Locating Victor Gruen

On March 23, 1959 the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously adopted an ordinance closing two blocks of Burdick Street from automobile traffic. In August of that year, Burdick Street was reopened as the Kalamazoo Mall, making this small, average Michigan town the first city in the country to replace one of its primary downtown streets with a landscaped pedestrian mall. During a time when the economic health of the center city was being challenged by growing suburbs and traffic congestion, closing a downtown street was a radical act, closely watched by other cities. However, the significance of Kalamazoo Mall lies not only in its status as the prototype for a popular planning trend in the 1960s and 1970s, but also as the first attempt to implement recommendations of a downtown revitalization plan authored by the renowned architecture and planning firm Victor Gruen Associates. [1]

Financed and promoted by downtown business owners, Victor Gruen’s 1958 “Kalamazoo 1980” plan was the second of many downtown plans his office would produce following the celebrated and famous Fort Worth plan of 1955. Kalamazoo, however, adopted only the pedestrian mall from all the recommendations of the plan, as many other cities would do with their Gruen plans. Fresno California would build a downtown pedestrian mall in 1964, based on a 1958 Gruen plan; Honolulu Hawaii would also convert two blocks into a pedestrian mall in 1969, three years after commissioning a Gruen plan. [2] Although he was known as the “father of the mall,” Victor Gruen would disown his paternity. Gruen believed that simply removing automobile traffic from a few blocks of a downtown street in favor of pedestrians was nothing more than publicity gimmick that failed to address fundamental functional problems with downtown cores. [3] Essentially, the central concern addressed by Victor Gruen Associates’ urban redevelopment plans was the inability of downtown streets to handle the postwar influx of automobiles. Car ownership exploded dramatically in the 1950s, a result of America’s postwar prosperity and the Federal government’s support of home ownership in new suburbs. The resulting commuting patterns brought unprecedented numbers of cars into downtowns without adequate streets or parking. Traffic congestion, polluted streets, unfriendly sidewalks, and inefficient urban centers were the consequence. Gruen effectively demonstrated the basic problem of accommodating the automobile in urban planning through a series of statistical thought-experiments, beginning with a comparison of US human and automobile populations (125,000,000 people to 82,000,000 cars in 1964) [4] A more focused critique addressed a proposal to build fifteen parking garages in the midst of Manhattan. Gruen’s analysis compared the amount of space required by the both parked and moving cars the garages would generate against space on the Manhattan street grid, effectively demonstrating through numbers alone the inability of the garages to solve New York’s transportation problem. [5] Certainly a less extreme situation than Manhattan, Kalamazoo nonetheless suffered from similar problems of congestion and urban decline. The “Kalamazoo 1980” plan attempted to address these problems, although the mall, as with Fresno and Honolulu, was merely the last phase of Victor Gruen Associates’ twenty-year implementation strategy. The Kalamazoo plan, like the earlier Fort Worth or contemporaneous Fresno plan, circled the downtown with a ring road that fed automobile traffic from freeways and metropolitan boulevards into large parking lots. Removed from their cars, downtown shoppers and workers would enter a pedestrian only environment, defined by the former street grid. [6] The concentric series of ring roads and parking lots in a Gruen downtown plan is directly modeled after the open space ringstrasse of the glacis in Gruen’s hometown of Vienna. A Gruen plan was designed to protect the vitality of the central city from an on-slaught of automobiles.

Gruen’s plans for downtowns sound and look remarkably like suburban shopping malls. Indeed, a revealing diagram in the “Kalamazoo 1980” report overlays the plan for downtown Kalamazoo on the plan of Northland Shopping Mall in suburban Detroit, also designed by Victor Gruen Associates. The two plans are, of course, similar in size and structure. This should be no surprise, insofar as Gruen Associates’ experience in urban planning began with in 1955 with Northland, widely considered the first suburban shopping mall in the country. The Northland project arrived at Gruen’s office through the Hudson Department Store family; as they considered expanding their operations from their massive downtown store into the suburbs, the Hudson family turned to the country’s leading expert in retail design. Gruen’s reputation for retail design had steadily grown, beginning with small boutique shops. Gruen was able to convince Hudsons to build not only a branch department store, but also the adjoining retail and public spaces under a single unified design. Northland was an instant commercial and community success. Even on Sunday, when the stores were closed, it received visitors, who wandered its landscaped courtyards. [7] Today, with suburban malls failing and even being demolished, its seems difficult to imagine such a place as a community focal point, popular for casual visiting, concerts, and community meetings. [8] However, Victor Gruen conceived of shopping malls as concentrations of urban activity within the automotive, homogenous landscape of postwar American suburbia. Early malls by Gruen Associates included post offices, day cares and other non-retail community services. The 1961 Winrock Center in Albuquerque extended this integration of functions even further, including offices and apartments on the property and a hotel within the architecture and pedestrian spaces of the mall itself. [9]

But as more stores located in shopping malls, both the building and the parking lots began to sprawl beyond the distance of a comfortable walk. Thus whereas Northland and Winrock Center are single story, open-air malls, Gruen’s second major mall was a two-story building focused on an enclosed atrium. The atrium at Southdale, outside of Minneapolis Minnesota, of course, provided the protection from the weather necessary in the northern Great Plains, but also created an interior space demanding sculptural, expression. Especially in suburban malls, where the exterior façade is typically a utilitarian box facing parking lots and interior storefronts following national standards, the atrium provides the only moment of architectural identity. [10]

Eventually, the interior atrium of the shopping mall would find itself within an urban mall as a component of a Gruen downtown plan. Like their other downtown plans, the Gruen Associates’ strategy for Rochester New York proposed a variety of traffic realignments within the central city, consisting of a freeway ring, parking garages, and various pedestrian-only streets. Because it had initiated a downtown freeway loop prior to commissioning Gruen, Rochester would ultimately be the American city with the most complete Gruen plan with the opening of Midtown Plaza in 1962. A central component of the Gruen plan, Midtown Plaza consolidated a hotel, two local department stores and a municipally funded parking garage under one roof. The central atrium garden court occupied the right-of-way of Cortland Avenue, which thereby connected the interior of Midtown Plaza to the street and the rest of the central city. Although owing to the real estate constraints of its downtown location Midtown Plaza had a higher density and concentration of activity than suburban shopping malls, in nearly every respect it conformed to the shopping mall strategy. [11] Midtown Plaza effectively collapsed a suburban building typology within a downtown location and effectively generated the urban mall as a new architectural and development prototype.

As this new prototype, Midtown Plaza represents the starting point for an interesting line of successors to Gruen’s legacy. Like Gruen, the architects that have extended and expanded his ideas share Gruen’s position between pop commercialism and high-art architectural theory. Like Gruen, John Portman, Benjamin Thompson, and Jon Jerde have until recently been largely ignored by the mainstream culture of architecture schools and journals. Yet they have also produced some of the most significant and successful urban places in the past twenty-five years.

Curiously enough, John Portman’s first major hotel, the Atlanta Hyatt, was completed in 1967, the year of Victor Gruen retired to Austria. Continuously adding more hotels and offices to his hometown Atlanta, Portman would follow the Hyatt with the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco and two nearly identical hotel complexes – the Renaissance Center in Detroit (1971) and the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles (1975). Portman’s hotels would eventually become famous for their soaring, Piranesian, and deeply disorientating atriums. [12] Yet located in downtown centers, Portman’s atrium hotels are clearly elaborations of the urban mall typology developed by Gruen at Midtown Plaza. Although an urban density was forced upon Midtown Plaza and Portman’s hotels by their central city locations, the comparable density of the Houston Galleria was deliberate choice when Gerald Hines developed it in 1971. Originally located in Houston’s suburban sprawl, the Galleria has undergone three expansions and is today surrounded by the office towers, hotels, and big box retail of its Post Oak edge city neighborhood. At the Houston Galleria, the urban mall typology has been the catalyst for density in suburbia rather than a response to density. In the mid 1970s, the “festival marketplace” was codified at Fanueil Hall in Boston by developer James Rouse and architect Benjamin Thompson into the early 1980’s urban renewal buzzword. Pioneered with Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco in 1964, Fanueil Hall and its successors at New York’s South Street Seaport and Baltimore’s Harborfront was a mixture of historic renovation, adaptive reuse, and new construction, integrated by a pedestrian only environment. Although lacking the ring roads and massive parking lots of a Gruen downtown plan, at the scale of a few blocks festival marketplaces nonetheless implement many of Gruen’s ideas.

However, by the mid 1980’s the primary innovations in downtown retail design and planning were once again emerging from Los Angeles. With offices on Venice Beach, the Jon Jerde Partnership began designing a series of urban malls that incorporated the size of Portman or Gruen’s projects with the pageantry of festival marketplaces. Initiated by Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego, Jerde’s most famous and notorious project is Universal City Walk in Los Angeles. Adjacent to the Hollywood Freeway, yet located on the hills of the Universal Studios theme park, City Walk is pedestrian only environment surrounded by parking lots. Like the Houston Galleria, City Walk achieves many of Gruen’s planning goals even though it begins with a tabula rasa site. Jerde, however, has also reinvented the downtown pedestrian mall, still, despite his attempts to disown his authorship, commonly associated with Gruen. At the Fremont Street Experience in downtown Las Vegas, Jerde has not only closed the street to automotive traffic, creating a pedestrian environment, he has also vaulted the street with a giant cinematic roof. Although each individual casino and storefront along Freemont Street has maintained its own identity, as they would in a typical downtown pedestrian mall, with the vault the street becomes a single unified space similar to the atriums of Midtown Plaza or Portman’s hotels and therefore capable of competing in the identity battles with the enormous casinos on the Strip. The Freemont Street effectively collapses a number of Gruen’s ideas into a single project, albeit within the unusual urban environment of Las Vegas. [13]

Although the Thompson and Rouse team remain largely unseen in recent architectural history, both Portman and Jerde have become the focus of recent critical interest, an effort lead by Rem Koolhaas. [14] Perhaps his research into Portman and Jerde has lead Koolhaas to unconsciously rediscover Victor Gruen’s downtown planning ideas. The City Centre plan for Almere, the Netherlands, authored by Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) is the most Gruen-like plan produced since Gruen’s retirement. OMA has proposed for Almere the essential elements of Gruen’s Fort Worth plan: the downtown ring road connecting major freeways with huge parking garages that access a pedestrian only retail and office environment. [15]

Strangely enough, even Rem Koolhaas – the therapist/provocateur of recent architectural history – seems to have overlooked Victor Gruen, despite having rediscovered his downtown planning strategies. Yet though he seems forgotten by critical literature and the consciousness of architectural culture, Gruen’s legacy remains strongly alive. The course of Gruen’s ideas, as implemented since his retirement, flows through some of the most significant urban architecture since the mid century. Ultimately, it suggests that both the problems Victor Gruen addressed and the strategies he and his office developed to address those problems continue to remain relevant. We have much to learn from Victor Gruen; we need to rediscover him.

[1] Dates for the implementation of the Kalamazoo Mall come from The Kalamazoo Gazette, Tuesday, January 1, 1980, special edition, p 25. I learned the planning significance of the Kalamazoo Mall years ago: it is my hometown and for two years I walked it everyday on my way to work. I am grateful to Catherine Larson of the Kalamazoo Public Library for locating and sending me information on the history of the Kalamazoo Mall, including the 1958 Gruen report.

[2] The Fresno Fulton Street Mall was executed by landscape architect Garret Eckbo’s office, EDAW. See Harvey Rubenstein, Central City Malls (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1978) p 102-109.

[3] Victor Gruen, The Heart of Our Cities (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964) p 222

[4] Victor Gruen, The Heart of Our Cities (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964) p 209

[5] Victor Gruen, The Heart of Our Cities (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964) pp 118-123

[6] Victor Gruen Associates and Larry Smith & Company, “Kalamazoo 1980” (Victor Gruen Associates, 1958)

[7] Alex Wall lecture at SCIArc 28 March 2000

[8] Within in greater Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks Galleria and Plaza Pasadena (the later designed in the late 1970s by Jon Jerde while at Charles Kober Associates) are two of the malls currently being demolished. It should also be noted that the original Hudsons in downtown Detroit, once the largest department store in the country, was demolished last year, after standing vacant for decades.

[9] Victor Gruen, The Heart of Our Cities (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964) pp 195-196

[10] Margaret Crawford, “The Architect and The Mall” in Francis Anderton, You Are Here: The Jerde Partnership International (New York: Phaidon Press, 2000) pp 44-55

[11] Victor Gruen, The Heart of Our Cities (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964) pp 300-320

[12] See, for example, Frederic Jameson Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke: Duke University Press, 1989) or Rem Koolhaas, “Atlanta” in Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, SMLXL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1996) pp 832-859

[13] Of course, The Jerde Partnership has also designed a number of the casinos on the Vegas Strip. For a description of recent Jerde projects, see Francis Anderton, You Are Here: The Jerde Partnership International (New York: Phaidon Press, 2000)

[14] Again, see Rem Koolhaas, “Atlanta” in Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, SMLXL (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1996) pp 832-859, his lecture “The Metropolis and Big Buildings” at the conference “Learning from the Mall of America” hosted by the University of Minnesota, 22 November 1997 (cited by Margaret Crawford in “The Architect and The Mall”), or his forthcoming studies with on shopping with the Harvard Project on the City.

[15] See Michelle Provoost, Bernard Colenbradner, and Floris Alkemade, Dutchtown: A City Centre Design by OMA / Rem Koolhaas (Rotterdam: Netherlands Architecture Institute, 1999)

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One response to “Locating Victor Gruen

  1. Pingback: Never Built Glendale | Delirious LA·

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