The Gruen Effect

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
We’ve all done it. You go to the store for a pair of socks and come out with a mega-pack of soda. You go out to get shampoo and come back with a fancy razor. It’s hard to stick to what’s on your list. I challenge you to go to Ikea and leave with only the thing for which you came. Just try to buy a lamp without buying a cutting board. It can’t be done!

Avery Trufelman:
You absolutely knew this, but retail spaces are designed to do this to you.

Roman Mars:
Producer Avery Trufelman.

Avery Trufelman:
The store is trying to look so beautiful, so welcoming. The items so enticingly displayed, in such vast quantity that you cannot help but be drawn in and then drawn towards something you don’t need.

Roman Mars:
This is the Gruen effect.

Jeff Hardwick:
The Gruen Effect, or sometimes called the Gruen transfer, it’s that moment when you walk into a store and the design of the store is so overwhelming and dazzling that you begin mindlessly consuming.

Roman Mars:
The Gruen effect is named after Victor Gruen.

Jeff Hardwick:
So who was Gruen? He’s a complicated, complex, contradictory guy.

Avery Trufelman:
Jeff Hardwick wrote the biography of Victor Gruen who was born Viktor Grünbaum.

Jeff Hardwick:
Born in Vienna in 1904, and he is Jewish in Vienna, leaves in 38.

Roman Mars:
Good call, Grünbaum.

Jeff Hardwick:
And makes his way, eventually, to New York City.

Avery Trufelman:
Once in New York, Gruen made a name for himself designing shops and retail spaces and this was a particular challenge during the lean years of the late thirties.

Roman Mars:
People had no money. They just wouldn’t go into shops at all.

Avery Trufelman:
But Gruen figured out how to lure people inside. Basically by using amazingly appealing window displays.

Jeff Hardwick:
You would go into these window display areas, look at jewelry or handbags or chocolates and then you’d be tempted and lured into the store. That’s the Gruen effect.

Roman Mars:
Gruen argued that good design equaled good profits.

Jeff Hardwick:
And he equates those as one to one. If you do more, people are going to stay there longer and spend more money.

Roman Mars:
Gruen started making storefronts all over the country and he moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1941.

Avery Trufelman:
Gruen was from the beautiful city of Vienna, which is lined with shops and greenery and places to gather. He saw how most Americans were just riding around in their cars all the time, cut off from the city and from each other. And he knew this problem was even worse in the suburbs.

Roman Mars:
The suburbs lacked what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls third places. Think of home as your primary place, work as your second place. And that third place is where you go to build community, to hang out, to simply feel connected.

Avery Trufelman:
Gruen wanted to give the American suburbs that third place.

Victor Gruen:
“The image of living in closer communication with other people. The image of having the possibility to walk to one place to another.”

Roman Mars:
That’s archival footage of Gruen from the University of Wyoming.

Victor Gruen:
“The image of participating in events outside of your own little house has become a desired reflector.”

Avery Trufelman:
Victor Gruen imagined designing an environment full of greenery and shops, an indoor plaza, a modern forum, an island of connection in the middle of the sprawl. One that would only be accessible to pedestrians.

Roman Mars:
Because, oh man, Victor Gruen hated cars.

Jeff Hardwick:
He rants and raves against cars continually.

Victor Gruen:
“One technologic event has swamped us. That is the event of the rubber-wheeled vehicle, the private car, the truck, the trailer as means of mass transportation. And their threat to human life and health is just as great as that of exposed sewer.”

Roman Mars:
It’s hard to understand him with the tape hiss and the accent, but what Gruen is saying there is, “The threat of cars to human life and health is as great as the exposed sewer.” So Gruen’s objective was to get people to park their cars far away from these third places and walk and stroll within them.

Avery Trufelman:
As Gruen saw it, his structure would be an architectural panacea. It would remedy environmental, commercial and sociological problems with the creation of a single building.

Roman Mars:
And so Gruen presented his solution for America: the shopping mall.

Avery Trufelman:
Gruen actually wanted the shopping mall to be more than just shops.

Jeff Hardwick:
He wants them to be mixed-use. He wants apartments and offices or medical centers attached to the shopping center. He makes cases to have childcare facilities, libraries, bomb shelters, a whole range of different functions.

Roman Mars:
And Gruen dreamed and wrote about the enclosed shopping center way before he ever built one.

Avery Trufelman:
Until he finally lands a commission for the very first indoor, climate-controlled shopping center.

Roman Mars:
In Edina, Minnesota. A place not known for its welcoming climate.

Archival Tape:
“Southdale represents an entirely new and dramatic concept in retail merchandising.”

Roman Mars:
Southdale Center opened in 1956 and it was the mother of all shopping malls, seriously. Gruen’s subsequent malls were all mostly based off this original Edina design.

Jeff Hardwick:
When he’s doing the first enclosed shopping mall, Southdale in Edina, Minnesota but Gruen really emphasizes and what the media ends up celebrating is this massive center court.

Archival Tape:
“This court is enclosed and skylighted so that not only the stores but the shopping sidewalks, in fact the whole area in front of the stores, is air-conditioned and temperature-controlled. A year-round climate of 72 degrees.”

Jeff Hardwick:
For Gruen, he’s creating a town square.

Avery Trufelman:
Southdale Center wasn’t quite mixed-use, like Gruen imagined. People didn’t live in it and something like a daycare center or a post office couldn’t afford that rent. But Southdale did have local shops of all kinds and plenty of shoppers.

Archival Tape:
“Southdale, tomorrow’s main street today.”

Avery Trufelman:
But from the outside, Southdale Center is not much to look at. I mean it looks like a mall. It’s an ominous, amorphous boxy shape.

Roman Mars:
In designing these shopping malls, Gruen and ended his razzle-dazzle storefronts and window displays.

Avery Trufelman:
Southdale hardly has exterior windows at all.

Jeff Hardwick:
He moves away from the original concept that, in some ways they’re going to attract by being ostentatious.

Avery Trufelman:
The draw now is what’s inside the mall.

Jeff Hardwick:
In Gruen’s mind, it should have pretty much of a blank facade, no signage on it, and then you enter that space and then you walk into the shopping center and that’s that sort of transformational Gruen transfer moment.

Roman Mars:
Malls are designed as these sort of suburban pilgrimage sites, which of course, you have to drive to.

Jeff Hardwick:
It’s a commitment. You’re driving 20, 30 minutes, you’re parking, you’re getting out of your car, you’re walking in.

Avery Trufelman:
Gruen knew that Americans love to drive. So the mall was his compromise. You had to walk and stroll once you were inside, but the customers could drive over.

Jeff Hardwick:
So he just hates the automobile, but he never will acknowledge that he’s creating these shopping centers which are largely only accessible through cars.

Roman Mars:
Gruen was right. Americans loved driving to his malls. He got commissions for them all over the country.

Avery Trufelman:
But over time, Gruen sees that in erecting these malls – these tiny suburban cities – he’s helping to drain the real cities. And so for a while, Gruen shifts his focus to urban planning.

Victor Gruen:
“We went to rescue our cities, which because we have neglected are threatening to go to pieces.”

Jeff Hardwick:
And so Gruen ends up being involved in urban renewal projects where he draws directly on some of the lessons learned in his suburban shopping malls and proposes bringing them back downtown.

Roman Mars:
Municipalities hire Gruen and associates to make their downtowns more like malls.

Avery Trufelman:
Gruen turns city centers into pedestrian-only spaces, full of public art and greenery and lined with shops. He made plans for Boulder, Fresno, Fort Worth, Kalamazoo. Actually his plan for Kalamazoo, became the first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in the U.S.

Roman Mars:
He even had a concept to turn Fifth Avenue into a pedestrian mall.

Jeff Hardwick:
He gets Manhattan to close down Fifth Avenue for a couple of weeks as a test.

Avery Trufelman:
But a city’s downtown is not a mall. It’s not so easily “fixed”, not so perfectly designed and controlled. Cities weren’t going to become the pleasant, sterile shopping environments that Gruen wanted them to be.

Jeff Hardwick:
After the riots of the 60s, he’s shocked and sort of taken aback by those and was very much unprepared for them. And I think that may have been somewhat of his reason for the retreat to Vienna.

Roman Mars:
In 1968, Gruen moved from Los Angeles back to Vienna, back to the greenery and plazas he had been trying to imitate.

Avery Trufelman:
But he could not escape his own creation.

Jeff Hardwick:
There’s a shopping mall that’s being built on the edge of Vienna, and he points to that as how that shopping mall is destroying downtown Vienna.

Avery Trufelman:
In Gruen’s mind, Vienna was already perfectly planned. It didn’t need a mall like the broken American suburbs did. As he saw it, his original vision had been completely skewed.

Jeff Hardwick:
After being in Vienna about 10 years, he gives a speech and writes a paper where he says, “I refuse to pay alimony for these bastard developments.”

Roman Mars:
Victor Gruen, the mall maker, became the foremost mall critic.

Avery Trufelman:
And meanwhile, America’s love affair with malls continued.

MONTAGE OF CLIPS
Avril Lavigne: “Do you want to crash the mall?”
Mallrats: “What’s a pretty girl like you doing sitting alone in the middle of this monument to consumerism?”
Robin Sparkles (Let’s Go to the Mall): “Let’s go to the mall, everybody.”

Ellen Dunham Jones:
I know I remember in my own experience growing up in New Jersey when the first mall opened anywhere near me when I was in high school.

Avery Trufelman:
This is Ellen Dunham Jones. She’s a professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech.

Ellen Dunham Jones:
It was cool to go to the mall, but I mean literally it was air-conditioned. My home wasn’t air-conditioned. My school wasn’t air-conditioned. Today, most of us are spending our days and our nights in completely thermally-controlled environments. A lot of us are craving being able to be outdoors.

Roman Mars:
In recent decades, our tastes have veered away from climate-controlled environments and away from the indoor mall.

Ellen Dunham Jones:
Mall construction actually peaked in 1990. It’s been declining ever since, and by 2006 is really the last brand new kind of standard, conventional mall that’s been built in the U.S.

Avery Trufelman:
And a new product has entered the scene. A kind of shopping center that the ICSC, the International Council of Shopping Centers calls, a lifestyle center.

Ellen Dunham Jones:
Lifestyle centers started appearing in the 90s and they tend to be open-air so you don’t have that roof anymore, but you have a lot of boutiques and a lot more restaurants.

Roman Mars:
Lifestyle centers are malls disguised as main streets and even though they’re full of chain stores, lifestyle centers are sunny and walkable and bustling, and kind of what Victor Gruen imagined.

Avery Trufelman:
And some of the old-style indoor shopping malls are being repurposed.

Ellen Dunham Jones:
Several of them are being retrofitted into Hispanic community centers.

Avery Trufelman:
Like in Plaza Fiesta, outside of Atlanta.

Ellen Dunham Jones:
A lot of the stores have been cut up into much smaller mom-and-pop, small shops selling Western wear, selling quinceanera dresses.

Avery Trufelman:
Plaza Fiesta also has a steady events calendar of performances.

Roman Mars:
And this too was kind of what Gruen imagined. These sort of community malls are truly places to gather and spend money in the shell of the failed design.

Jeff Hardwick:
Most people, architectural historians especially, think Gruen was a horrible architect and you know, I can see where they’re coming from. I mean his exteriors of his buildings are uniformly boring, but for Gruen that wasn’t the point. It was the interiors that were really the point.

Avery Trufelman:
Those fountains, the cheesy statues, the elevator music piped in through all those speakers. Those are all part of the Gruen effect. And they helped turn shopping malls into spaces where we felt comfortable staying and spending time and money.

Roman Mars:
A lot of the original indoor malls are abandoned now. Seriously, like some of them are growing weeds inside. There’s a website that’s become sort of a graveyard of dead malls called deadmalls.com. Users can log on and submit stories of the dead malls in their towns. There are around 450 malls listed there, submitted as sort of oral histories.

Ellen Dunham Jones:
In particular, what’s interesting about deadmalls.com is how nostalgic a lot of this is and it does make sense. In so many suburban communities, the mall became the de facto town center. It was really the center of social life other than the school. I would be very sad if all of Victor Gruen’s malls were demolished. We should certainly work to preserve, at least one.

Roman Mars:
The most famous mall in Minnesota may be the Mall of America with its rollercoaster, its zipline, its aquarium and waterpark, but the most architecturally significant mall, its grandfather, is the one that’s just a 12-minute drive away in Edina.

Roman Mars:
Jeff Hardwick’s book is called ‘Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream,” and Ellen Dunham Jones’s book is called ‘Retrofitting Suburbia.” Special thanks to Claire Doherty for research help.

  1. Dietrich Gruen

    this is a wonderful sociological study of what makes for community, and with “my name” on it, no less. This macro-view and century-long history of an iconic idea and human need is spot on. I did not see this development coming, nor see in my rear view mirror its aftermath, as I lived in the midst of all this social transformation. I am also curious what similar historians will think of online shopping, which has replaced the malls for many folks, but has further robbed us of real those connections.

  2. Gruen has been a fascination of mine for a few years now and I couldn’t even finish this podcast before commenting. Gruen not only designed the first indoor suburban shopping mall where I live in the Twin Cities, MN, he also designed the first URBAN indoor shopping mall where I grew up, in Rochester, NY. That mall, Midtown Plaza, was demolished several years ago, ironically in order to make way for an urban “lifestyle center”. I don’t know if that project ever really got going, but lifestyle centers are popping up everywhere in the Twin Cities. The saga continues!

    1. Avery

      Hey Jane,

      Interesting. Thanks for bringing this up.

      According to the source cited in that wikipedia entry (http://mall-hall-of-fame.blogspot.com/2006_11_01_archive.html), it says

      “Where was America’s first fully-enclosed, climate-controlled shopping center? Most mid-20th century historians would cite SOUTHDALE CENTER, in Edina, Minnesota, as the nation’s first interior mall. This complex opened for business October 8, 1956. However, a little-known retail establishment in Wisconsin’s Fox Cities area could actually qualify as the first. VALLEY FAIR was officially dedicated March 10, 1955, well over a year before business began at Minnesota’s SOUTHDALE.”

      I just wonder why this article says that Valley Fair “could” qualify and what condition is keeping it from being more widely accepted as THE first.

      Any ideas? Curious to know.

    2. aka_darrell

      Someone will always find a ”the first” before the ”the first” in the article.

  3. I live in Hungary and I don’t really have anything nice to say about shopping malls in my area. Sometimes I take a trip to Austria and the differences in consumer culture really baffle me. The kind of social bonding you’re talking about can prevail given the right conditions. Good products + the design of the place obviously. I like to fantasize about getting a time-machine to get back to America in the 70s (or 60s) to visit some malls.

  4. Another way to create a third place is to re-purpose existing public space with a story. San Francisco’s Games of Nonchalance (aka “The Jejune Institute”) did this with scavenger hunts, a pirate radio station in Dolores Park, a boom box in a Oakland’s Chapel of the Chimes, and they even rented an office space.

    Some recent phone apps like Detour take this concept in a different direction with non-fiction stories overlapped on to the public space with a walking tour.

  5. Thanks for the great story Avery! One very slight correction – June Williamson deserves credit as co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia with me. We’re working on a follow-up book now – trying to tell just some of the stories of the 223 malls, 120 office parks, and countless big boxes, strip malls, golf courses, and garden apartment complexes that are continuing to be retrofitted – hopefully into places Gruen would smile at.

    1. Avery

      Thanks Ellen- I’ll add June Williamson to the credits now. My apologies!

  6. Kevin

    What’s the song that begins playing at 14:19? I haven’t noticed it in previous episodes. I like it.

  7. It seems that Gruen’s imagined mixed-use developments have taken on a new life here in Manila, as every new condominium building comes with a mall, and already-existing malls have churches in them. And you can’t swing a cat without hitting a mall in Manila, with more popping up every day, contributing to more car use instead of less. Gruen would probably be horrified.

  8. Sunny

    The last new mall was built in 2006 – until Sarasota’s University Town Center Mall which opened in 2014, a traditional, brand new built-from-scratch enclosed mall.

  9. RJP

    Just a few days ago I gave a talk on digital identity and third places at a technology in higher education conference.

    My narrative backdrop for that discussion was the story of Victor Greun’s (failed??) vision for creating civic spaces in the suburbs. But Victor’s story is more than a cautionary fable for us technology architects. The economic and functional dynamics of the internet and the suburban sprawl are remarkably similar – decentralising forces undermining the integrity of genuinely public spaces.

    I work in higher education, and universities in particular have a long history of being third places.

    As we are taking them online, we are using systems that are designed to see their constituents solely as customers. We are at real risk converting our universities into online shopping centers.

    If you know the story behine the Gruen Transfer, you can better understand the need for the Windhover Transition..

    https://idcubed.org/home_page_feature/the-windhover-transition/

  10. Ekoo

    The Fulton Mall in Fresno is being removed very soon. Thank you for providing some backstory. Our final for my Photography class was to shoot it before it’s removal. So sad.

  11. Josh G., a fan

    I found Roman Mars saying “Good call Grünbaum” to be a bit flippant. I guess it was intended to serves as shorthand to reveal that Gruen had changed his name and was fleeing the Nazis, but even a podcast as short as 99% has time to address the Holocaust by name.

  12. Jane Oliver

    Hey Avery, I’m just now seeing your response to my earlier post. I’m not sure why the Valley Fair Mall isn’t more widely recognized as the first shopping mall. It may be one of two reasons: 1. Valley Fair had businesses with both indoor and outdoor entrances or 2. it’s simply not as well known.

    I had the opportunity to walk through the Valley Fair a couple times before it was demolished. It really was a lovely structure but alas, it was done in by the popular and soulless Fox River Mall.

  13. How does the Southdale Center predate the Northland Center outside Detroit which was opened in 1952? Is there some technical distinction?

    1. David Smiley

      Northland opened in 1954 and was outdoor. Southdale opened in 1956 and was enclosed and air conditioned.

  14. Mark

    Good stuff but Kalamazoo was not the 1st outdoor, pedestrian mall in the US.
    The Plaza district in Kansas City beat him by a few decades; the mixed use developments of today show more of the Plaza’s aesthetic than any of the post- WW II indoor malls.

  15. Ed

    I’m from Fresno, California where Gruen designed the Fulton Mall along with landscape designer Garrett Eckbo. The sad thing is that it’s not a box mall but an open air pedestrian mall. The City of Fresno is about to tear out the mall and put in a street! Just when everyone wants and needs a place to walk, shop, and relax outdoors. Check out the story at SaveTheFultonMall.org

  16. sasaquatch

    why was there no talk about how malls gave rise the the big box stores like walmart??

  17. bootsboneromanov

    Malls existed long before Gruen, advertising long before Bernays; but Bernays and Gruen rewrote the scripts for the modern female world: carriages, horseless carriages, then automobiles. London, Milan, Boston, Providence … all major cities had indoor markets (all of these surviving). Turning them into ‘newmarkets’ (as Ed Logue did in Boston and Baltimore) was the ‘innovation’. One has to look at the female ‘shopaholic’, then cower to her power. What the newmarkets got rid of was HAGGLING. The price (parking lots and vulgarity) was awesome but undoubtedly AWFUL. But whatever gives mesdames more time to look in the mirror is worthwhile. (There’s so much work to be done!)

  18. sg

    Surprised you wouldn’t mention the much older documentary movie by Anette Baldauf and Katharina Weingartner with the SAME title…

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