Victor Gruen and the Birth of the Shopping Mall

It shouldn’t be any surprise that we idolize Victor Gruen at Labelscar. It’s not just because, 60 years ago, he invented the form of shopping center that is the primary focus of this blog (though that’s a big part of it) but also for a few more reasons. One is that he had the same appreciation for the form of the mall that we do, and that he similarly didn’t see them just as places of commerce. Somewhat surprisingly, both of Labelscar’s co-authors are a) men and b) not big shoppers, overall. We don’t write about malls because we’re obsessed with fashion and consumerism, so much as that we write about them because of fond memories of their function as exciting community meeting places when we were younger, growing up in fairly dull suburbia. Gruen’s creations were some of the only places in our world that brought together the masses, creating a blur of 1980s stone-washed denim jeans, gurgling penny fountains, Reebok Pumps, NKOTB cassingles, and women wearing sequin-studded dresses and sporting heavily-teased up-dos (replace with your own cultural reference points if you’re older or younger; you’ll undoubtedly have equally-vivid memories). In other words, the random mass of humanity, all partaking of junky consumer culture, yes, but it was still a place that young, old, rich, poor, all races, etc., all sort of collided into one place. Victor Gruen created the mall a few decades earlier specifically for people like us: he was an Austrian Jew who moved to the US during World War II and felt that the strip-based style of development at the time was lacking in community and soul. Malls were his way of creating hubs to serve as gathering spaces that would feel like European town centers, complete with civic amenities, artwork, fountains, and more.

Unfortunately, malls were also supposed to serve as hubs for transit and mixed-uses with residential, office, healthcare, and other services all available in one pedestrian-friendly place. Sadly for Gruen, much of his original vision was sacrificed by developers in favor of the profitable all-retail-surrounded-by-parking formula, and Gruen died a somewhat bitter man who was ashamed at how his creation was so misunderstood. He came to be seen as the anti-Jane Jacobs (she who is the mother of new urbanism) but both had the same belief in the value and power of cities, they just both had dramatically different opinions about how to get there. Jacobs believed in walkability and the organic growth of neighborhoods via smaller lot sizes–an opinion I agree with, as do many–whereas Gruen felt that large-scale redevelopment could modernize cities and stop the flow of the middle class to the suburbs with a higher standard of living or simply provide a sense of place to new areas that lacked any history. Although Gruen’s urban redevelopment projects, such as the West End in Boston, saw very mixed success and even destroyed the kinds of places Jacobs sought to defend, they also served their purpose for a time. (Yours truly even lives in a 1970s-planned neighborhood within the city of San Francisco that was plotted out based on a very Gruen-esque ideology, and although it’s a very nice place to live it is lacking in the kind of character most people associate with my city).

Ultimately, the fact that Gruen had so many of the right ideas–and that they were so much more well-intentioned than anyone familiar with a “mall” would assume–is part of what makes him such a fascinating character. This documentary goes into some of the history of the man’s life and creations, and although it’s long (about an hour!) it’s worth a viewing for anyone who is interested in the history of malls and the man who invented them.

(Thanks for the heads-up, Eric)

Watch Full Screen

It’s Mall Week at The AV Club

In real life, the Lone Pine Mall from Back to the Future is the Puente Hills Mall in City of Industry, California

Do you read the Onion’s AV Club? If you don’t, you might not be aware that it’s “Mall Week” over there, with a slew of posts all about malls and pop culture. Today, they had a post that very well could’ve appeared here at Labelscar on the beautiful artificiality of American malls:

Yet what appeals most to me about the design and execution of malls is that there remain kinks that can never be wholly smoothed out—especially once the facilities start to age. The plastic plants gather dust. The public’s interest in dipped candles and video arcades wanes. Retail spaces open up, and are often re-filled with much less care than in the original plan. My fondest memories of the malls of my youth are the stores that seemed out of place: the weird little collectibles outlets or quasi head shops that worked their way into the mall community and then hung in.

Go check it out, and then read the rest of the Mall Week articles, including a run-down of pivotal movie scenes happening in malls or an analysis of how malls in movies double as time machines.

Sorry for the Disappearing Act

Longtime readers may have noticed that the site recently had a major technical issue, where all comments on all stories–a huge share of our overall content and part of the reason people come here to begin with–had disappeared completely. They were never deleted, but there was a serious issue with the database where comments weren’t being called to display, and we had to have someone help us repair it. An unfortunate reality is that maintaining this site sometimes means we need skills that we don’t possess ourselves, so we had to find some outside help. The past couple years have been much worse in this regard, with some significant spam attacks.

Everything should now be functioning as normal, and we’re sorry it took so long to repair. We have a new post or two coming for you this week as thanks for being so patient!

Help “Malls Across America”!


A few weeks ago, we posted about Michael Galinsky’s photo project of 1990 shopping mall photos. The project got so much attention that Galinsky began a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to produce a high-quality book of his collection.

Kickstarter, if you’re not familiar with it, is a project aimed at “pre-funding” art and music projects by expressing your level of financial interest up front, and similarly getting extra goodies for paying more. In this case, Galinsky is offering things like high-quality prints of certain photos or signed copies of the book.

Galinsky also goes into greater depth on his Kickstarter page about what inspired the project–and also that it isn’t just photos of the Smith Haven Mall:
In 1989, following in the footsteps of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and William  Eggleston, I drove across the country and documented malls across America.  I had a cheap Nikon FG-20 and an even cheaper lens – but I had a lot of passion.

I shot about 30 rolls of slide film in malls from Long Island to North Dakota to Seattle.  It was hard to tell from the images where they were taken, and that was kind of the point. I was interested in the creeping loss of regional differences.  I thought a lot about Frank’s “The Americans” as we drove from place to place without any sense of place.

Visit Galinsky’s Kickstarter page to help his project and pre-order your copy of his book. He’s also blogging regularly (under the “updates” tab) with new photos we haven’t yet seen. As of the time of this post, he’s 32% of the way to his goal to be able to publish the book.

USA Shopping Malls, Summer 1990

Just wanted to share this neat collection of photos from ex-Sleepyhead bassist Michael Galinsky, all taken at various malls in the summer of 1990. The fashions play more prominently than the malls themselves, but you can still get plenty of glimpses into a blur of Tape Worlds and Jarmans and Patrick Swayze posters. Mall department store junkies won’t find too much to latch onto here–the only anchor that features prominently is an old Sears, though I think there’s a “Harris” logo visible in the reflection of one shot.

Can anyone identify the malls in these pictures?

EDIT: Apparently many of the photos, if not all, were taken at the Smith Haven Mall on Long Island, which we’ve featured on the site before. It looks a little different now.

Retail News Digest for Sunday, February 27, 2011

Comings and goings:

Other retail news:

Logorama: Fun With Logos

Logorama from Marc Altshuler – Human Music on Vimeo.

Logorama is an outstanding short film that’s made of nothing but corporate logos, and it’s a great piece of fun pop art. Directed by the French animation collective H5, François Alaux, Hervé de Crécy + Ludovic Houplain, it was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It opened the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and won a 2010 academy award under the category of animated short.

I think at least some of you will like this! It’s nothing short of adorable, though I warn you that there’s some NSFW language.

Labelscar on Craig Ferguson!

In what can only be called an early, very bizarre holiday present to us, viewers throughout North America caught a glimpse of Labelscar tonight (12/23/09) on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson.

In what can only be called an early, very bizarre holiday present to us, viewers throughout North America caught a glimpse of Labelscar tonight (12/23/09) on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson

Yes, that Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. 


The bizarre sequence of events unfolded completely randomly and with perfect timing.  Read on and you’ll see what a strange and random occurrence it actually was.

Earlier today, I came home for the holidays to the house I grew up in, in Janesville, Wisconsin.  The night was less than remarkable, and considering we’re having an ice storm I had little plans other than a date with the TV.  However, my mom recently removed the analog TV from my room; it was hooked up to rabbit ears and wasn’t much use after the DTV transition earlier this year.  So, I hooked up the DTV tuner on my laptop to the same rabbit ears, and presto – I had basic TV again. 

I kept the TV on in the background all night while I goofed around on the computer, and around 11:30 I tuned in to The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson on CBS.  It’s a pretty good show – I like the guy’s sense of humor, personality, and delivery.  Plus, he’s Scottish, and so am I, so I decided to sort of pay attention and leave it on in the background, and maybe catch a laugh or two.

About halfway through the show, a segment appeared featuring the show’s resident comic field reporter and SNL alum Tim Meadows.  The setup had something to do with last minute holiday shopping, and Craig mentioned that Tim was on location at the Mall of America.  At that point, they cut to Tim, in front of a green screen, and behind him was – sure enough – a scene from a typical mall. 

Of course, I naturally perked up as soon as I heard “Mall of America” and watched a little more intently.  They bantered about last-minute holiday shopping and were making some predictable jokes, and just when I was about to pull away I noticed something about the mall behind Tim that I couldn’t quite place.  It didn’t look like the Mall of America to me at all, and I’ve been there many times.  I figured he could be in a different part of the mall, or it could be a different mall altogether, but something about it really got my attention and looked very familiar.

Then it struck me.  I noticed an obvious Sbarro on the right side of the frame, which they covered up in Photoshop, and I immediately thought of the Sbarro in the Janesville Mall.  I knew that a Regis hair salon was to the left of the Sbarro in the Janesville Mall, and when they cut to Tim again I noticed that the Regis was there too, and the floor looked very similar as well.   Because I was watching the show on my laptop using a DTV tuner and software, I snapped a couple stills of the segment, still unaware of what I was about to discover next.

Could it be possible that this very same setup exists in a different mall other than the one here in Janesville?  Maybe, but something still seemed very eerie to me.  If this was the Janesville Mall, appearing on national television in this strange comedy segment, how did they get this specific photo?  Why would a random photo like this exist for the Janesville Mall?

…unless I took it.

That’s when I went directly to the Labelscar post for the Janesville Mall.  I still figured that there was no way that CBS would just yank a picture off my site and use it on a popular, nationally-aired program, when the page finished loading and there…it…was.  The exact same photo I took in 2008 was staring at me in both my web browser and on CBS.  It was almost unreal.

So what gives, CBS?  Why’d you use my photo?  Is someone on the Late Late Show staff a fan of the site?  If not, how did you even find it?  Also, why did this happen while I was sitting in Janesville, where I can actually see the mall out the window?  On top of that, it’s not often that I sit and watch TV using my laptop’s DTV tuner, let alone that I’m even up this late.

Really, really weird.

Hope you guys get as much of a kick out of it as I did.  It was a really neat coincidence and I’d like to thank all the forces of randomness, kismet, Santa Claus or otherwise that brought it to my attention. 

Oh, and happy holidays.

We’ll Be “The Future Of Retail” Blog For a Minute

One of the most disturbing retail trends over the past few years has been the virtual disappearance of old-line department stores. Even if shopping trends aren’t exactly favoring them anymore (and I would argue that there’s not all that many people in the under 30 set who shop at Macy’s very often), there’s still a question of what to do with the real estate they leave behind: huge, hulking, bunker-like stores that serve as almost every anchor to almost every mall in the country. These centers are troubled enough without having to worry about the string of mergers and bankruptcies and shifting shopping patterns that have taken away their lifeblood.

One place to look to for guidance is Canada, which is a country that has long thrived with only two real national department stores (The Hudson’s Bay Company and Sears, which was formerly Eaton’s) along with a few discounters (Zellers). Many Canadian malls have filled out their anchor roster with other tenants, such as big box stores (electronics retailers, sporting goods stores, and bookstores) as well as supermarkets.

The last item–supermarkets–have been the bugaboo here in the United States. Few malls are anchored by them, presumably because shopping carts filled with food don’t exactly mesh with ladies in feathered hats buying Manolo Blancs. But no more! Faced with unfillable anchor store vacancies, some malls in the U.S. have begun experimenting with grocery anchors, most notably Westfield, who is adding a supermarket at their North County Mall in Escondido, California, outside San Diego.

What’s good about this for malls is that supermarkets generate many more visits per month than your typical roster of apparel retailers–an average supermarket may draw a consumer in a few times a week, rather than once or twice a month. That also opens up the center to appeal to different kinds of stores that thrive on more foot traffic:

It is a change that an industry analyst calls “mall-morphosis,” aimed at building miniature town centers where consumers can shop for a week’s worth of food, play with their children and maybe feel relaxed enough to wander over to a jeans shop and spend some money.

“Malls will become more of community center, destination locations,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group.

“They are adding restaurants, community centers, playhouses, splitting big stores into slightly smaller stores,” he said. “Some are looking at warehouse clubs, fitness clubs, converting a big store into an indoor skate park (in Los Angeles).”

I think this is great, because it’s playing precisely on why malls should be fun–they’re places to gather, not just shop for clothing.

Also, you can open up a lot of possibilities. For example, Whole Foods, a chain that has a large prepared food section and typically has cafes in store, could face the interior portion of the mall with this offering–which appeals to hungry casual shoppers–while facing the regular registers out towards the parking lot for people running in just for groceries.

Another trend I’m seeing more of with vacant retail spaces is “pop up” stores, which typically are temporary shops intended to promote a specific brand or product. This isn’t a new idea–Trendwatching did a piece on them way back in 2004, and here’s another from 2006 by Retail Traffic. But Apple’s wildly successful retail store venture has proven that tactile brand experience stores can translate to improved sales, and given the ability to buy practically anything on the internet, the retail experience could double more as a showroom. This has been tried in a few ways with less success (Sony’s failed Metreon Mall in San Francisco, or the never-opened “Epicenter Collection” internet showroom concept) but these pop up stores have been generating some excitement in empty storefronts in hip urban neighborhoods, or in temporary installations in big cities.

Here’s a few new ones:

San Francisco may be getting a “mall” of temporary pop up stores in several structures along Octavia Boulevard in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, an area with a burgeoning high-fashion shopping district that draws on the same type of culture and products commonly associated with Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. Octavia Boulevard replaced an elevated freeway that was removed, and there are still vacant lots dotting the boulevard; the plan here is to fill the space with a series of structures intended to last a few years, showcasing a variety of goods and services.

And in the less conceptual plane, there’s a Puma brand pop-up store (pictured top of post) on the waterfront in South Boston, made of a bunch of old shipping containers and filled with excited consumers:

Reburbia: Sanctimonious Cankles


This has popped up in a few places already, but Dwell and Inhabitat have been sponsoring this series called “Reburbia” that’s targeted at coming up with ideas to “fix” America’s broken suburban landscapes.

It’s pretty neat, because the finalists are full of really kooky sanctimonious ideas like “suburban people need AIRSHIPS to commute into the culture-rich city centre without creating a huge carbon footprint.” Seriously. With no shred of irony, these supposed ‘thought leaders’ think some sort of futuristic idea from “The Navigator” twenty-some years ago is actually going to solve the problem of suburban sprawl?

Concepts like these come off as preachy to the people who have consciously chosen a suburban lifestyle–they don’t need to be exposed to the wonders of farm-share in the husk of an abandoned Wal-Mart, they want a nice house and a patch of lawn and a place to raise a family and perhaps a convenient commute. So if we want to create a sustainable future for suburbia, what are we really offering *these* people with a plan like the ones outlined in the Reburbia competition? Nothing, actually.

We’ve espoused our love for Victor Gruen, the grandfather of the shopping mall, plenty of times on Labelscar. The reason why isn’t just because he birthed the development style we hold dear, but also because of Gruen’s original concept behind the mall.

Gruen was an Austrian who immigrated to the United States during the Nazi regime. Several years after his arrival, Gruen (then a successful architect and store designer) was horrified by the sprawl of post-1920s vintage “strips” in America’s burgeoning suburbs, and wanted to transplant the feel of a European town square to America’s rather placeless suburbs. He fancied himself more of an urban planner than a mall builder, and even his malls–which included impractically large courts and civic spaces like fountains and conversation pits–were designed more as places for socializing than commerce.

I realize that the American suburb is fading into its winter, that “one person, one automobile” will likely become impractically expensive soon and that trends are favoring urban living for more educated and affluent young people (exhibit A: I’m a suburb lover who lives in San Francisco). I do not, however, think that the solution for these spaces is to make them mirror the (increasingly faux-) bohemian utopia of the inner city affluent elite. Again, people did not move to the suburbs for backyard water treatment plants (in swimming pools!) or farm share from the shells of dead big box stores. They moved there for a certain quality of life and a certain style of living, and they’re likely going to keep doing it until it becomes impractically expensive to do so.

The death of malls and some ill-fated big box centers presents an almost unprecedented opportunity to have large parcels of land, ripe for redevelopment in mature, established areas. So what *do* these suburbanites want in these places? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Take a page from cities and malls. Build a sense of “place” in these communities, whether its indoor or outdoor. Personally I’d like to see more mall-type structures include civic space (parks or park-like spaces, fountains, libraries, galleries, museums, event space) as well as different types of commercial activity (bars, entertainment, dining, food stores/supermarkets, farmer’s markets). Encourage (potentially via tax credits) a blend of local and national chain retail. Also, make sure big block development is surrounded by smaller parcels that can be more free form and develop organically to create a true neighborhood, not an overly planned mega-development. Whoever manages the development should try and leverage social media to pull in the community and create a sense of identification with the center.
  • As part of the above, try and zone less for stand-alone big box, which is a terrible idea developmentally and economically. If the demographics are appropriate, most big box retailers will happily settle in a denser, more mixed development.
  • Create effective, convenient, affordable, and comfortable mass transit. Transit oriented development around denser nodes isn’t a new idea, but it could be a great way to work in tandem with the above concept for a civic “center” (or mall) and give each suburb a unique identity, encouraging people to visit the communities around them.
  • Eschew NIMBY-friendly planning ordinances disguised as preservation or environmentalism. Suburbs of major cities should not have minimum buidable lot sizes of an acre or more, for example. Instead, zone for dense nodes and preserve legitimate open space for the enjoyment of all.
  • When focusing on infill for older (pre-1980s) suburbs, zone more densely and focus on trying to enhance existing walkability. Many of the suburbs of this area were built on grids rather than loops and lollipops, meaning that revitalized neighborhoods along arteries and mass transit corridors are more feasible.
  • Build a mixture of housing styles targeted at different income and age levels. Again, not a new concept, but it’s shocking how frequently its implemented. Most new housing built in the United States is targeted at high earners, whether its urban condos or suburban McMansions. Create a way for people of all ages and incomes stay in their communities if they choose to do so, and use the civic space mentioned in the first bullet as a means of providing things to satisfy each group (i.e., bars and entertainment for people from their teens to thirties, family-friendly entertainment for people with kids, and dining and socializing options ideal for seniors. Don’t block anyone out).