The Mall at 60
Vienna-born architect Victor Gruen first wrote about his vision for an enclosed shopping mall in the June, 1952 edition of Progressive Architecture, back when people shopped, you know, downtown. The result 60 years later is the sea of asphalt that practically defines suburbia.
Today malls have lost their luster: “At the mall’s peak popularity in 1990, America opened 19 of them. But we haven’t cut the ribbon on a new one since 2006,” writes Emily Badger in the Atlantic. Now we’re stuck with monoliths more a half-century old and wondering what to do with them. Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham-Jones says that about a third of America’s malls are dead or dying. Comic Chris Rock once noted that “every town's got two malls: They got the white mall, and the mall white people used to go to.”
Interestingly, Gruen thought he was saving cities. “He hated suburbia,” writes Badger. “He thought his ideas would revitalize cities. He wanted to bring urban density to the suburbs. And he envisioned shopping malls as our best chance at containing sprawl… He wanted these places to be civic areas as much as commercial ones, with day cares, libraries, post offices, community halls, and public art.” Gruen’s prototype, a mall in Edina, Minnesota that broke ground in 1954, was “supposed to be the centerpiece of a 500-acre master plan to include houses, apartments, office buildings, a medical center, and schools.”
Edina’s Southdale is still kicking, with 120 stores and 4 anchor tenants in 1,300,000 square feet surrounded by parking lots. It’s that asphalt that irritates architecture critic Mark Hinshaw, who came across 1954 standards for commercial development. “For every square foot devoted to human activity within buildings, three additional square feet would be devoted to parking cars,” Hinshaw writes. “In their idealized future — which when you think about it, is now — more than 75 percent of developed land is covered in asphalt. Most predictions of the future have failed. This one, unfortunately, was pretty spot on.”
Image by iStock/P_Wei.
Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”