This past week, PBS aired a show called 10 Buildings that Changed America. Host Geoffrey Baer looked at, among others, the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, MO; Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago, IL; and Michigan's Highland Park Ford Plant. While all of these have shaped America's architectural landscape in dramatic ways, the one that changed the very way we do commerce and community with each other is the Southdale Center in Edina, MN.
In the mid 1950s a German socialist named Victor Gruen, feeling more and more concern for the isolated lifestyle that the car, subdivisions, and miles of strip malls were creating, envisioned a new type of community—or rather a reworking of an old one. It would allow its inhabitants to live independently of the car, to live, study, and work in their neighbourhood, and its crowning jewel would be an indoor air-conditioned shopping mall at the centre, complete with gardens, parks, cafes, and shops—a community centre.
The mall was inspired by the streets of Vienna with their outdoor cafes, open shops, and bustling pedestrian streets. In 1956 Gruen's dream of this utopian space was realized in Edina, Minnesota with the Southdale Mall. Exterior store fronts of a street were turned inward to a large interior space. It was a perfected downtown—no dirt, no traffic, no rain.
When Southdale first opened, thousands and thousands of people flocked to see it, even Frank Lloyd Wright. He, however, was unenthused. He said, "You tried to bring downtown here. You should have left downtown, downtown."
The centre, the downtown of Gruen's perfected community was complete, but rather than building the other necessary pieces of his vision—the homes, schools, and offices—the developer turned the land surrounding the mall into an ocean of parking. As Gruen put it later, the shopping mall was a "bastard development."
Perhaps both Wright and Gruen caught a glimpse of what this new, isolated shopping mall would do to cities across North America. With the centre of commerce moved up to a clean, air-conditioned building in the suburbs, downtown centres lost their appeal and their business.
But more was lost than business. Among many other things, we lost the public spaces available downtown, the neutral places where democracy actually happens: the cafes where people gathered; the parks where families met; the public square where people could debate, demonstrate, and discuss. These were no longer filled with people. And these are not things that can simply be relocated to the indoor mall.
Public spaces are important for just that reason—they are public. The mall puts on a nice façade of being a public space where you are free to move about as you please, to have a coffee in the centre, and to shop, but it is still a privately-owned space. Public demonstrators will be quietly escorted to the door by the security personnel. It is a controlled space.
However, downtown centres are making a revival. People see the value and importance of having a thriving city core—a central space where commerce and debate can exist together. Downtowns are attracting shoppers, diners, workers, and residents. Forbes recently highlighted "15 U.S. Cities' Emerging Downtowns," stating that those who are moving downtown want to live in "tight-knit urban neighborhoods that are close to work and have lots of entertainment and shopping options within an easy walk". These are the same things that Gruen hoped to include in his utopian community, but the difference now is, the desired structures already exist in downtown cores and won't be paved over with parking lots anytime soon.