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How the Cold War Shaped the Design of American Malls

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 Forum competition 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 for Architectural Forum, which asked Gruen for revisions until he turned in something more in line with contemporary trends.

But by the time World War II ended and the Cold War began, the country's mindset had changed drastically. Against this backdrop, Gruen's design for an insular utopia had substantial appeal: America was seeking shelter and a controlled environment. Just over a decade after his enclosed shopping center was turned down by Architectural Forum, Gruen built Southdale mall in the Minneapolis suburbs, the world's first enclosed mall. His design for Southdale, which historian Timothy Mennel calls "a Cold War Utopia," would go on to become the blueprint of today's regional shopping mall: an enclosed community combining both retail and non-retail facilities in a single location.

Cold War Malls sidebar

Gruen himself had actually once dreamed of designing open-air promenades reminiscent of his native Austria—spaces where neighbors could mingle and shop in close connection with the natural environment. But his dream shifted as Gruen instead drew influence from the design work of America's governmental and military institutions. Although Gruen popularized the regional shopping mall, the idea of combining both shopping and non-retail services (like movie theaters, the post office, churches, housing, etc.) in a single location came from the U.S. Federal Government. San Diego's Linda Vista shopping center (built in 1942) was an all-encompassing installation built by the government for WWII defense workers, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, (built in 1943) was developed by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission as a combined retail and non-retail facility at the heart of America's nuclear headquarters. That America's first modern shopping centers were built by the government during the Cold War is a key indicator of how the government perceived life in this new atomic age. Gruen took these nascent ideas developed by the government and gave them a refined finish to appeal to his high-end clientele. (He wasn't the only one to do so—Eero Saarinen drafted a plan for a similar shopping center in Willows Run, Michigan, though it ultimately went unbuilt.) Gruen first tried out his Cold War-appropriate design elements in 1952, when he designed Northland Mall in the Detroit suburbs for Michigan retailer J.L. Hudson.

The Dayton family of Minnesota, the owners of retailer the Dayton Company (and later Target) commissioned Gruen to design Southdale Mall. Family figurehead Donald Dayton called the mall a "self-contained community," and it was massive, 810,000 square feet spread across 463 acres. The mall was located far outside the urban population center of Minneapolis, in the suburb of Edina, Minnesota. The suburbs were atypical retail locations at the time, and Edina had a population of just 15,000. What Edina offered was a location ten miles outside the Minneapolis city center, putting the mall outside the eight-mile blast radius of an atomic hit to the Minneapolis city core. A mall located in Edina could serve to house and protect the Twin Cities' population in the event of a nuclear attack.

Groundbreaking for Southdale occurred in 1954. Gruen called for the mall to be built of steel and reinforced concrete, which had been proven more blast resistant than the ordinary variety. Specifically, Southdale was made up of 200,000 concrete blocks and 360,000 bricks, and a 10,000 kilowatt generator completed this post-apocalyptic structure. Southdale's completely enclosed nature allowed it "to keep out, both cold war worries and actual cold," writes Mennel. Shops were to be converted into food combines in the event of an attack. A large basement area, complete with an underground tunnel system, was built at Southdale to act as a fallout shelter and sat stealthily yet ever-ready below the Minnesota shopper's paradise. The mall was strategically positioned directly between two major highways, which would allow easy access to the facility even in times of chaos and traffic. Parking at Southdale—2,800,000 square feet of it—was also built with the idea that it could easily be converted into a tent city for a population seeking shelter.

In fact, Gruen's initial plans for the compound called for actual apartments, business and medical offices, civic and religious buildings, auditoriums, and utilities to all be built on-site at Southdale. This miniature town would be ready to function as a full-fledged operational city on a moment's notice. It could serve the medical needs of those affected in a blast, house others escaping a ravaged city center, and eventually cultivate a return to everyday life with its religious and entertainment centers. While many of these elements were built over time at Southdale, the full extent of community structures in Gruen's initial plan was never realized.

Many of the Cold War-conscious design choices were implemented within the mall itself. The paradise was climate-controlled for extended habitation—its air conditioning and central heating achieved a constant homeostasis. Such a controlled environment not only lent itself to stable human life, but to stable animal and plant life as well. Gruen was no Noah, but within Southdale, he did create enough of a perfect ecological microcosm that he was able to fill the mall with exotic birds and tropical plants, notes Gruen biographer M. Jeffrey Hardwick. Enclosed Southdale featured all this in a "Garden Court of Perpetual Spring" with orchids, Magnolia trees, and Eucalyptus trees. It was a space so big and lush, at five stories tall and a block long, that it would be a more than adequate substitute for the outdoors in a ravaged, post-atomic world. Southdale was such an acutely curated substitute for reality that it could make a person forget they were indoors: At the time of its opening, Architectural Record wrote, "[It is] an imaginative distillation of what makes downtown magnetic: the variety, the individuality, the lights, the color, even the crowds—for Southdale's pedestrian-scale spaces insure a busyness and a bustle."

Southdale mall opened for business on October 8, 1956, to much fanfare. Copycat malls soon followed. James Rouse, Maryland developer extraordinaire and the mastermind behind the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, built the country's second enclosed mall, Harundale, which opened in 1958. Eleven miles outside downtown Baltimore, in Glen Burnie, Maryland, Harundale too was beyond the assumed radius of an atomic attack on the city center. And like Southdale, Harundale incorporated auditoriums, fountains, libraries, post offices, and churches as would-be centers of civic life. Harundale was also at constant homeostasis with a fully climate-controlled environment. As Rouse biographer Nicholas Dagen Bloom explains, Rouse was convinced the mall was to be the new center of the American community—it was the new main street of "Rouse's Cold War utopia." Houston's Montclair mall, New Jersey's Cherry Hill mall, and others followed. By the 1980s, over forty years later and close to the end of the Cold War, there were around 3,000 Southdale copy-cats in the U.S.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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