How the suburban U.S. shopping mall reimagined the city and undergirded architectural modernization

Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, was the first fully indoor shopping mall in the world. Photo credit: Bobak Ha’Eri via Creative Commons.

Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University

In 1958, the Architectural League of New York held a photographic exhibit of new street furniture. Today, such an undertaking seems unremarkable but the show warranted a lengthy review in the New York Times. That street furniture was a “major topic” reflected the prevailing opinion of architects and planners that the quantity of both traditional and utilitarian “stuff” of the street – from mailboxes to benches to lighting – had accumulated to the point of “visual anarchy.” It had become absolutely necessary, argued League president Morris Ketchum, to establish “overall control” in creating the “right environment” for users of the street.

Regulating a streetscape was hardly a new enterprise. A good many efforts of the early 20th century City Beautiful advocates, from civic leaders to garden clubs, demanded aesthetic criteria be added to functional in the reconsideration of the street. Charles Mulford Robinson’s call for civic art, for example, included large scale planning as well as street furnishings. Some critics scoffed at what they dismissed as a doily-on-a-light-pole approach, but other progressives argued that every detail was meaningful, not only issues of scale and use. Visual control and a well-ordered street were also signs of the capillary action of extensive urban management. In a time when industrial modernization was wreaking social and physical havoc on cities, a handsome (and regularly emptied) garbage can on the corner signified that a regime of control and stability was keeping an eye on things.

Victor Gruen’s Northland Center in Southfield, Michigan,
was a milestone for suburban shopping centers in the U.S.

In the post-WW2 metropolis, the site of successful civic order and control had relocated. “Ironically,” Times writer Thomas W. Ennis noted, the “most imaginative forms” of new furniture were found in suburban shopping centers. In fact, most of the images in the League show published in the Times were of recently completed shopping centers, including Victor Gruen’s Northland (1954, Southfield, Michigan) and I. M. Pei’s Roosevelt Field (1956, East Garden City, New York). What the Times writer described as incongruent—that urban improvements had brewed in the suburbs—was the central allure of the new shopping center: outside the city, they grew on sites unburdened by history, hazard or encumbrance. The suburb was a seemingly fresh and open territory where planners, architects and builders could experiment with site planning, building groups and complex technical and service infrastructures. One of the challenges of contemporary urban renewal, on the other hand, was the difficulty of demolition, complex existing street and building conditions (not to mention residents!) and a thicket of political and economic networks. However, shopping centers and urban renewal work shared the modernist premise of a new scale of intervention and civic order, a reworking of movement systems and the reapportioning of space to privilege pedestrians. That these were first and more easily accomplished in the new shopping centers earned the centers early approval from both popular and professional circles. In the suburban shopping center, the city could be reimagined as a well-organized, frictionless, modern place, nothing like the old downtown.

Expressing something of the strange optimism of the time, a writer in the Christian Science Monitor (1956) saw the suburban shift in even more profound terms, “The shopping center of the future … will be completely self-contained, offering practically every known product and service.” There is more than a touch of totalizing fantasy in such a view (written about the same time as the opening of Victor Gruen’s Southdale (1956, Edina, Minnesota), the first fully indoor shopping center)—but the attitude was common. Other tropes used to describe the suburban shopping center in the 1950s include: a better version of downtown; a smoothly-operating urban node; and a perfected city. Underlying this evaluation of the center was the intersection of modernism’s predilection for control and the consumer economy that undergirded postwar modernization.

This theme is drawn out more fully in Pedestrian Modern, where I show how American architects at this time conceived of shopping center commissions—in the city or not—as experiments in modernist urban planning and architecture. Morris Ketchum, president of the Architectural League at the time of this exhibit, was no mere observer of the emerging shopping center. As lead designer of one of the earliest and largest, suburban Boston’s Shoppers’ World (1951), he was heavily invested in maintaining the cultural and civic value of such projects. The chapter devoted to shopping centers in his 1948 book, Shops and Stores, regards them as the logical outcome of the expanding city, with new site conditions, widespread automotive use and the growing consumer goods market. Most important, Ketchum wrote, was the unity in organization and management of the project as a whole. He, Gruen, and other retail complex architects prized unity above all, recognizing it was harder to achieve in the city center than outside it. That this enterprise was understood by its protagonists as one of many forms of modernist urbanism might today seem a stretch. Indeed, consumption casts a long shadow over discussions of architecture, urbanism and planning; its specter only raises the stakes in an understanding of how modern architecture and urbanism worked its way through architectural culture.


David Smiley is author of Pedestrian Modern: Shopping and American Architecture, 1925-1956. He teaches at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.

“Provocative, original, and persuasive . . . this deeply-researched investigation into the modernist origins of the mall is a model of creative scholarship and design thinking.”
—Robert Fishman, University of Michigan

Pedestrian Modern challenges the idea that architectural modernism involved a critique of shopping and mass culture. Smiley shows that the architects who designed the key consumer settings in the United States explored modernist idioms of transparency, circulation, and master planning. The results, both urban and suburban, made modernism an appealing everyday experience for the general public.”
—Gwendolyn Wright, Columbia University

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