After Victor Gruen fled war-torn Europe in 1938, he landed in New York with eight dollars in his pocket. Within 15 years, he’d completely reinvented American commerce. How? He not only invented the mall, he pioneered the whole suite of psychological tricks that retailers use to trick you into browsing and buying more. Next time you go to Whole Foods for a half gallon of milk and end up spending eighty dollars on cheese and sparkling grape juice, blame Victor Gruen.
Gruen’s first breakthrough was his design for a shopfront in Manhattan in the early Forties. Up until that point, shops had come right up to the sidewalk, but Gruen’s design recessed the entrance behind a glass-fronted arcade – for an extra tacky “motel honeymoon suite” touch, the arcade even had mirrored ceilings. It was a huge success. Gruen thought of the design as a “customer trap” – the garish arcade framing the entrance lured people in like the colored markings of a Venus fly trap. Gruen designed dozens of other stores before he finally built his first mall, in 1952, just outside Minneapolis. Southdale Mall was the nation’s first totally enclosed shopping center, and at the time, all the cliches we now associate with shopping malls – the huge parking lots, the blank exterior walls, the escalators and garden plazas – seemed fresh and new. Journalists called it a “pleasure dome,” and soon malls were popping up all over America.
But Gruen’s real innovations weren’t architectural – they were psychological. The term “Gruen transfer” became shorthand for all the little manipulations that Gruen built into his malls. Many observers noted that the massive, climate-controlled shopping centers seemed to be laid out in a way that was intentionally confusing; much like how a supermarket forces you to walk past countless chip displays and bins of sale candy just to get a gallon of milk, Gruen’s malls made sure that no matter where you were going, you had to walk past countless other stores first. One of the ways he did this was to build malls with two levels (shopping centers had previously been only one floor), connected by escalators, which encouraged circular movement. Another principle of his malls was visibility. Have you ever noticed how all the railings and barriers in a mall are transparent? Gruen understood the importance of presentation; nothing in the mall blocks the sightline of the consumer. The mall’s essentially one big shop window. He was also the first one to surround his malls with a circle drive, making every part equally accessible.
Other tricks are slightly more sinister. The exteriors walls of a mall are blank and closed to seal the consumers in a bubble, cut off from time cues. There are skylights to let in sunlight, but most malls also have lights set to brighten as the outside light changes, so people aren’t aware that it’s getting dark, i.e. that they dropped in to get Panda Express and somehow three hours have passed. (If you’ve ever been to a casino, you know the same principles are at work there.) So where did Gruen get the idea for all this? Probably from Vienna, the city he’d fled. For centuries the city’s wealthy quarter had been walled in, and the city was connected by a maze of narrow streets. In the late 19th century, the walls were torn down, buildings were brought up to the sidewalks, and a circular road was built around the city. The new Vienna was designed to be accessible and open, just like the malls Gruen designed years later. The tackiest thing about America might actually be European at heart.
Of course, the mall story doesn’t have a happy ending, and I’m not even talking about the fact that they’re all closing. When Congress decided to goose development in the Sixties, they changed an obscure tax law to accelerate depreciation on commercial buildings like malls. The upshot was that investors could build a mall, make a huge amount of tax-free cash almost immediately by designating profits as “depreciation” on the building, and then get out right away with millions in their pockets. Predictably, this led to malls sprouting up all over the country, far out of proportion to actual demand. (The mass closings we’re seeing now might not be a collapse as much as a long-delayed correction.) With so many malls being built so quickly, shoddy design was inevitable, and Gruen eventually disavowed shopping malls altogether, calling them “bastard developments.” Ironically, the man who invented malls would probably be thrilled that they’re dying.