Wednesday 27 January 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 have 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 concept 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



On BBC Radio Scotland, 9 April 2015, 6:15am, a commentator from Dundee reported that the city wanted "a building that will say to them Dundee is an exceptional city". One assumes that 'them' is referring to folk in the rest of the world rather than the residents of Dundee, who probably know better than to believe in hype, be this verbal or visual. Such is everyday experience and the refreshing cynicism of the Scots.

Exceptional city?

The hidden statement in this report is that Dundee apparently wants to be transformed, to be a place 'on the map' like Bilbao has become, changed, with an 'exceptional' Gehry-styled building as its centrepiece. The Guggenheim at Bilbao was indeed mentioned by the reporter as an aside, as an example of the Dundee idea. Is a Guggenheim to be built at Dundee too? - if only! Dundee already has a Frank O. Gehry, the Maggie's Centre, built 2003: see - Maybe it is too modest? It is, as one has come to expect, a quirky piece that, unusually, appears to be the precurser, the inspiration for Hadid's Glasgow Riverside Museum, Scotland's Muesum of Transport and Travel: see - and Why has this never been mentioned? - has it? Does the world like to recognise only 'original' genius? - see:

Maggie's Centre

The search, it seems, is always for the exceptional when the real need is for the ordinary to be enriched. The exceptional is singular, itemised; the ordinary is everywhere, as a cloud. It is the everyday that needs attention, now, because it has become so blandly nothing, lost in its lack of any ideals and identification beyond personal whims and bad planning rules. It is something that is with us everywhere, always, everyday – hence its importance. The exceptional seeks to tell us what we wish the everyday might be, or become, when it never can or will: see ON BRANDING in the sidebar. It is really too easy to be extraordinary. Performance artists show us how simplistic and naive such distractions can be, and still attract heroic attention and acclaim.

But Dundee has already been labelled a 'UNESCO City of Design': see - : and all without any transformation? Gosh, what is this label? Well, there will apparently be some changes: it will involve 'a whole area of the waterfront,' so the reporter said. It sounds like a good start for a place that wants to be like Bilbao; well, a tourist attraction as alluring as Bilbao has seemingly become. The once grimy industrial city at the top of Spain has been transformed into a glistening icon for the world. Everywhere dreams of becoming a tourist attraction in this manner, such is Bilbao's success at drawing attention to itself, and international money. Success breeds envy and copyists. Just look at the number of places that now have something like the London Eye, even if these are just like the large Ferris wheel that Brisbane has on its riverside. The Dundee blurb continues, promoting the idea – exactly what is this? - as 'a catalyst for social change; a one billion dollar regeneration plan; a renaissance for Dundee.' What other grand phrases can be conjured up in the attempt to convince everyone of the brilliance of the concept? Usually things uncertain, pompous and pretentious, false, are given the most promotional praise.

The question is: why does Dundee need a 'Renaissance' when it has already been declared 'a UNESCO City of Design'? Is Dundee unhappy with itself? Is this all a conjurer's trick? Would Dundee rather be sunny Bilbao instead of a waterside Scottish city famous for making marmalade jam and short biscuits? Do we have too many slogans here? Has the world lost all sense of trying to understand ordinary life and its ordinary, simple, unselfconscious living? Has the hype of marketing and media promotion set the examples for expectations in everything we now do? - see: Is it that if these exaggerated, fanciful perceptions are not matched, then everything in life is seen as being lesser, poorer, inadequate? Is only the exceptional noted and now searched for in the extremes of impossibilities presented as likely ambitions?: 'You too can be a star like ME!' Why would I want to be? It is all hype, exaggerations that seem planned to heighten everyone's inadequacy, everyone's need for more and more in a consumer world of unrequited want.

Sadly this attitude seems to have become the norm, with things ordinary and everyday being relegated to the insignificant and unnoticeable; the irrelevant. Only the outrageous and startling in things, everything, is considered worthy of comment and attention: of 'stardom.' The media thrives on the promotion of this impossible iconic ideal: "Headless man on Viagra crosses Niagara Falls upside down" would be a headline that would surprise few, such is the style of media announcements in succinct, brash HEADLINE BOLD these days. Regretfully, nothing other than this excessive exuberance has become acceptable for awards and recognition in most fields of endeavour.

Buddhism is one religion that does attend to the little things in ordinary life. We might look at these writings and try to learn and understand that things exceptional are not the norm. Life is about suffering, best attended to by knowing – knowing that one is walking, collecting water, and firewood, as the Zen monk points out: being aware of being. It is not about being aware of being something else, or wanting to be this. The daffodil in sunlight; the light on water; the line of the hills against a bright sky - yes I write from the Shetland Isles on a beautiful sunny day, 10 April 2015 - are all tiny daily occurrences, ordinary, rich in beauty, unpretentious, but exceptional in themselves for being themselves and desiring no extraordinary interpretative demands on others, while remaining quietly exemplary. Things that seek to be exceptional attract and distract.

REX Architecture's proposal for the new V&A Dundee
Is it sufficiently exceptional?

The sad lust for the exceptional, that is ironically only ever exceptional and nothing more, sets a poor example. It is a singular ambition that specializes in blind, narrow self-promotion complete with empty visions of brilliance, of self-proclaimed genius: ME. That the natural 'exceptional' quality, as in the daffodil, can be so ordinary in all of its subtle complexity is something that we need to understand and replicate in our works. Tradition knew this.

The proposed Kuma V&A for Dundee
The 'Guggenheim' one gets when one cannot have one?
The worry might be: is it different enough?

It is not easy to touch the quality of things subtle: but making things exceptional, different, quirky, is easy. Look at the random twists, angles, skews and inversions in Gehry's work. The only difficulty seems to be in the interpretation of the scribble, its transformation into formal documents from which a form can be built. Such ad hoc distortion and manipulation ensures attention, but one fears that it will be short-lived, interesting for just a few minutes. It holds nothing of the resonance of the glow of the daffodil in the glorious sunlight blazing in from a white sky - such is its brilliance. The daffodil is not trying too hard to be something else; nor does it want to be. There is contentment in things wonderfully ordinary that is difficult to grasp, hard to comprehend; a struggle to replicate. The daffodil's ordinariness tells more than any shattering collection of its pieces might, even though Mr. Gehry would make the assemblage look intriguing under his branding. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin (Matthew 6:28). The flower holds more hope, encourages more understanding in its simple wholeness than any clever recreation, no matter how smartly such a collage might be explained. The flower is life-enhancing. The Gehry's, et al., works, (why just pick on him?), appear to glorify the outcomes of war, of death and destruction, demise: see - , rather than enriching life, such is their legacy; their rude search for things smart, super-clever, extreme - exceptional. They are not; they are merely the self-conscious outcomes of individuals working hard to do something 'different,' little more; and few are willing to question it: see -

We need to learn that traditionally, historically, beauty grows in strength by trying to be the same - by using established forms, patterns and understandings to do ordinary, expected things, elegantly, gracefully; to enrich being with a new clarity and wonder what is truly familiar to all. Constantly creating things extremely different so as to startle, complete with uniquely invented explanatory narratives and rationales that seek to tell us what and how to see, will only keep the annoyed, bamboozled folk noticing only the search for acclimation, for ME & MINE to be noticed rather than to reveal any quiet depth of quality in a work seen at best as being 'more modest,' lesser for not being 'state of the art' or 'cutting edge.' The ordinary is just put down as bland 'ordinary.' Kevin McCloud is constantly pointing this out in his popular, frequently repeated television programme Grand Designs: see -

'World Class' Kengo Kuma's V&A proposal for Dundee
(see THE VISION below)

It is as though the 'self-appointed genius' seeks to be the clever surfer playing with the drama of the random surface, while the other more modest, humble individual quietly plumbs the wonder of the depths, the unseen silence, the still permanence that lies below the immediate, frivolous variations above that attract with their dramatic splashes. Where is the quiet centre in life? How can we get close to it? Do we need to? The desire for the exceptional will not get us there, or anywhere but into the realm of dramatic, distracting entertainment that is likely to just sweep us away in the enthusiasm of the rip, the undertow. Dundee must learn this: it must learn to be Dundee, not wish for a Bilbao future. Who could think of anything worse?

The city made its application to UNESCO in 2014.
Dundee's application: see - Ironically the application itself seems to demand self promotion.

In 2013, Dundee was voted one of the world’s seven most intelligent cities for the third time in five years – an indicator of our city’s cultural and intellectual health – and its ambition. We will use designation as a UNESCO Creative City to help connect design knowledge, ideas and experience from around the world; but it is also an opportunity for us to connect parts of our city more effectively, and to create an integrated, sustainable design ecology that creates a virtuous circle of support.

One hopes it is 'virtuous'! We wouldn't want Dundee to be seen as 'SIN CITY.'

OUR CREATIVE FUTURE We’ve worked hard to get to this point. Dundee instinctively understands the need for design, planning and creativity as essential components of a growing city. But Dundee’s future is most exciting; with potential to engage design not only with industry but also the general public. Dundee’s vision is to create a city with design, culture and creativity at its heart. Plans include:
V&A MUSEUM OF DESIGN, DUNDEE – The first design museum in the UK outside London, an international centre of design for Scotland, in an iconic building designed by world-class architects Kengo Kuma Associates. It aims to develop a greater focus on the value of design, promoting understanding of the UK’s design heritage; showcasing international design through large-scale exhibitions, providing opportunities for our own design talent, inspiring young people and fostering relationships between creative design, business and enterprise. V&A Dundee will deliver its first full year of programming in 2017, but in the run up will deliver a wide range of activities to raise awareness of design amongst a diverse audience.
KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE HUB, DESIGN IN ACTION – Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, a partnership of 6 academic institutions and creative companies, based at the University of Dundee. The project seeks to build economic capacity and capability through design-led innovation, delivering sector specific residential innovation events where people with different skills come together to solve complex problems and to develop solutions into products.
DISTRICT 10 – Development for the creative industries including live-work space, incubator facilities and business space. The first units, constructed from recycled shipping containers, opened in November 2013.
UNIVERSITIES – Both the Universities of Dundee and Abertay will continue to develop innovative education programmes, and engage in design based research.
DIGITAL WATERFRONT – Developments include the creation of a Digital Waterfront offering nextgeneration networks, advanced broadband and Wi-Fi connections to support the growth of digital industries. This could include public display screens, free Wi-Fi, state of the art fibre broadband, a games test centre, creative/digital media incubator and event space with digital capabilities.
PARTNERSHIP WORKING AND INTERNATIONAL ENGAGEMENT – The city has a long history of successful partnership working, and its organisations are involved in a wide range of transnational activities, from European funded projects to research collaborations, from conferences to work experience placements. The Council is currently engaged in 3 transnational European projects:
INTERREG IVB – North Sea Screen Partnership;
INTERREG IVC – InCompass, Sustainable Creative Incubators and URBACT CityLogo;
and V&A Museum of Design, Dundee is being delivered by a cross-city and national partnership involving the Council, the University of Dundee, Abertay University, Scottish Enterprise, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and Scottish Government.
DUNDEE UP – The city’s cultural strategy for the period 2015-2025 places design at the core of its strategic priorities. Approved by the Dundee Partnership Management Group, it commits the partners to continuing the journey of culture-led regeneration, using design to generate a creative future for the city.

One has to ask: why will these things only happen under a 'UNESCO City of Design' label? Surely they might occur in the ordinary, everyday; or do we need slogans to live up to in every field of endeavour in these unusual times that seek to transform even a simple waterfront into a digital extravaganza? Does the waterfront lack something, or is it that folk these days cannot see, or do not want to see, the unique qualities of waterfront place?


Dundee is an interesting word. It has been used in the USA to brand an 'Aussie-Styled' yogurt complete with the cliché kangaroo in a map of Australia that even shows Tasmania! The name is probably picking up on the popularity of the classic Aussie character, Crocodile Dundee rather than the Scottish city, its jam or biscuits. It is strange, because in Australia, it is the Greek-styled yogurt that gets promoted as being superior. The grass, it seems, is always greener elsewhere. The hype continues to tell us this. Contentment is not good enough. It just does not help sell sufficient product or draw enough attention to itself.