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)

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Author: Caldor

Jason Damas is a search engine marketing analyst and consultant, and a freelance journalist. Jason graduated magna cum laude from Northeastern University in 2003 with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism and a minor in Music Industry. He has regularly contributed to The Boston Globe,, Amplifier Magazine, All Music Guide, and 168 Magazine. In addition, he was a manager for a record store for over two years. Currently, he focuses on helping companies optimize their web sites to maximize search engine visibility, and is responsible for website conversion analysis, which aims to improve conversion rates by making e-commerce websites more user-friendly. He lives in suburban Boston.

10 thoughts on “Victor Gruen and the Birth of the Shopping Mall”

  1. Gruen’s vision for shopping centers, ironically, is getting traction in the design of some the better lifestyle centers, a retail category that is much maligned here. Even a mediocre one like Legacy Village outside of Cleveland is much closer to the Gruen ideal than even some of his malls, in part because the management does things like outdoor movie screenings to draw in the community, and has a layout to support such things. Real community centers need the capacity to evolve over time and to incorporate good design principles. this is much easier to do in an outdoor environment, which isn’t constrained by the expensive infrastructure that comes with enclosure.

    As for Gruen’s rep among urbanists, the West End of Boston was an urban renewal disaster of the first magnitude, partly described by Herbert Gans in “The Urban Villagers” 9which chronicles the people who were “renewed” out of the neighborhood). Today it’s a lifeless site dominated by the brutalist structures of Mass General Hospital, the primary teaching institution for Harvard Med School.

  2. @Rich, although I think there’s pretty much universal agreement that the West End was a failure long-term, I think it might’ve had some short-term benefit still. At the time, everyone was fleeing cramped, old cities like Boston for the modern, higher standard of living promised by the suburbs, and Gruen’s towers in the West End offered some of that promise (modern, spacious, bright apartments) right in the center of the city. Ultimately, it was NOT worth what it cost (an entire old neighborhood that’s lost forever) but it did convince people to come to or stay in the city in the 70s, a time when almost no one wanted to do so. It’s a relic of the attitude of its times.

  3. I would argue that although Victor Gruen clearly was influential and developed more projects (and more retail focussed projects), he wasn’t the first, especially not the complete pattern described here.

    Ebenezer Howard (of Garden Cities fame in the UK) included similar ideas in his Garden City concept prior to World War 1, and Welwyn Garden City clearly has an open-air mall with a central park at the heart with nearby housing and offices integrated, and a transport hub. It’s not clear if Victor was aware of Howard’s work, although it would be surprising if he wasn’t.

    WGC (as it is often described by the locals) was founded in 1920 and the current retail provision largely complete prior to World War 2. In recent years one end of the original open air mall was closed off by a small enclosed mall (The Howard Centre, named after Ebenezer).

    Of the Garden Cities (and the following New Towns), WGC is the most “mall-like”, although nearby Stevenage New Town (built post World War 2) also has a spawling open air mall (with modern partial enclosures) and Milton Keynes took that to its final conclusion, and neither has housing close by (although some office/hotel space is part of Stevenage and Milton Keynes shopping).

  4. What SF neighborhood was planned in the 1970s? At first I thought you were talking about maybe Parkmerced or Stonestown from your description, but of course those date to 1942 and 1950, respectively.

  5. @Daniel, its Diamond Heights, which was all just cow pastures and meadows until the very end of the 1960s when they started to develop it. It was the first project by SPUR, in fact.

  6. @Caldor, You right – 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.

    These statements although correct, neglects several interrelated points… 1. after WWII zoning laws or lack there of in suburban communities alowd for seperation of uses wich still continues to this day. 2. Thanks to the auto & related industries, car dependance was sold as something as a burthright & anyone who couldn’t drive was esentially trapped as transit & walking infrastructure wasn’t built.

    One of the side effects of this can be found in the percentage of youth that walk to & from school today as compared to the 1960s & the health effects sene in kids now. an online news site for Arlington VA, has done recent stories on this topic as the county government is focused on walkability & less use of the car as a mode of transport Infact Arlington has been able to strike a somewhat healthy ballence between the ideals of both Jane & Victor, even if it isn’t perfect.

  7. @Caldor, FYI, the Finantial Times had an interesting piece entitled “Keeping zombies out of the mall” Even across the pond, there are issues, but in some ways they are the same & others they are different.This artical can be viewed as a PDF at on there news page.

  8. @Caldor, A bit off topic, but you & others may find this Wash Post article interesting.

    Are walkable neighborhoods the future?
    By Jonathan O’Connell, Published: November 11
    Christopher B. Leinberger has been pushing the smart growth ethos nearly his entire professional life. As a private sector developer, a consultant and now a business school professor and smart growth advocate, Leinberger argues that building walkable places is the most efficient, environmentally friendly, socially equitable and valuable way of developing real estate.

    In his latest research, Leinberger makes the case that walkable, urban places — which he calls WalkUPs — have overtaken the drivable suburban environment as the dominant form of real estate development in the Washington area.

    Building on earlier research he produced for the Brookings Institution, Leinberger mounts this argument by looking at 43 Washington area neighborhoods that he says are walkable and also offer regionally significant destinations, such as job centers, colleges, medical centers or cultural, entertainment and sports attractions.

    “Market demand for drivable suburban development, which has become overbuilt and was the primary cause of the mortgage meltdown that triggered the Great Recession, is on the wane,” Leinberger contends in the study. “Meanwhile, there is such pent-up demand for walkable urban development — as demonstrated by rental and sales price premiums per-square-foot and capitalization rates — that it could take a generation of new construction to satisfy.”

    This is a different debate than the decades-old back-and-forth about city vs. suburbs. Of the 43 areas Leinberger focused on in his report only 18, or 42 percent, are in the District. The Rosslyn-Ballston corridor has grown into a central competitor to D.C., and developers in Tysons Corner, Reston Town Center, White Flint and National Harbor are pushing their own urban visions.

    But Leinberger’s argument for “new urbanism” does play into a more immediate debate about where the country and region should be making transportation and infrastructure investments. With road congestion still ranked among the highest nationwide and local government leaders struggling to keep their budgets balanced, debate over which transportation projects to fund has intensified.

    Examples abound: funding for the second leg of the Silver Line passed by a single vote in Loudoun County, while rezonings in Tysons have been held up for months by the debate over which roads, bridges and public transit projects should be added and who should pay for them.

    In this atmosphere, disagreements over what the next big projects will be — whether streetcars, light rail, rapid bus transit, an additional Potomac River bridge or even a second Beltway — occasionally boil over among academics and advocates like Leinberger.

    In an October report prepared for the 2030 Group, an advocacy group funded by major regional real estate developers, the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University found that “travel to work by mode in the Washington region has not changed very much over the past 20 years.”

    Looking at local economic centers and daily trips by every mode of transportation, the George Mason researchers projected $1.4 billion in growth in the region by 2040 and estimated that 81 percent of that growth would be supported by car trips, with biking/walking accounting for only 12.9 percent of growth and public transit for 6.1 percent. If auto access is so important, perhaps more roads should be built.

    But the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a local advocacy group for transit-oriented development, immediately began calling the report flawed. “While dressed up with an acknowledgment of transit, the report is focused on justifying a wasteful expansion of highways which would fuel more spread-out development and yet more traffic,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the group.

    (The 2030 Group posted a defense of the report on its blog, saying the research was “based on official data and conducted by transportation and economic professionals.”)

    In addition to his work for George Washington University, Leinberger is president of Smart Growth America, the national advocacy group based in the District, so philosophically he has long been on the side of smart growth advocates. He is a major supporter of the District’s efforts to build a system of streetcars and is generally not sympathetic toward residents who resist new development in their neighborhoods.

    But he also thinks building and buying in walkable places makes economic sense. He argues that making walkable places is also the best way to create real estate value, despite the often steep up-front costs of building infrastructure, adding public transportation and performing “place management” — the cleaning and managing of public places that business improvement districts often support in city areas, and which Leinberger considers of paramount importance.

    Leinberger ranked the area’s neighborhoods in his report for George Washington, but we asked him to take his analysis a step further and tell us where these places are headed. As a hypothetical, what if each of the 43 places he studied were stocks?

    Which would be the blue chips, those that already have strong economies and are likely to improve? Which are not at the top of the heap today but — through planning and investments — show a lot of upside and are headed for growth?

    And which are the stocks that he would short, meaning, who’s falling behind?

    Of course, neighborhoods are not stocks. They are communities of people, and Leinberger ranks walkable places based on social equity — which takes into account racial diversity and the costs of housing and transportation — as well. But in a region that is experiencing rapid demographic growth, some places will become more attractive to office renters, apartment seekers and shoppers, and some will not. In Leinberger’s view, walkability will shape all of that.

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