Thursday, May 07, 2015

america: when industry and infrastructure coalesce around a window-dresser's design aesthetic...,


Guardian |  Behold the shopping mall – the built epitome, according to its critics, of the mindless, car-bound consumerism of white-bread suburban America. Yet Southdale Center, the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled collection of shops from which all the 1,100 or so similarly designed malls now standing across the United States descend, came from the mind of an anti-car, pro-pedestrian European Jewish socialist.

Victor Gruen, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, arrived in America in 1938 with high architectural aims. He soon launched a career creating New York City storefronts for urban businesses, like Ciro’s on Fifth Avenue and Steckler’s on Broadway, 14 years into which he received a commission to design something else entirely: a shopping centre 10 miles outside Minneapolis.

This job offered Gruen a blank canvas on which to realise his long-imagined utopian vision of an indoor city centre that would import the urbanity of his native Vienna into his fast-growing adopted homeland. Southdale itself went up as he had imagined it – but nothing else went according to plan. By the 1970s, Gruen had returned to Austria to live out his days having all-too-clearly realised what a suburban monster he’d created.

Though few built environments now seem as prosaic as that of the shopping mall, it looked downright radical when Gruen first came up with it. He first publicly submitted such a design in 1943, to Architectural Forum magazine’s competition “Architecture 194X”, which called upon modern architects to imagine the city of the post-war future. Alas Gruen’s entry, with its full enclosure and lack of a central square, struck even those forward-thinking editors as a bit much, and they sent him back to the drawing board.

The real postwar America proved far more accommodating to Gruen’s vision than the imagined one. The 1952 commission that brought Southdale into the world came from the Dayton family, a name synonymous with department stores in 1950s Minneapolis. They wanted a shopping centre to complement the new Dayton’s location that was planned for the suburb of Edina, a growing town of 15,000 people located — in line with the concerns of cold war America — just outside the blast radius of a nuclear bomb dropped on the city.