Forever Under Construction

The Mall Maker

Posted in Architecture, Planning, Urbanism by homeyra on July 3, 2007

In 1969 the Austrian-born American Victor Gruen and Aziz Farman Farmaian, a well known Iranian architect, submitted the first development plan for the capital city, Tehran. The plan was approved the next year. It suggested a future development of the city toward East and West around nine centers to be created. The proposal has been put aside since a long time by now.

In 2004 The New Yorker published a very interesting article about Gruen: The Terrazzo Jungle, Fifty years ago, the mall was born. America would never be the same, by Malcolm Gladwell. Here are some excerpts. (The first paragraph is an adaptation)

gruen.jpgVictor Gruen grew up in the well-to-do world of prewar Vienna studying architecture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He emigrated in 1938. Gruen’s most famous creation was a project in Edina, outside Minneapolis: the Southdale mall, 1956. He had the idea of putting a variety of functions under one roof. The two levels of this first air-conditioned complex were connected by escalators and fed by two-tiered parking. It included 72 stores, two anchor department-store tenants and some non-retail community services (post office, day care etc.). In the middle of the mall Gruen created a “garden court” under a skylight, with a fishpond, enormous sculpted trees, a large cage filled with exotic birds, balconies with hanging plants, and a café. The result was a sensation: Journalists from US’ top magazines, Life, Fortune, Time, NYT etc. all covered the opening: “The Splashiest Center in the US”… overnight Southdale had become an integral “part of the American Way.” Victor Gruen designed an archetype. He invented the mall.

Gruen was very critical of the American suburbia, whose roads, he said, were “avenues of horror” [...] When he first drew up the plans for Southdale, he placed the shopping center at the heart of a tidy 463-acre development, complete with apartment buildings, houses, schools, a medical center, a park, and a lake. His grand plan for Southdale was never realized. There were no parks or schools or apartment buildings—just that big box in a sea of parking. One person who wasn’t dazzled by Southdale was Frank Lloyd Wright. “What is this, a railroad station or a bus station?” […]

At the time of Southdale, big shopping centers were a delicate commercial proposition, one of the first big postwar shopping centers was bankrupt within two years of its opening. Then, in the mid-50s, something happened that turned the dismal economics of the mall upside down: Congress made a radical change in the tax rules governing depreciation […]

For tax purposes, in the early fifties the useful life of a building was held to be 40 years, so a developer could deduct one-fortieth of the value of his building from his income every year. A new 40-million-dollar mall, then, had an annual depreciation deduction of a million dollars […] the result was a “bonanza” for developers. In the first few years after a shopping center was built, the depreciation deductions were so large that the mall was almost certainly losing money, at least on paper—which brought with it enormous benefits and it was tax-free.

Suddenly it was possible to make much more money investing in things like shopping centers than buying stocks […] and the more expensive the building was, the more the depreciation allowance was worth.[…]

In 1953, before accelerated depreciation was put in place, one major regional shopping center was built in the US. Three years later, after the law was passed, that number was 25. In 1953, new shopping-center construction of all kinds totalled six million square feet. By 1956, that figure had increased 500% […]

Late in life, Gruen […] revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in “severe emotional shock.” Malls, he said, had been disfigured by “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking” around them. […] He turned away from his adopted country. He had fixed up a country house outside of Vienna, and soon he moved back home for good. […]

Just south of old Vienna, a mall had been built—in his anguished words, a “gigantic shopping machine.” It was putting the beloved independent shopkeepers of Vienna out of business. It was crushing the life of his city. He was devastated.
Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America. Read the article

Next post: Our cities

Relevant links:
Locating Victor Gruen, Alan A Loomis, 2000
The Gruen transfer
Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, M. Jeffrey Hartwick University of Pennsylvania Press
Gladwell.com and his blog
Shopping Town USA: Victor Gruen, the cold war and the shopping mall by Annette Baldauf

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6 Responses

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  1. peoplesgeography said, on July 4, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Fascinating post and profile of this architect. So it was Gruen who initiated the mall phenomenon that he later spurned, in addition to suburbia and its “roads of horror”. He created a monster! Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker is an interesting slice of American cultural life.

    Another enriching and informative post.

  2. homeyra said, on July 4, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Thanks PPGG, I am glad that finally someone read this post :)
    I am also fascinated by the way our cities are created. Designing “beauty” and “efficiency” has to be preceded by designing an appropriate financial mechanism. In fact you wonder which one was more decisive: Gruen design or the accelerate depreciation.
    Nowadays Tehran, this former project of V Gruen, is also driven by highly speculative forces.
    And malls! Financially also very appealing for investors, we have them just any-possible-where, without much care of parking spaces.

  3. eumhh said, on July 4, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    The Mall Maker

    Forever Under Construction propose la lecture fascinante d’un article de Malcolm Gladwell du journal The New Yorker sur la création des premiers supermarchés, ou comment un système fiscale astucieux peut développer un secteur autrement voué …

  4. proggiemuslima said, on July 5, 2007 at 1:41 am

    {{Gruen was very critical of the American suburbia, whose roads, he said, were “avenues of horror” }}

    Avenues of horror? Sounds like my hometown! :-)

  5. 99 said, on July 5, 2007 at 3:24 am

    Malls… shopping malls… are spiritual nightmares located on avenues of horror and frequented by the damned. There are towns with more malls than people… which means the people come. Malls were precursors to WalMarts, to all the Big Box stores. No hope for small businesspeople, let alone individual merchants. It’s the beginning of the end. It’s the temple of materialism over humanism. Pfeh! Malls! I spit on malls.

  6. homeyra said, on July 5, 2007 at 6:40 am

    How come at some stages humans create harmony in their cities and at other stages they create chaos?
    Again laws and financial structures have more to say than any individual building.


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