Thursday, July 14, 2011

One Hundred Pages of Solicitude #5: Shopping Towns USA

"No democratic society can flourish without law and order which, when appleid to the physical environment, necessitates planning. In a complex and highly mechanized society environmental planning safeguards the basic human rights. By providing the best conditions for physical and mental health, it protects life. By establishing barriers against anarchy and the infringements of hostile natural and man-made forces, it protects liberty. By the creation of a humane environment it invites and encourages the pursuit of happiness." --Victor Gruen and Larry Smith

Today's century of scribbling is Shopping Towns USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers by Victor Gruen and Larry Smith. Published in 1960, the book is, essentially, a how-to guide for planning a mall. The first hundred pages cover the prerequisite elements: the knowledge the developer needs, choosing the location and site, getting the zoning permits, acquiring the tenants, and financing the affair. The second part, planning, I only read up to the planning team, the planning schedule, desinging the site, and a little bit of planning the surrounding areas.

I'll be honest: this book wasn't quite what I'd hoped for. What attracted me to this book wasn't so much its subject as its first author, Victor Gruen. For those not intimately versed in the history of modern commercial architecture (and really, if you're not, then what have you been doing with your life?) Victor Gruin is the architect responsible for creating the modern mall, or at least popularizing its use in the USA. A search of the all-knowing wikipedia told me that Gruen was a committed socialist until moving to the States, and I thought that this background made an odd fit for the creation of a site destined to be associated with the worst of American consumerism and capitalist consumption. Thus, any book he wrote on design, I reasoned, would probably be an interesting read.

Sadly, it wasn't quite to be. Mostly, the disconnect is that I was looking for something theoretical, whereas Gruin and his partner, Smith (an economist), were much more interested in creating a practical model. Thus, we have chapters on the basic components needed to create a shopping center to begin with. Some of the principles are interesting enough. They emphasize unity and communication between the principal designers, the architect, the entrepreneur, and the real estate developer. And they are very big on designing the building so that people are forced to leave their cars when traveling from store to store. After all, they say, people in cars aren't buyers; pedestrians are buyers. But all in all, it's not what interests me in the subject of spatial design.

The introduction is a little more interesting, in terms of theoretical fodder. Gruin and Smith see the shopping center not only as a source of commerce, but also as a source of community, and a response to decentralization of cities, and suburbanization in particular. The effect of the suburb, they argue, is to make people more and more remote, and the shopping center fixes that problem by bringing people together. Their model for comparison is the Greek market, or agora. And, in fact, it reminds me of yesterday's reading, from McLuhan. At one point, he describes an anthropology case where an African village argued for the removal of indoor piping; they didn't like the way it stopped them from gathering at the communal well. At the same time, I don't think McLuhan would have supported Gruin's model; as he says a few times, you don't respond to present situations by borrowing ideas from the past.

From an upbringing in rural Saskatchewan, I have a different take on malls than most of you city-slicker types. The closest mall was a half-hour drive away, and it paled in comparison to the malls another hour drive away in Saskatoon. As I grew up, I had the strange privilege of watching store after store in that mall get replaced by temporary outlets, lower priced commodities, or, more commonly, nothing at all. Walking through a mall on its way to closure is an eery experience. There's a definite tie between community pride and the local mall (also national pride, as shown in the quotation above), and there's a strange feeling when going through a nearly collapsed mall that the community has failed. That's when you realize just how inoculated we are in capitalist ideology, that even the site of failed commerce creates a sense of anxiety. It's a somewhat ridiculous response, given that the real community businesses are usually single-shop stores located elsewhere, but when they go bust, it's just a single business going down. When the mall goes, it's an entire network that's gone. But I suppose malls in general are going down everywhere, as a result of decentralization and electronic commerce, and so forth. I think it's a little different in a small town, though, because it's easier to see the decline of the entire area in the fall of a business.

Not that the dilapidated mall I'm referring to signaled the fall of this town, though. I think I'm just rambling a bit, so I'll switch tracks.

The book came to my attention when a video game book I was reading--"Die Tryin'" by Derek A. Burrill--had a chapter on the arcade and its relation to the mall, with Gruen mentioned as the founding force of mall activity. The death of the arcade is an often cited historical point in video game history, as it represents the shift from communal gaming happening in public to communal gaming online. But that's not what occurred to me when reading this book. Rather, my mind was drawn more to video games that featured malls, namely the Dead Rising series. I've talked about them before, so I won't do so here, but what really struck me was the similarities and differences in designing a real world commerce space and designing a video game space--I'm not the first to come to this revelation, but spatial design in video games is really a wide open field.

Notice how all discussions lead back to my research interests? That's the sign of an academic, all right.

Verdict: If you're looking for a guide on how to design a shopping center situated in the economic reality of 1960s America, this is the first place you should go. If you're looking for a guide on how to design a shopping center for 2010s America, try Amazon.

Would Read the Rest?: Maybe the case studies and epilogue. Otherwise, I'd be better off reading one of the biographies on Gruen, or maybe seeing if he wrote any retrospective books later in his career.

Later Days.

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