Why the Origin Story of the Enclosed Mall Matters
As we observe and participate in the evolution of the $5 trillion U.S. retail industry, developments in the shopping mall industry, in particular, can help us trace our current and possible future situation. Here we look at why and how that symbol of American shopping, the mall, came about, and some of the reasons it is struggling to stay relevant.
It All Started with Victor Gruen
If we must trace the origin of the U.S. shopping mall to one person, it would be the Austrian architect Victor Gruen (1903—1980). After the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, he emigrated first to England and then to the U.S. “with an architect’s degree, eight dollars and no English” (from Malcom Gladwell’s New Yorker article ‘The Terrazzo Jungle’ ; for a more in-depth perspective on the cultural phenomenon of the enclosed mall, read his article).
Gruen’s early U.S. projects involved designing innovative storefronts for shops on 5th Avenue in New York City in the 1940s. These were innovative in that they had open frontages designed to entice pedestrians off the street to walk into the store, without really planning to.
His first enclosed shopping center project was Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, in 1954.
This was hailed as a dramatic and positive innovation that attracted national media attention. Life magazine called it “the splashiest center in the U.S.” While Time magazine called it a “pleasure-dome-with-parking.”
Why Gruen’s Mall was Different
What was new about it was that it was an entirely enclosed system of shops with no exterior windows and a climate-controlled interior. This was a particularly good fit for Minnesota with its cold winters. Until then, shops in malls and arcades were connected by outside walkways. This new design was on two levels, had a department store at each end, and escalators to bring shoppers up to the second level and down again when they’d completed walking the mall. And it had a central court with skylights, fountains, plants and seating.
Gruen was inspired by centrally planned urban re-development in his hometown of Vienna, Austria, that took place there after the democratic uprisings in 1848.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his article “The Terrazzo Jungle” in the New Yorker magazine, describes these Viennese developments:
The Parliament now faced directly onto the street. The walls that separated the élite of Vienna from the unwashed in the suburbs were torn down. And, most important, a ring road, or Ringstrasse—a grand mall—was built around the city, with wide sidewalks and expansive urban views, where Viennese of all backgrounds could mingle freely on their Sunday afternoon stroll. To the Viennese reformers of the time, the quality of civic life was a function of the quality of the built environment, and Gruen thought that principle applied just as clearly to the American suburbs.
Gruen’s mall concept was really a synthetic version of the old downtown shopping areas of many American towns. With a couple of department stores and many smaller shops and restaurants in between.
Why the Original Mall made Sense
The problem, from a business optimization viewpoint, was these pre-mall downtown shopping areas were unplanned. Besides the fact that they were outside, making the weather a hindrance to shopping, the layout couldn’t be fully controlled since the buildings were owned by different landlords. There was no central control of leasing—you couldn’t create adjacencies to maximize sales. For example, having a men’s shoe store next to a men’s clothing store or a jewelry store next to a dress shop would stimulate additional sales by attracting the same type of customer.
Gruen’s centrally planned enclosed shopping mall solved all these issues by having a single landlord who could organize and lease the entire mall to optimize the shopping experience. But these malls were intended to positively impact the surrounding community and be integrated into the community. That meant that they weren’t just intended to house stores, but would also include housing, schools, museums and parks.
What happened instead, to Gruen’s later disapproval, was the endless replication of his enclosed mall design that, instead of being parts of larger thoughtful developments, were simply thrown up into the middle of former farmland on the edges of suburbs where land was the cheapest.
Worse yet, because shoppers had to drive to get there, malls were surrounded by acres of unattractive parking lots instead of being integrated into a larger holistic community. Nothing could have been farther from what Gruen envisioned when he designed that first indoor mall.
So we can see that, as envisioned by Victor Gruen, malls could have had a different future had they been more thoughtfully planned and integrated into the communities they were designed to serve. The experience of the functional shopping mall that used to offer ‘one-stop’ shopping, has been by-passed by the even more convenient one-stop shopping offered by e-Commerce. Gruen’s original vision for malls – a greater integration into communities – may have made them less susceptible to being made irrelevant in this way. To read more about the types of shopping centers that are still working well and which will continue to stay relevant, see Chapter 5 in my new book, ‘The Future of Omni-Channel Retail: Predictions in the Age of Amazon.’