Victor Gruen is a name that doesn’t get thrown around Rochester much. Sadly, I imagine it was the opposite for him.
As creator of the modern mall in America, the Vienna-born architect holds the once glorious title of designer of Midtown Plaza. To his dismay, the current hole in the center of downtown was at one point what he considered his greatest accomplishment.
And the man had a lot of accomplishments.
Starting his career in America on the esteemed 5th Avenue, New York, Gruen constructed the idea of the bright, window lined storefronts that we know of today. He aimed to create a more intrinsic shopping experience through center and isle way display cases while subtracting the check out. He quickly learned to apply this technique to indoor malls, and created the “Gruen Transfer,” the feeling of being disoriented when surrounded by mall stimuli. Though this revolutionary idea was directed for consumption, his visions were more grand and genuine than just shopping.
Dealing directly with the inclement problem of suburban sprawl, he designed malls to be the center of socialization (mainly for women at the time), but added offices and auditoriums to them as well. He aimed to make pedestrian friendly town centers, becoming more of a city planner than an architect; His goal was to create a city “liberated from the terror of automobiles” through malls and plazas.
Unfortunately, his ideas were easily copied, capitalized and rarely honored. Companies learned that the collection of stores alone would attract business and abandoned the idea of community centers that Gruen valued to so highly. Every inch of malls built after this would be purely for commercial gain, literally.
In bitter irony, his creations designed to save cities began dismantling them at their core, and this was no secret.
Gruen was very aware of these “bastardized structures” when he was commissioned for Midtown Plaza. Built directly to counter “white flight” ramped in Rochester, he held this new mall in his highest regard. With a banquet hall, auditorium, post office, public art, a bus terminal and an office high rise, the Plaza was the pinnacle of malls in the world.
It didn’t last. Though he won several awards and gained international recognition, as I understand, the elements that made the mall so revolutionary also lead to its demise.
At the peak of the automobile crisis in the mid 80s, high end offices and stores resented the low income bus lines that inhabited the lower floors. The post office and food courts attracted questionable characters and drove shoppers away. Plus, the creation of suburban malls, also mimicking his design, meant people no longer needed to enter the city at all.
When he returned to Vienna, a taboo move for those who had left Europe during the rise of Hitler, he was stripped of his degree and met only casually with city planners seeking his advice.
Today, he is nearly forgot. Here, at least. His prized creation turned into parking lots and empty offices, and his town center dismantled completely. I wonder often if our leadership thinks about him at night as much as he must have thought about us. If they don’t, I would quickly change this new series from Holy Fuck, to What the Fuck, Rochester? solely in his honor.
Or maybe we should just try again.
The Gruen Effect