Babes in Toyland


By Benjamin Schwarz

November 2006  ATLANTIC


It’s this country’s favorite form of public interaction and, along with watching television, of recreation. It claims more workers, and fills more space, than any other pursuit—considerably more nonresidential construction is devoted exclusively to it, though you can also do it in museums, houses of worship, airports, and hospitals. It wards off depression, emotional and economic. It reflects and promotes subtle and seismic shifts in societal attitudes, so it’s at once an unstoppable engine of change and among the most fickle, unpredictable, and vulnerable of human activities. It’s the emblem of modernity. Shopping. And in its voracious way it’s also become an increasingly fashionable subject for books.

To be sure, novelists have long probed the topic: Balzac, in a celebrated passage in Lost Illusions, conveyed the fresh seductiveness of the goods on display in the wooden galleries of the Palais-Royal; Flaubert dissected Emma Bovary’s shopping-induced raptures; Zola, in The Ladies’ Paradise, his fictionalized account of Paris’s Le Bon Marche, portrayed both the nitty-gritty workings and the intoxicating allure of that new type of emporium, the department store; Dreiser depicted the novel and intimate pull that consumer goods exercised on the purchaser as his protagonist wandered The Fair, Chicago’s lower-middle-class department store, in Sister Carrie. And shopping is the subject of what has emerged as the greatest ruin of twentieth-century cultural criticism: Walter Benjamin’s pastiche, The Arcades Project—an undeveloped and, at more than 1,000 pages, unfinished (!) minute examination of nineteenth- century Paris’s glass-roofed shopping galleries (distant but distinct precursors of the shopping mall) and of the emergence of consumer capitalism.

But thanks to the cultural- and women’s- studies fevers of the 1980s and their concomitant—the typical humanities professor’s quaint desire to be both a hipster and a scold—the flow of books is ceaseless. Just on the history of department stores there are more than a dozen titles, including Erika Rappaport’s pioneering Shopping for Pleasure, which cogently argues, to put it far too simplistically, that the provision of ladies’ toilets in nineteenth-century London department stores helped make it possible for women to enter the public sphere–after all, a respectable woman could hardly go about town if there was no place for her to relieve herself–and hence helped catalyze the suffragette movement. Not surprisingly, most of the books are god-awful, though the exceptions include Rachel Bowlby’s witty, incisive Carried Away, a feminist, psychoanalytically inflected history of and meditation on the subject, a work that’s exquisitely sensitive to the exhilarating and stupefying nature of the activity it exposes.

Certainly the grooviest of the tomes is the nearly six-pound, 800-page Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping, the product of a Harvard-based venture led by starchitect Rem Koolhaas—whose showmanship contains more than a whiff of quackery—that explores the relationship between shopping and “the urban condition.” Engorged with photos, collages, and maps; cacophonous, often illuminating, sometimes misleading charts and graphs; and forty-two essays by sixteen architects and critics, the book is as clamorous as Koolhaas’s architecture. (Some of the essays, such as those by Sze Tsung Leong and Chuihua Judy Chung, are sharp and quirky, others not so, including Koolhaas’s own pretentious, incoherent contribution.) In its chaotic range and ambition, and in its focus both on the broadest societal and economic developments and on minutiae (foot- and car-traffic patterns, marketing techniques, the innovations—lighting, sprinkler systems, sidewalks, escalators, air conditioning—that enhance shopping’s scale and scope), it’s almost certainly inspired, for better and worse, by The Arcades Project.

That so exalted a figure in the field of architecture would devote himself to so exhaustive a treatise on shopping highlights the symbiosis between that form of art and that form of commerce, a relationship both long-standing—Sullivan, Burnham, Loos, Breuer, Mies, Pei, Philip Johnson, and Gehry allJOHNSELLERPAPER754 built stores or malls—and now trendy, as celebrity architects trip over themselves to build emporiums for celebrity fashion designers: Koolhaas (Prada), Gehry (Issey Miyake), and Tadao Ando (Armani). But the architect that the Harvard guide features most prominently is Victor Gruen (1903–1980), a Jewish socialist Viennese refugee from the Nazis, who is referred to with ritual frequency as the father of the shopping mall, and hence as the man who changed fundamentally the American landscape and way of life.

An astonishing number of books and articles have been written about malls (the Harvard guide alone has eight essays largely or wholly about them; at least five books of bibliographies on them have been published; and at least ten novels are set in them). As the locus of 75 percent of total U.S. retail spending in 2005, they’re obviously intrinsically important, and criticizing them (as many of the seminal books and articles on them do) is an efficient way for too many writers, especially academics, to establish their progressive/philo-“urban”/philo-“ethnic”/anti–Leave It to Beaver credentials. But they’re such an attractive subject mainly because, as “pyramids of the boom-years” (to quote a 1970s Joan Didion essay on them), they illuminate the triumph of mass-market consumerism, the burgeoning of suburbia, the decline of downtowns, and the rise of various federal programs and policies—the FHA, the Interstate Highway System, the Internal Revenue Code (historians and urban planners have spilled an obscene amount of ink debating the extent to which the 1954 tax legislation allowing for accelerated depreciation on real-estate investments was responsible for the mushrooming of malls in the 1950s and ’60s)—that nurtured and hastened those developments.

Given these trends, the mall would almost certainly have developed without Gruen, but biography is often the most accessible way to digest such otherwise recondite subjects, which is probably why two studies of him have appeared in as many years. (Gruen himself wrote prolifically, yet with the exception of his fascinatingly detailed Shopping Town USA, for years the bible of the mall and shopping-center industry, which he cowrote with his business partner, Larry Smith, his oeuvre suffers from chronic self- congratulation and Mitteleuropean gaseousness.) M. Jeffrey Hardwick’s Mall Maker, a deeply researched (the detailed endnotes are marvelous), conventional narrative, concentrates on Gruen’s impact on American society, but almost completely ignores his architectural and design achievements, a subject that Alex Wall, a Dutch architect and urban planner, examines more closely in his Victor Gruen, an unusually handsome and well-illustrated book.

Although the idea of a planned shopping center, managed by a single firm and meant to serve car-driving suburbanites, was in place by the mid-1920s, when Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, the first such entity, opened (the primary lesson learned by J. C. Nichols, who developed the gorgeously ornate outdoor complex, was to forget about elaborate decor and instead concentrate resources to provide copious parking), the refinement of that concept was essentially arrested by the Depression and the war. Gruen’s genius was to develop it to perfection, in two strokes. He’d spent his first years in America designing swanky Fifth Avenue specialty stores. Incorporating highly innovative, recessed fronts, he had created a permeable threshold, bringing the store out to the sidewalk and the sidewalk into the store. The new facades, Lewis Mumford fulminated, lured in customers like “a pitcher plant captures flies: with these storefronts Gruen had won what he recognized as a “psychological contest,” by seducing the customer not to overcome, but to be oblivious to, the “phobia of entering a store.”

When, in 1954, he finished his first center (Northland, outside Detroit)—an open-air complex with nearly a hundred shops, and with the first suburban branch of Hudson’s, the venerable department store, as its “anchor—Gruen again proved sensitive, perhaps deviously so, to shoppers’ psychology and desires. He had recognized that the colossal new suburban population, which had grown by 43 percent in just the previous six years, was largely bereft not only of commercial life but also of community life. Shopping centers, he fervently believed, would provide it, and would thus translate the urbanity of his beloved Vienna to the suburbs. With its auditoriums and club rooms (think coffee percolators and earnest talks on space exploration, The Family of Man, and the UN), Northland’s civic functions were no doubt somewhat stilted and artificial, but the clean-lined, modernist center—constructed with a remarkably high level of detail, craft, and finish—had colonnaded walks, sophisticated and pleasing graphic design, playful fountains, elaborately landscaped plazas and courts (Gruen grasped that Northland’s most important feature was not the buildings but the space between them), and a cornucopia of whimsical, high- middlebrow sculptures, some of which had to be discovered by pedestrians, as they were partially hidden in the plantings (Gruen’s budget for them was a then-staggering $200,000). It was a delightful place to stroll (Northland and Gruen’s few other outdoor malls, most notably Phoenix’s Maryvale—alas, all but ignored by Hardwick and Wall—are, along with his New York boutiques, the architect’s aesthetic triumphs).

detroit_paper9aBut what neither of these perceptive books sufficiently emphasizes is who was doing the strolling (and who was finding sculptures in the plantings): Gruen understood that mothers and their young children were suburbia’s nearly sole daytime inhabitants, and that they—mostly unmoored from their extended families and thus most in need of the community, or at least the public, life that shopping centers promised—would be by a long way Northland’s most frequent visitors. Bowlby’s assertion that “the history of shopping is largely a history of women” is made more comprehensible in this context by the fact that as early as 1963, according to Betty Friedan, women held 75 percent of purchasing power. As Chung analyzes in the Harvard guide, “Public space has been formed—directly, indirectly, and more significantly than previously understood—by the interaction of women and shopping.” To grasp the form and functions that shopping centers and malls have taken, and especially the part they played in mid-twentieth- century American life, it’s not enough to assess, as Hardwick and Wall astutely do, the intentions and strategies of their primary creator. Like the great nineteenth- century urban department stores, these temples of consumption responded adroitly to the needs, values, and aspirations of their primary customers, even down to the configuration of the parking spaces (a subject on which mall designers have always lavished exhaustive attention), which were made unusually wide specifically to accommodate women drivers, many of whom were newly licensed.

The legions of critics of these centers, such as the historian Kenneth Jackson, like to point out derisively that in contrast to the vaunted vitality and diversity of the urban streetscape, the centers “cater exclusively to middle-class tastes” and that the “theme of their design is enclosure, protection, and control.” Precisely. Enclosure, protection, and control were just what a mother with young children in tow was looking for. But Gruen’s great insight, and his great advance from those seductive New York boutiques, was to recognize that the same qualities that lured customers into a commercial space could also keep them there, and that if they simply spent more time in that space—even hours consumed in the aimless wandering that children favor—they would ultimately spend more money. People came to Northland to be enriched or entertained, or to discover sculptures. But, as Gruen knew, “[they] did one other thing also. They shopped.” Before Northland opened, sales figures for it were projected to be $35 million in its first year and $50 million by its fifth; in fact, it brought in $50 million its first year and $100 million by its third.

The ideas put into practice at Northland would eventually alter not only the way Americans shopped but also the ways they understood and experienced the purposes and boundaries of the public and commercial spheres. But Gruen wouldn’t fully realize these ideas until he built his second shopping center, Southdale, outside Minneapolis. There he resolved several problems that had limited retailing’s full fruition, many of which hadn’t even been recognized as problems. With its scorching summers and gelid winters, the area around Southdale, Gruen determined, allowed for only 126 days a year in which customers could be expected to drive to a shopping center and meander. The solution was obvious: the first enclosed shopping center. An innovative heat pump (one of the largest in the world, a single system that ventilated, cooled, and heated) kept the mall at a constant temperature of 72 degrees (Gruen claimed that the savings in construction costs—the storefronts could now be made of light and inexpensive materials—would pay for the climate control). Air conditioning had already proved crucial to the development of the department store. Besides permitting customers to remain in fd1576c4d8c7fe6bddefdf6764aec287the store for longer periods of time throughout the year, it also allowed the building to be larger, which meant not only that more goods could be displayed and sold but also that the store would be more difficult to exit, again creating more opportunity for customers to spend. But the enclosed mall with a garden court at its center—which attracted customers with what Gruen called its “eternal spring,” and which obviously afforded more “enclosure, protection, and control” than an open-air center—trapped shoppers inside a space larger and even less escapable than any single department store.

In a triumph of cooperative capitalism, the competitor to Southdale’s anchor department store was persuaded to locate at the opposite end of the same center; the two rivals together attracted more people to the mall, and made the smaller stores adjacent to the anchors central, rather than peripheral. The increased bustle and density (to heat and cool it efficiently, Gruen built Southdale on two levels; it therefore occupied a far smaller footprint than did open-air centers) in itself attracted yet more people, who stayed longer and bought more.

Gruen thus hit upon a winning formula that he and a small number of other shopping-center architects and developers would replicate and expand on in increasingly tatty versions throughout the country, as nifty speckled tile floors gave way to cheap carpeting that would eventually spread from floors onto walls and columns, and as cheesy and soon- chipped molded plastic replaced nearly everything else. The Gruen formula is tired now, but it had a great run—he alone would ultimately build 45 million square feet of shopping area.

By the late 1960s, Gruen had begun to forsake his creation, and had in fact joined in the chorus of critics who blamed the mall for suburban sprawl and an atomized society. His solution—which has evolved from forlorn pedestrian malls, formed when such cities as Kalamazoo and Fresno closed a few downtown blocks to traffic and local merchants ponied up for some potted plants and multicolored walkways, to such city/shopping hybrids as Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade—essentially involved moving the mall (the suburban version of the urban) to the city. Of course, these pedestrian-oriented shopping zones have proved so popular that developers are now transplanting the urban version of the suburban version of the urban to the suburbs. Shopping is ever adaptable.


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