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The L.A. Architect Who Designed the Shopping Mall – And Came to Regret It

South Coast Plaza (header)
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During the Christmas montage from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the frustrations of holiday commerce unfold to the ironic tune of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”; wide eyed customers stare at unexpectedly high prices and a bedraggled Santa Claus waits impatiently for his slice of pizza in a mall food court. “How fucking long do I have to wait?”, he asks. No other time of the year reeks of consumerism like the weeks leading up to Christmas, and few institutions, despite its apparent decline over recent years, represent the post-1945 shopping experience like the mall.

Seventy-five years ago, Gruen arrived in Los Angeles, forever altering our collective shopping experiences.

In May 1941, architect Victor Gruen moved from New York to Los Angeles. He brought with him skills developed in Vienna and honed in the Big Apple – along with the tireless work ethic of an immigrant fleeing Nazi persecution. We rarely think about retail architecture, yet we spend much of our life ensconced in its environs; it shapes the design and flow of our cities; it defines our consumerist hopes, dreams, and limits. Seventy-five years ago, Gruen arrived in Los Angeles, forever altering our collective shopping experiences.

Victor Gruen smoking
Victor Gruen smoking a cigarette, circa 1950-1960. Photo courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division Library of Congress.

Out of Vienna

Born Victor Gruenbaum in the heart of Vienna in 1903, Gruen grew up amidst the modernist milieu that defined the city in the early 20th century. By the mid-1930s, Gruen had embraced a career in public architecture, securing retail projects in the city’s renowned First District. From 1936 to 1938, Gruen designed more than a half dozen stores for Viennese merchants.[1] 

Predictably, the rise of the Nazis in Germany and Austria forced Gruen to reassess his future in Europe. In 1938, he landed in New York. There he experienced his first blush of stateside success, working on the 1939 World’s Fair exhibition and several Fifth Avenue stores.

Gruen in a Vienna apartment, early 1930s
Gruen in a Vienna apartment, circa early 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

During his time in New York, Gruen partnered with and soon fell in love with designer Elsie Krummeck; following an amicable divorce from his first wife in 1940, Gruen and Krummeck decamped for Los Angeles in 1941.[2] His New York success, facilitated by his interaction with fellow designer Morris Ketchum, had resulted in new work in the western U.S. Cyril Magnin of the famed San Francisco business family awarded Gruen and Krummeck commissions in Reno (1940) and San Mateo (1942); in addition, a California-based women’s apparel chain sought out the couple to design two new branches.[3] This employment shift to the West and the apparent growth in design opportunities there – along with his recent nuptials – encouraged new beginnings in Southern California.

Southern California Retail Dreams

In New York, Gruen met a great number of fellow refugees from Europe and even Vienna, but Los Angeles also served as home to a European diaspora in exile from fascism.[4] Fellow Viennese émigré and Los Angeles transplant Richard Neutra would come to praise Gruen’s work, describing his “Shopping Centers of Tomorrow” art exhibition (1954) as “an educational and civil contribution toward a less troublesome life.”[5]  However, many of Gruen’s fellow refugees failed to identify with Los Angeles, suffering from what historian Mike Davis describes in “City of Quartz” as “collective melancholia.” Europeans like Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Davis argues, believed the city to be a “counterfeit urbanity,” lacking “civitas of public places,” “sophisticated crowds, historical auras and critical intellectuals.”[6]

Gruen did not suffer from such bouts of melancholy. Indeed, he saw retail architecture as a way to create community in places that lacked it. “More than anyone else, [Gruen] … helped crystallize a philosophy for the development of [regional shopping] centers,” writes historian Howard Gillette, Jr., “urging their use in enhancing social and civil life through the incorporation of environmental design.”[7] The combination of his design acumen, World War II Los Angeles, and American consumerism launched a retail movement that would spread across the nation.

Gruen and Krummeck established a new firm upon arriving in Los Angeles. They rented a small home in Hollywood and outfitted it with the latest in modern furniture. Their firm added fellow European emigres Rudi Baumfeld and Michael Auer, and soon they had secured a critical commission: the national chain of Grayson-Robinson, which under the ownership of the controversial and flamboyant Walter Kirschner was looking to expand in Southern California.[8]

Kirschner enjoyed all-white suits, ten-gallon hats, white convertibles, and women. In true Southern California style he made sure his home had not one pool but two. Between 1938 and 1945, the Grayson-Robinson chain grew from 16 stores in California to 43 nationwide. By 1950, it had become the 17th largest retailor nationally. The war might have imposed restrictions on construction, but Kirschner could always cut a deal to build a new store. He seemed to always find capital to build them. [9]

Profiting from War

The war proved critical to Grayson’s success and helped usher Gruen into the architectural limelight. Few states benefited from wartime expansion like California; military expenditures, resources, and people all flowed into the state. Women in particular found new employment in industry. In its rapid expansion, Grayson’s exploited Gruen and Krummeck’s innovative designs, the consumer patriotism of the war, and the growing income of women.

As evidenced by symbolic figures like Rosie the Riveter, World War II opened up new job opportunities for women. Almost four million women entered the labor force between 1940 and 1944. Though not paid at the same rates as men, these jobs still provided much higher incomes than previously afforded women. The increase in women’s apparel stores between 1939 and 1948 attests to this development: 5,000 opened during this period and sales for women’s chains stores increased threefold to $966 million. Moreover, California provided a higher minimum wage than any other state at the time. Like numerous other chains, Grayson’s capitalized on this ignored demographic, advertising itself as “Where Women Buy Smart Clothes for Less.”[10]

Graysons Santa Monica
Grayson's Santa Monica store. Photo courtesy of the Victor Gruen Papers, Library of Congress.

During the war, Grayson’s opened new branches in growing western cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The war effort played a central role in Grayson’s publicizing their branches, calling them “Victory Stores”, encouraging customers to “Buy War Bonds” by running the slogan across their facades, and advertising that only government-approved materials were used in construction.[11] These sorts of efforts, wrote Columbia University Professor Paul Nystrom, “helped maintain …  patriotic and optimistic citizens,” and, conveniently enough, also boosted Grayson’s bottom line.[12]  

Designing the Shopping Experience  

Gruen’s and Krummeck’s first Southern California commission came in 1940, for Grayson’s Santa Monica store. In all they would design 11 stores for Grayson’s during this period, including four in the Los Angeles area: Santa Monica, Inglewood, Crenshaw Boulevard, and Hollywood.  With all of the L.A. area branches located on “automobile strips,” Gruen and Krummeck needed to design storefronts that appealed to drivers rather than pedestrians. Facades, show windows, lighting, signage, and access points all needed to be reconsidered. For their Santa Monica and Inglewood designs, they created two facades: one for drivers in the front and one for pedestrians in the rear. Nuance did not factor into these designs; instead they increasingly played to the ostentatious. Whether on foot or in the car, for example, one could not escape the Inglewood store’s “60 foot tower featuring colors of chartreuse and white,” in the words of one reviewer.[13]

Building on the Crenshaw Boulevard and Hollywood retail strips required a special panache, as the two shopping areas represented arguably the “most competitive and flamboyant” examples of retail architecture in the nation.[14] Gruen and Krummeck deployed grandiose show windows, arcades, facades, and signage. The Hollywood store utilized continuous rows of neon lights across the arcade’s ceiling. Architecture Forum breathlessly described it as “[o]ne of the most brilliantly lit fronts on an already bright street.”[15]

South Coast Plaza exterior
Circa 1980s view of the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., designed by Gruen's firm. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.
South Coast Plaza interior
Interior of Orange County's South Coast Plaza, designed by Gruen's firm, in 1973. Photo by Julius Shulman, © J. Paul Getty Trust. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (2004.R.10)

Gruen viewed lighting as a key factor in design. “Well designed lighting will add immeasurably to a festive shopping atmosphere,” he wrote.  “We use light consciously for its psychological effects.”[16] With the rise of fluorescent lighting, Gruen also acknowledged that one needed to use such innovations judiciously: “We should act according to the same rules which a dramatic writer employs when he reserves some punch lines for the end of an act.”[17] In movies and television, light drew attention to the actors and setting, so, too, would store lighting highlight merchandise. Unsurprisingly, reviewers often described Gruen’s and Krummeck’s designs as something straight “off a Hollywood set.” Retail thus emerged as a sort of entertainment, with newspapers covering Grayson openings much like film premieres or Broadway openings. [18]

Gruen’s and Krummeck’s use of interior fluorescents, false ceilings, brightly lit facades, spotlights, and other modern innovations set the standard for chain stores nationwide. By the conclusion of the war, their work for Grayson’s had institutionalized a new commercial retail aesthetic, notes Hardwick. The two partners grew in renown and built on their earlier association with Morris Ketchum, who was an early adopter of and advocate for pedestrian malls. As a result, in 1947 Gruen designed the Milliron department store in the Los Angeles suburb of Westchester. At the time, Westchester was the fastest-growing suburb in Southern California. With his first attempt at shopping center design, Gruen gave physical expression to his belief that retail could serve as “crystallization points for suburbia’s community life.”[19] The number of shopping centers boomed from only a few hundred after the war to 2,900 in 1958, 7,100 in 1963, and 22,000 in 1980.  

Gruen went on to design many more shopping centers and malls across the nation and influenced federal urban redevelopment policy by advocating for provisions to fund commercial developments. Ironically, however, he did not secure many commissions in Southern California. According to retail historian Richard Longstreth many Southern California real estate professionals believed Gruen’s work for Grayson’s to be ineffective for merchandising and too over-the-top. Moreover, in the years that followed its construction, Milliron’s struggled financially and the interior “was riddled with problems that disoriented customers and hampered the staff,” according to Longstreth.  Many years would pass before Gruen landed another commission in the region.[20]

A Disavowal

Late in life Gruen confusingly – and somewhat disingenuously – disavowed his earlier thinking on retail architecture and, by extension, much of his work, believing it had strayed from its initial intent.

Gruen argued that developers and retailers had embraced only the “profitable” aspects of his designs, jettisoning nearly all of its “environmental and humane ideas.” Quality had declined, he would tell listeners; and whereas the family-run department stores of the 1950s displayed a sense of social responsibility to deliver better architecture and environments to consumers, by the late 1970s “anonymous real estate entrepreneurs” had taken over the business and were little more than “promoters and speculators who just wanted to make a fast buck.” Choosing cars over trees and profits over humanity, these developers spread the modern shopping center across the country, which, he said, degraded city centers, diminished small merchants, undermined social life, and destroyed the environment.

Throughout, Gruen conveniently ignored his own complicity in such developments, which, whatever our judgments about them, shaped American life for more than half a century.

[1] M. Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 8-12.

[2] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 35, 49.

[3] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 48.

[4] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (New York: Verso, 1990), 46 – 54.

[5] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 120.

[6] Davis, City of Quartz, 47-48.

[7] Howard Gillette Jr., “The Evolution of the Planned Shopping Center in Suburb and City,” Journal of American Planning Association, 51:4: 451.

[8] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 49.

[9] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 49.  In the West, the stores were known as Grayson’s, in the East they went by Robinson’s.

[10] Hardwick,  Mall Maker, 51.

[11] Hardwick,  Mall Maker, 59.

[12] Hardwick,  Mall Maker, 60.

[13] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 64.

[14] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 63.

[15] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 63-64.

[16] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 65.

[17] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 67.

[18] Hardwick, Mall Maker, 68 - 69.

[19] Gillette, “The Evolution of the Planned Shopping Center in Suburb and City, 452.

[20] Richard Longstreth, “Review: Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream”, Business History Review, 78.1 (Spring 2004): 142-144.

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