- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 13, 2004

MALL MAKER: VICTOR GRUEN, ARCHITECT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

By M. Jeffrey Hardwick

University of Pennsylvania Press, $29.95, 273 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN ZIMMERMAN



As a Jew, he was forced to flee the Nazi hordes and his beloved Vienna for New York City. His life

as a budding architect, socialist reformer, and wacky political satirist amidst Vienna’s teeming cabarets had come to an abrupt halt.

The year was 1938. Three years later, with luck on his side, and having landed his first architectural commissions on New York’s Fifth Avenue, he shortened his last name from Gruenbaum to Gruen, and inserted a new middle name. Victor David Gruen was poised for a series of mutations from immigrant designer of small-scale storefronts to world-renowned city planner. The door to his future was his faith in shopping.

In the emerging age of mass consumption Gruen saw the potential for shopping to become an irresistible attraction. Shopping could even be elevated to the status of civic ritual, something akin to the vibrant streets of Europe.

Shopping held the promise of inventing new and captivating design imagery that could fuel Gruen’s creative talents, reformer’s zeal, and daunting ego. Shopping and Victor David Gruen seemed like a perfect match.

In “Mall Maker,” M. Jeffrey Hardwick methodically traces Gruen’s career trajectory, his relationship to his mostly business clients, the fawning media, and the public at large. He explores in depth many of his most significant projects, such as Detroit’s Northland, which Gruen likened to Venice’s Piazza San Marco; Southdale near Minneapolis, which was the first climate-controlled shopping mall; and downtown renewal plans for cities from coast to coast.

Mr. Hardwick also culls telling quotes from Gruen’s speeches and writings such as “Shopping Towns USA” and “The Heart of Our Cities.” By the mid-Fifties, Gruen had unleashed the vast engine of consumerism, designing award-winning projects with a fresh sheen of technocratic modernism. He successfully imparted a sense of benign urbanity to a wary middle class.

Adulation gushed from city critic Jane Jacobs, from Business Week and the New Yorker. Gruen had risen to the top of his profession.Today there are those who despise Gruen for his invention of the enclosed shopping mall, but as Mr. Hardwick explains, the mall was only part of a larger vision.

When Gruen lounged beside his Beverly Hills swimming pool, he imagined malls not in isolation, but integrated into mixed-use city centers. These centers would complement, not compete, with the downtowns of central cities. Moreover, by sucking retail from the suburban strip, they could put an end to sprawl. But Gruen never found the client willing to carry out this vision.Tragically, Gruen’s dream was not the same as the rest of America’s.

Sensing this, he shifted his energies from suburb to central city, but it was already too late. His shopping malls were a smashing commercial success, but a city-planning failure. They spurred a frenzy of soulless sprawl, leaving the poor and disenfranchised behind.

Mr. Hardwick’s portrait reveals a Gruen held captive by his own contradictions. He was a reformer, but also an opportunist and a hypocrite. Remarkably persuasive as a speaker and writer, Gruen often trashed his own work as a rhetorical device to gain publicity.

He hated the automobile, but his projects where anchored in a sea of parking; he deplored the suburban strip, yet designed for it; he yearned for the bustling streets of his native Vienna, while at the same time his downtown plans dismantled American city cores amid swirling freeway ramps and mammoth parking decks. In Mr. Hardwick’s depiction, Gruen was the Citizen Kane of his time.

Where Mr. Hardwick disappoints is in giving scant attention to a parallel contradiction inherent in Gruen’s urban design principles: Gruen wanted it both ways. In separating land uses, catering to the auto and embracing the modernist tableau, Gruen touted the line of the architectural godfather of utopian modernism, Le Corbusier.

However, in sanctioning street-closing courtyards and other pedestrian-only devices, and embellishing them with such amenities as sculptures and fountains, Gruen took cues from another famous and influential European predecessor, Camillo Sitte.

Nevertheless, Mr. Hardwick’s thesis is compelling, and it is shared by today’s growing legion of New Urbanists: Instead of saving the city, Gruen inadvertently contributed to its demise.

The author also missed an opportunity to elaborate on the links between Gruen’s urban planning approach and other major players, especially during the heady 1960s, the era of federal programs for urban renewal and new towns.

A whole host of names comes to mind, including city planner Ed Bacon; architect I.M. Pei and his planner Vincent Ponte, who were connected to the Zeckendorf development interests; James Rouse, who would make a mall the centerpiece of his new town, Columbia, Md.; and even famed architect Louis Kahn, whose gutsy sketch concepts for parking fortresses in downtown Philadelphia appeared to derive directly from Gruen principles.

Such discussion would have been meat for the last chapter of the book, which is supposed to deal with the Gruen legacy, but instead cautiously limits itself to the closing years of Gruen’s life upon his abrupt return to Vienna.

And what of the post-Gruen era? What of the expanding orgy of big-box stores, festival marketplaces, mega-malls, edge cities, or upscale boutique mallscapes plopped into downtowns? But maybe that will be the subject for Mr. Hardwick’s next, and hopefully equally revealing book.

Martin Zimmerman has written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Architectural Record, Landscape Architecture, and Urban Ecology. He currently resides in Charlotte, N.C.

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