Regardless of location, the American shopping mall takes the same form: two floors of enclosed shopping and parking connected by escalators, with a lush central arboretum and two anchor department stores at either end. Today this design seems cliche, but in 1956, it was a revolutionary setup that brought comfort to a nation that feared itself on the brink of nuclear war. America's first mall, Southdale in Edina, Minnesota, was a Cold War-era invention that forever changed the way America lives and shops.
Southdale was designed by Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen. Gruen grew up in the high arts scene in Vienna and designed housing projects and stores for local merchants, but he fled his home and the rise of Nazi Germany in 1938. He settled in America, where he first designed a leather goods boutique for Ludwig Leder on Fifth Avenue in New York. Gruen turned the typical street-fronting New York boutique on its head by designing a mini arcade entranceway for Lederer. Then he turned his attention to larger-scale design, entering a 1943 Architectural Forumcompetition called "Architecture 194x," which solicited ideas from renowned modern architects to design components of a futuristic model town. (The contest title referred to an unspecified year sometime in the postwar future.)
Gruen answered the magazine's call with a design for the town's shopping center. He proposed a fully enclosed shopping center with stores that were inward-facing, rather than street-facing. Gruen's design also lacked a center square, the green space of traditional urban shopping districts where pedestrians would mingle and stroll. Both of these changes were radical departures from previous designs and from the American shopping experience that existed at the time. In fact, the design was too radical forArchitectural Forum, which asked Gruen for revisions until he turned in something more in line with contemporary trends.