The Gruen Effect, a documentary on the life of Victor Gruen, the so-called father of shopping malls, provides interesting insights into the birth of a development concept that reshaped America. In Vienna, Victor Gruen was involved in socialist politics before fleeing to New York to escape Nazi Germany. In perhaps the ultimate of ironies, he initially envisioned shopping centres as a utopian communal space that brought people together. Developers found his ideas interesting, but had a hard time securing financing. One of his first major projects, Northland Center in Detroit, incorporated many elements of Victor's vision including public gardens, a bank, post office, auditoriums, artwork, and fountains.
Northland Center, Detroit (1954)
Northland Center also made a lot of money, and pretty soon developers were replicating the concept all across the country. Just as the first residential suburb designs were utopian minded, developers began to squeeze out the unnecessary financial costs and focussed more and more on pure consumption. The documentary recounts how Victor Gruen is appalled at the impact these shopping centres are having on urban areas, and unsuccessfully attempts to offer solutions to the growing problem. Speaking later on his reputation as the originator of this development concept, Victor Gruen writes:
I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.
Interestingly, we have recently begun to see a lot of shopping centres returning to some of the utopian roots espoused by Victor Gruen as a way of solidifying consumer support in competitive markets. Increasingly, this competition is now coming from online shopping, a trend that some speculate will force malls to reposition themselves as centres of the community. For Victor Gruen's sake, I certainly hope this is the trend in which we are heading!
Click on the photo to link to watch the trailer on Vimeo:
Somehow between the time I posted this last night and this morning the full documentary has been turned into a private video. For now all I have is the trailer 🙁