A photo from Life Magazine of Southdale Shopping Center in Edina, Minnesota after its opening in 1956.
Southdale was the first mall ever built and still stands today (I visited many times during my Minneapolis residency). The mall’s designer was an immigrant from Austria, Victor Gruen, who wanted to bring the community feeling of the European arcade to the suburbs.
Oddly, this most suburban American invention was supposed to evoke a European city centre. Hence Southdale’s density and its atrium, where shoppers were expected to sit and debate over cups of coffee, just as they do in the Piazza San Marco or the Place Dauphine. Gruen exiled cars, which he thought noisy and anti-social, to the outside of his mall. Most contemporary critics thought Gruen had succeeded in bringing urbanity to the suburbs. Southdale was “more like downtown than downtown itself”, claimed the Architectural Record. Another asserted, in a rare example of journalistic hyperbole that turned out to be absolutely right, that the indoor shopping mall was henceforth “part of the American way”.
Ironically Gruen’s creation only served to strengthen the suburban car culture that he despised. Later in life, Gruen became disillusioned with malls and their unintended consequences.
He revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in “severe emotional shock.” Malls, he said, had been disfigured by “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking” around them. Developers were interested only in profit. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” he said in a speech in London, in 1978. He turned away from his adopted country. He had fixed up a country house outside of Vienna, and soon he moved back home for good. But what did he find when he got there? Just south of old Vienna, a mall had been built — in his anguished words, a “gigantic shopping machine.” It was putting the beloved independent shopkeepers of Vienna out of business. It was crushing the life of his city. He was devastated. Victor Gruen invented the shopping mall in order to make America more like Vienna. He ended up making Vienna more like America.
Update: Whoa, lots of email about this one, especially from Seattlites. There’s a bit of controversy that I was unaware of concerning the first mall…here’s a list of contenders. (thx, todd)