Back in 1952, there was an Austrian architect by the name of Victor Gruen who had a vision to build the perfect downtown on a plain of grass in South Minneapolis. His dream was to create a flourishing of mixed-use developments with a balance of natural greenery and flourishing eateries. Gruen's vision was never fully actualized and instead came about a formulaic churning of Gruen's original idea – the shopping mall.
There were still elegant fragments of Gruen's vision with the Southdale Center, which featured a town square with sunlight pouring through the skylight onto a beautiful garden court of exquisite flora. Southdale Center which opened on October 8th, 1956 was considered “the splashiest center in the U.S.” declared Life Magazine.
D. Jamie Rusin spoke to The Wall Street Journal and said that “Gruen's original vision was to foster community.” He originally saw the mall as a place you could go to shop, eat, see the doctor, have an office- a community center for people who didn't have one,” he continued. Gruen's mall was meant to be where people can talk and interact with their neighbors as they shopped.
An increasing number of copycat malls started to form all around the country and Gruen referred to them as “shopping machines,” in which they ignored the natural landscape and were potentially disrupting social connections and marring urban aesthetics. These “shopping machines” became immensely popular during postwar American life. Approximately 1,500 malls were built from the mid-1950s to 2005. “Shopping plazas sprouted like well-fertilized weeds,” said urban historian Thomas Hanchett, which was due in part to generous changes in the tax code. By the mid-1990s, malls were being churned out at a rate of 140 a year.
Although it may be concerning times for retail stores in malls today due to the rise of ecommerce, several new efforts to rebuild brands and reformulating an existing strategy, are being used to survive in the market today. “It's not like stores are dead, but you're going to see a reimagining of retail and malls,” says Barbara Kahn, a Wharton marketing professor and director of the Jay H. Baker Retailing Center.
“Sometimes a mall goes out of business because it has lost its economic reason for being,” architect Victor Dover said, but “almost every community needs something.” The reinventing of shopping malls is a challenging task and requires vision when you have to convert such large and inflexible spaces. Shopping centers are now becoming ideal sites for transit-oriented, mixed-use developments that include housing, retail, office, services, and public space.
The mall is becoming the sandbox and canvas where many developers are trying new and innovative ideas to reconstruct the mall as not only a shopping center but for fostering a sense of community. With that in mind, Barbara Kahn states that, “Anecdotally you're seeing a lot of nail salons, spas, health clubs and restaurants [move into malls]. You can't do that online. Malls will be for the social and touch and feel you can't get online.” Therefore, retailers who want to survive this great mall shake out are going to have to offer goods and services that cannot be purchased so readily online and improve the overall existing in-store experience.