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Victor Gruen: the “Grandfather” of Malls

In this three-part series we will examine the shopping mall experiment and pass judgment on whether it has been a success based on the original intent of the founder. The parts are:

 
 
Victor Gruen

Victor Gruen was born in Austria, in 1903 and into a middle-class family, and received architectural training at the Technological Institute and Academy of Fine arts in Vienna. Upon graduating, he worked under Peter Behrens, a top German architect, until 1933 when he formed his own practice in Vienna. In this he focused on remodeling retail shops and apartments.


In 1938, fleeing WWII Europe, Gruen arrived in America “…with an architect’s degree, eight dollars, and no English.” He soon established himself, with the help of other German-speaking immigrants, and his first big break was to design retail stores in New York City. His designs where unlike any other on Fifth Avenue, and likely inspired by his time meandering the Arcades in Vienna.


A Courtyard in the Arcades of Vienna Which May Have Inspired Gruen
A Courtyard in the Arcades of Vienna Which May Have Inspired Gruen

The shop design innovations focused on the entrance ways and setting a “customer trap”. One such entrance was for a leather goods retailer storefront where Gruen placed six glass cases, spotlights, and faux marble and green corrugated glass on the ceilings. The effect was to snap the shopper’s mind from what they were thinking, to the agenda the store had for the shopper. To convert window shoppers into purchasers.


Two Gruen Storefront Designs in NYC Creating a “Customer Trap”
Two Gruen Storefront Designs in NYC Creating a “Customer Trap”

In 1941, Gruen moved to Los Angeles, and became a naturalized citizen in 1943. In 1951, he founded Victor Gruen Associates which soon became an internationally recognized and major architecture firm with 300+ employees. His international success led Malcom Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point, to suggest that “Victor Gruen may well have been the most influential architect of the twentieth century.” Walt Disney cited Victor Gruen as a major influence on his planning ambitions and ideas behind his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (“EPCOT”) planned community concept within Disney World.


 
Vision of the Shopping Mall

Gruen’s career in America spanned over a period of rapid modernization and the rise of the automobile. The trend of suburbanization defined the era and movement of peoples. His early Vienna programming exposed him to a communal and interactive pedestrian way of living, where courtyards and sidewalks lined with cafes abound.


Historic Photo of Vienna Which May Have Inspired Gruen’s Designs
Historic Photo of Vienna Which May Have Inspired Gruen’s Designs

He wanted to bring European charm to Americas sprawling suburbs which he viewed as promoting social isolation, rather than community. The vision for the mall was as a “third place” to spend time, the first two being the home and office. Suburbs did not have “third places” found in urban areas such as organized parks, shopping districts and places to convene and experience the feeling of belonging in a broader community. His vision for the mall was not in isolation as we perceive it modernly. It was but one part of a grander idea, and his malls were to be surrounded by and include parks, apartments, civic centers, entertainment, arts and culture spaces, medical centers, libraries and more.


Victor Gruen Reviewing Shopping Mall Design Works
Victor Gruen Reviewing Shopping Mall Design Works

Here is a 40-minute lecture by Victor Gruen outlining his philosophy of architecture and city planning. [Required listening for all architects and city planners!]


 
Gruen Effect

An extensively evaluated academic theory in the fields of psychology and architecture, based on Victor Gruen’s approach to design, has come to be known as the Gruen Effect. It postulates that there are ways of designing stores, and presenting merchandise, that will overwhelm the senses of the shopper and shift their thinking towards making impulsive purchases. Have you ever gone to a store to purchase toilet paper and returned with bags full of everything but? Me too! We’ve all been beneficiaries (victims?) of this effect.


IKEA’s maze layout is a prime example of designers making use of the Gruen Effect. The design encourages a feeling of exploration and freedom. Each turn overwhelms the senses and provides new scenery and products to take in. Disorientation occurs, and most IKEA shoppers wouldn’t be able to point towards their car, through the walls, after only a few turns into the store. IKEA knows that the more products you’re exposed to, and the more ground you cover, the more likely you are to make impulsive purchases.


Gruen Effect Inspired IKEA Store Layout
Gruen Effect Inspired IKEA Store Layout





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