat, shop, and experience each other and entertainment without constantly worrying about cars.

They would be flexible, taking advantage of common elements that make planning easier, while at the same time accommodating the various requirements of different types of tenants.

Modern Suburbia

However, he seemed somewhat ambivalent towards the “new” suburban trends:

“To accommodate the flood of humans seeking escape from the intolerable conditions of the city, mass housing builders tore up the ground, chopped down the trees, and removed swiftly and cynically every vestige of what the people had come to find. Modern suburbia was born, in which there were neither the values of a rural community nor those of an urban environment. But people must live somewhere and suburbia grew.” (p. 20)

Lost Dream

As the mall in the United States evolved, it changed, and in the end, Gruen disavowed his creation because it had become something other than what he envisioned.

Of course the mall hasn’t gone away, but it has continued to change because people still want to shop. While some older malls have been recast and updated, the idea of the mall is evolving and adapting. Some, like the Mall of America, are just bigger, while others have followed the outlet trend.

Still others have become town centers or urban shopping destinations – I think much more like what Victor Gruen envisioned. They continue the long tradition of physical destinations to shop, even in the face of changes and disruptions brought on by the Internet. And because many still want and need to do so at an “old fashioned” bricks and mortar location, the designs and layouts of the buildings themselves continue to evolve and be viable.

Roman Agora

Roman Agora

Maybe they still can be in some way what Gruen envisioned:

“If the shopping center becomes a place that not only provides suburbanites with their physical living requirements, but simultaneously serves their civic, cultural and social community needs, it will make a most significant contribution to the enrichment of our lives. (p.24)

Image by Andreas Trepte

(CC BY-SA 2.5)

More Information

The Library of Congress has a number of noteworthy items in its collections to learn more about Gruen, his projects, and the history of shopping and the mall.

Most notably, the Manuscript Division has many of his papers, which include letters, memoranda, and telegrams as well as other internal office documents and budget items. There are also some project information sheets, speeches, and writings and an oversize scrapbook containing material from the” Shopping Centers of Tomorrow” traveling exhibit and development plans for Fort Worth, Welfare Island (NY), Fresno, and downtown Kalamazoo.

Books Worth Reading

There are other items from Gruen and his firm from in various collections, including an interview from 1957 conducted by John Peter—

he was onetime modern living editor at Look and Life magazines and a radio and television reporter for CBS and NBC.

There are also several of his books, such as Shopping Town: Memoiren eines Stadtplaners (1903-1980) and The Heart of Our Cities; and Urban Crisis: Diagnosis and Cure.

Southdale Center

Southdale Center

Southdale Center, the first modern mall in the world, Edina, Minnesota, USA.

Image by Bobak Ha’Eri

(CC BY 3.0)

To Name a Few

For those interested in the history of the mall and department stores there are many books covering the general history and development as well as books on individual stores like Dillard’s, Belk, Mervyn’s, Sears, Macy’s, Marshall Field’s to name just a few.

News sources are good for other local examples like Haines Department Store established by business woman Elizabeth Haines in Washington, D.C. Here are a few examples:

The Grand Emporiums

The American Department Store Transformed, 1920-1960

The Urban Department Store in America, 1850-1930

Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956

Final Thoughts

Lastly, since the modern mall is so tied to the creation and growth of the American suburb, researching that can provide a much wider perspective. As Gruen noted:

“Since suburbia is undoubtedly having a serious effect on the personality of our entire urban life, it is natural that its influence should be felt by the segment of human activity that is of primary concern to us here: the marketing of goods for the gratification of human needs and desires. (p. 22)

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