Wednesday, January 27, 2016


The Gruen vision

Victor Gruen promoted them as the new villages, places that replicated the qualities found in small, historic market towns. They were described as pleasant, agreeable places free of vehicles, like the old town centres of Europe; with spaces where folk could shop, socialise and sip coffee in a humane and sensitive place shaped for people. It was a reaction to the congested city centres of the fifties and sixties that saw the old buildings demolished to be replaced with the new 'International'-imaged structures that promoted slick height and gleaming glass. The inner city was being transformed into a no-man's-land, with busy, congested streets framed by stark, anonymous masses that concealed entries and denied any gesture towards public convenience. The city was interested in statements on streets that were a-buzz with polluting traffic seeking speedy thoroughfares and convenient places to park. This was the period of freeway building throughout the world. Wilbur Smith had prepared the report that would see Brisbane's CBD separated from its river with a massive freeway built over the water. It aimed to solve the inner-city traffic problems, but only created new concerns.

Vehicle-free spaces

Civic place was being destroyed by the blind enthusiasm for the new. Grand old structures were demolished overnight without a thought for any future but that perceived for the moment. Little wonder that the dream of a quiet, green and sunny shopping centre, where there would be no vehicles to fight, or glass towers to blind, became so alluring. Peace and convenience at last. One could use the new freeways to get to 'Nirvana' quickly and efficiently. This was the era of time and motion studies too. Victor Gruen promoted his vision of a shopping centre so successfully that the model has been repeated throughout the world: but have things changed for the better?

Pedestrian places between retail outlets

It seems that like most grand visions, it is the cheapest and simplest, the most simplistic version of their aspects that proliferate. Complexities and subtleties are abandoned. One can look at le Corbusier's Marseilles apartment block, Unité d'habitation, to understand this. His design managed sound separation, provided through ventilation for each unit with different aspects, and offered social options for shopping and recreation. The world is now full of seemingly similar high-rise apartment blocks that use the model as a broad diagram only, providing just the basic needs in structure and space for residents as cheaply as possible. Anything more is considered a waste of money. The social impacts of these places has been seen in the Pruitt-Igoe development in St. Louis, Missouri that had to be demolished; and in similar developments in London and Glasgow, and many other cities that hope to be demolished if they have not already been flattened.

Has the Gruen shopping centre vision suffered likewise? Such shopping centres now litter the fringes of nearly every town and city in the world. They, like the apartment block concept, have mostly been built to incorporate the ideal as economically as possible. One does not want too much expensive exuberance for an ideal when 'near enough' will do and the profits will be better. Who'll know the difference? So it is that we get shopping areas shaped for private mass commerce located in city precincts to suit the shopping centre rather than the town or the street. Instead of spaces with European town centre quality, we get arcades set out as mazes, filled with shop fronts blaring and blazing, collected and categorised for commercial efficacy. The internal 'squares' become promotional areas for entertainment or sprawling eating areas. Rarely is the place made for simple social convenience and enjoyment: to let folk enjoy just being there. Hype is used everywhere to tell visitors what is expected of them, how to act, and where: getting and spending is good! The ad hoc and informal has no place in this hyped economy.

But this is the interior. The exterior is more of a problem. Gruen envisaged these centres free of vehicles, but this was only after patrons had driven to them and parked. By attracting more and more people with the idea of a pleasant shopping precinct, an event that is now called a shopping 'experience' – see: , the Gruen model had to provide more than adequate car parking around the idyllic, vehicle-free inner zone. It is this external, brutal blandness that creates the problems for these centres. Some effort is made internally to recreate an 'urban village' feel, but externally, the whole relationship with place is forgotten. These centres are self-centred: they do nothing for the regions around them. They turn their backs to their neighbours and offer literally nothing for the urban character of place. They are desert islands and can be seen to be this in the cityscape with their different scales, sizes, services and materials.

Being commercial enterprises, they are constructed as economically as possible. If an effort has to be made to cajole patrons in some seemingly sensitive manner, then money is spent internally, tarting up the spaces to make them appear 'attractive' – different is good enough. Externally we see blank sheds, a collection of buildings so large that they create their own scale in the pattern of place. They arrogantly ignore every quality of city/town character that the original vision saw as being so attractive. The Gruen-styled centres sought and promoted qualities of shopping space found so alluring in the old Medieval towns, but when it came to constructing these centres, no consideration was given to their broader context, their neighbours. They were and are just interiors, nothing more – stage sets; places for performances. The sad irony is that the vision based its dream on beautiful civic place, but the implementation of this concept completely ignored the city it was to service, its urban character and structure: its place. The land was purchased, cleared and the centres were built – from inside out. The exterior areas only had to offer sufficient, convenient car parking to provide easy access to the interiors, nothing more. The buildings only had to provide shelter to the designer spaces and walls for signage. This is all that was done, to the detriment of the related regions and their contexts.

The interiors all look and feel identical - open, light interiors with various levels and escalators

A couple of smaller centres have attempted to integrate into their regions, but these have their own problems. In Lerwick, the small Toll Clock Shopping Centre uses the shed image of waterside places to try to match its context. Here we see a set of gable forms stretch across a car parking space. These masses are clad in brightly coloured metal and trimmed likewise, to look 'industrial' like the sheds around the harbour nearby. It helps a little, but the open car parking spaces change the scale of place, and make the illusion a more difficult pretense to accept without any questions.

Toll Clock Shopping Centre, Lerwick

Toll Clock Shopping Centre from the harbour

Toll Clock Shopping Centre car park

The shopping centre in Tórshavn in the Faeroes attempts a similar disguise. It breaks its large mass down by fragmenting the roof line into a set of gables too. It is difficult to read as a clustering of small sheds, because the building mass is so large. Tórshavn is a gathering of small buildings. Even the big hotels that have been constructed in town have tried to disguise their mass. Here different finishes and wall colourings try to cheat the eye – usually unsuccessfully. One wonders if good, honest expression might not be better than a failure to cheat, when one sees the large mass highlighted by the ineffective camouflage.


Shopping centre, Tórshavn
Harbourside building, Tórshavn

Typical 'Gruen' interior space

These efforts to manage shopping centre impacts only point out the serious problem that the 'sheltered, internal streets for people' vision has created. Sadly, it is a vision that suffers from its own inherent problems. Internally the large shopping centres frequently fail to express anything but private place. These 'public' areas never are. There is something essential in a city that holds a vibrancy in its necessary diversity, differences that are there because there are essential divergences everywhere, on all levels and in all details. In shopping centres, there is the one owner/manager over-viewing and policing everything, making demands on all tenants and patrons under the illusion of offering the freedom of the town to all – the right to walk, saunter or to run down a street in a city or town whenever, in my public space, the only shared space that I can call mine in the city or town: see -

The Gruen vision can be seen to hold a fatal flaw in its vision that offers false hopes and illusions. It might seek to provide a more wholesome environment for shoppers, but in doing so, developers have adapted matters to maximise profits as exteriors are economically and blandly clad, and interiors are decorated just enough to make it seem as though a caring effort has been made. The world has seen enough of these places to know that they are careless of matters urban and social. They strip the heart out of little places, starving the old centres of vital energy, turning them into ghost streets. Armidale, in New South Wales, Australia comes to mind here. The old department store, a beautifully detailed Art Nouveau decorated building, stands starved of activity like the eastern end of the main street that has been a mall for many years. A large shopping centre has been constructed on the western end of the town, complete with large parking areas below. The drive-in simplicity of mass shopping leaves the poetry of the local street struggling for its rhythm. The new kills the old; it does not reinforce any of the vitality that was once there, qualities that the Gruen vision saw as its inspiration.

What can be done about this? One knows instinctively that 'tarting up' exteriors by remodelling them or camouflaging them in any way will do nothing but distract from the core problems of scale, urban structure and city vitality. Maybe it will not be until our modes of transport have been reformed that the era of the 'Gruen' shopping centre will meet its demise. Once the extremes of car ownership turn out to be seriously problematical, and other more friendly, accessible modes and scales of public transport have been developed, perhaps fully automated and integrated, then the city and town might regain its importance, its civic respect and richness. This cannot happen quickly enough; but it might. Cities and towns are resilient. They have survived the onslaught of the Gruen vision. Now we need to spend more time aiding place rather than destroying it with false visions and careless, crude illusions that never evade the scrutiny of the eye or tentacles of the feeling body. This change will demand a new transparency; a new honesty, free of hype and commercial interests. This is the everyday world that we need to care for much more, for we are involved with the everyday, everyday.

Faversham, Kent - market town

Commercial Street, Lerwick


Yet another sad irony is that while the Gruen vision promoted the rich vitality and diversity of old streets, it has turned out to do otherwise. When travelling the world, one soon learns that shopping centres are the same everywhere – exactly the same. Be they in Dublin or Dubai, Glasgow, Geneva or Goa, Penang or Paisley, they are identical. The richness inherent in the Medieval public street that can still be seen in, say, Commercial Street in Lerwick in the Shetland Islands, and, more informally in the souks of Dubai, disappears in the rigours of the privately owned shopping centres that, no matter how hard they might try to replicate old forms and features, fail to provide anything but corporate place, with corporate identification and corporate security, with corporate, international tenants promoting their wares complete with their corporate brandings. A street has a life and significance that dies in the hands of any one manager. Cities and towns discover this when councils decide to implement their civic visions too rigidly. Diversity needs to be complete in every aspect if it is to be revealed in all of its true depth and richness, not as a pretend game of decoration and disguise. So a city needs big and small; old and new; insignificant and grand; clean and dirty; cheap and expensive; every variation possible if it is to embody the subtleties of life that made Gruen so enthusiastic about his places for people: but when implemented, these Gruen centres provide places that are not for people, and never will be. They are desert places, voids around an 'oasis' stage set in an urban complexity that now needs healing.


The city hills and the scar

This piece was stimulated by the scarring appearance of a development in Sydney's cityscape. In amongst the suburban settlements on the rolling hills behind Freshwater beach, just north of Manly, there was what one might call a scar, something uniquely awkward in scale, colour, form and massing, completely different to everything else that could be seen from the remarkable vantage point that provided a 360 degree vista of the city. What was this unusual urban mark on the land?

Detailed view of the scar 

The general scale, texture and colour of suburban Sydney

It turned out to be Warringah Mall. A couple of days later we visited the mall as shoppers. Entering the complex was a rude insult. Access ways through and around tight car parking areas and service yards eventually led us to a dark, grim and grimy car parking space from which we were guided along narrow painted paths to grubby tunnels and through fire doors into the decorated mall spaces cluttered with an extravaganza of shops. It was a depressing experience, just as the civic appearance of the complex was in the city hillscape. There was no concern at all for the urban context of this exotic interior. It merely forced its own demands onto its neighbours and the city as a whole. This was not a centre that seemed to care for people or place.

The shopping centre marks its presence with its stark difference

Sydney, Australia - city views reveal a relatively even texturing and colouring


Retail spaces are designed for impulse shopping. When you go into a store looking for socks and come out with a new shirt, it's only partly your fault. Shops are trying to look so beautiful, so welcoming, the items so enticingly displayed and in such vast quantity, that the consumer will start buying compulsively.
This is the Gruen Effect.
The Gruen Effect is named after Victor Gruen, born in Vienna in 1904 to a Jewish family. Gruen, born Viktor Grünbaum, left Austria in 1938 for New York city, where he made a name for himself designing shops and retail spaces. This was a particular challenge during the lean years of the late 30s. People had no money. They just wouldn't go into shops. However Gruen figured out how to lure customers inside with amazing appealing windows displays.
Was this cunning trickery the beginning of the dream to create false hopes with illusions on a larger scale?


14 February 2016
In The Guardian, 14 February 2016, Mark Townsend has written a report titled Will Self joins London ‘mass trespass’ over privatisation of public space: see -

This is precisely the problem with 'Gruen' space.

21 February 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.