I went to the mall this weekend, like many others across the continent. But this time it was different. I knew about the Gruen Effect, thanks to my new-found friend, Ellen Ruppel Shell, who has given me a new way of looking at consumerism.
Malls, as we know them, would not exist today if it wasn’t for Victor Gruen. He was a pioneer in the design of shopping malls which transformed vacant land into spacious architectural palaces of consumption. Victor Gruen’s contribution to the shopping cult is ironic, considering he was a committed socialist.
Born in the remarkable city of Vienna on July 18, 1903, Victor Gruen, (Viktor David Grünbaum) studied architecture at the venerable Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. His life changed in 1938 when Germany annexed Austria. He immigrated to the United States with his architectural decree and eight dollars in his pocket. To make matters more complicated, he did not speak English. Nevertheless, he moved to Los Angeles and by 1951 established the architectural firm, Victor Gruen Associates, which was destined to become one of the major planning offices of that era.
Victor Gruen never forgot Vienna. His vision was to transplant the culturally vibrant Vienna shopping experience to North America. His dream was to design a market space that fostered a community of shared experiences. For example, the Edena, Minnesota Southdale Mall built 1956, was the first enclosed shopping mall ever built to shield against inclement weather. What is less known, was the original design included apartment buildings, schools, medical facilities, parks and lakes. They were never built. Victor Gruen also recognized that city space, roadways and shopping malls were being defined by the automobile, at the expense of social exchange, the environment, and quality of life.
In 1968, Victor Gruen returned to his beloved city of Vienna, with a broken heart. He realized consumption had become the purpose of city planning. In 1978, London, he famously said that shopping mall developments had “bastardized his ideas.” Public spaces should be designed for living. It goes back to the question – do we choose life over materialism? Are we consumers or citizens of this world? With every purchase decision, no matter how small, we make a choice. I want to make it a good choice.
Vienna – Victor Gruen’s City