Victor Gruen, ahead of his time

Victor_Gruen_-_Image_from_the_American_Heritage_Center

Victor Gruen, accessed 1/30/2014, wikipedia.org

Victor Davd Gruen was a native Austrian, who immigrated to the United States in 1938 under increasing pressures from the Nazis. He is best know for being the man behind the creation, and ultimately the proliferation of the shopping mall. His history is an interesting story, including impersonating a Nazi official. There is a lot of information about how Vctor Gruen became a planner, moved to the United States, and impacted the development of cities. More interesting than that is his legacy; he is a man that was highly sought after for his designs and later vilified for the outcome of his projects. The shopping mall has come to represent some of the least attractive characteristics of modern society, especially in the United States. Consumerism, large corporations overtaking small business, and the proliferation of automobiles are all brought to one location, the mall.

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Vienna, accessed 2/2/2014, wikipedia.org

Victor Gruen did not start out designing the shopping mall with the idea that it would turn into what it has. His intentions were much purer; he wanted to create an environment that provided a place for people to gather and enjoy their surroundings while being able to do all of their shopping, much like the downtown centers of his homeland. Simplified his goal was to “make our suburbs more urban”.

We all know the outcome of the modern shopping mall, the mall we have today doesn’t represent what Gruen had in mind. Now when people look at the mall, the notice how it promotes driving, congestion, and consumerism, Gruen shoulders the blame. In  his later years Gruen felt animosity to what the malls had become, he is quoted as saying, during a speech in London, “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.” It’s a tragedy that in modern planning we tend to look at the failings of his work. In order to understand what Gruens true intentions are, look to his root ideas for his planning practices.

In his book “The Heart of our Cities”, Gruen expresses some ideas that are not too different from what we are talking about in current planning. Victor Gruens ideas were not inherently bad nor were they designed to create the mall of today. Gruen set out with the best of intentions, he was just ahead of his time. One particular quote from “The Heart of our Cities” is especially striking “the urban organism, like the human one, has a heart, and that the health and vigor of the city’s heart are as vital and essential to the continued health of the urban organism as the human heart is to man’s existence… spread, sprawl, and scatterization, flight and blight as some of the germs that infect and cause disease of our urban heart.” Victor Gruen understood the destruction of our cities was bred by the exodus of business and people from the urban core to the suburban outskirts. In part, this was the root of his motivation for the creation of the shopping mall

Originally he had envisioned multi-use multi-story indoor/ outdoor shopping environment in suburbia. The idea was to create city centers, or cores, in the outskirt of the city. He envisioned a small downtown, servicing the local residents. He also tried combating inner city decay with plans that included  freeways circling the city core and pedestrian-only walking centers in the downtown business district. This idea, in application, turned out to be destructive to the city and another mark against Gruen’s reputation. Gruen did not hate the automobile as a mode for transportation over large distances, he did despise it as it came to be used. He categorized certain groups of people that were degrading to the livelihood of the city “The traffickist, the bulldozerite, the segregator, the projectite, and the economizer” in his perception these people ,whose names basically explain who they are, were poison to the city organism. These groups of people are being criticized with more scrutiny in today’s planning culture. These groups of people represent developers that operate without concern for the environment, people who overuse the automobile, and entities that operate for the increase of profit alone.

Victor Sketch

Gruen Sketch, Ibai Gandiaga Perez de Albeniz, accessed 1/31/2013, flickr.com

After Gruens plans were implanted he faced wide ranging scrutiny and criticism. He was blamed for the mall, and how it effected the living environment, he was criticized for decreasing livability because of his focus on transportation, and not considering the American peoples attachment to the automobile. Although these critiques of Gruen’s work have some foundation, they should not overshadow the fact the he had great insight and perspective for what the modern plan should entail. Victor Gruen was ahead of his time in what he was attempting to accomplish. He was searching for a way to promote connectivity, walkability and downplay the importance of the automobile in the daily life of Americans. In modern planning, those points are the focus of many cities, and planning firms around the world. Gruen was an environmental architect, he played close attention to the social role of planning, and tried to improve the human condition by making the built environment a better place. Through his faults and successes, modern planing should study Victor Gruen. The reapplication of his ideas may be more applicable in today’s social climate, where the general populous is more familiar with the ideas he was trying to institute.  He should be learned from, not only for his failings and successes but for the way he approached planning and the breadth of what he took into consideration when resolving the issues involved with creating a built environment.

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