Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Gruen, Victor

Victor Gruen was an Austrian-born architect who was a pioneer in the design of shopping malls in the United States. He was born Viktor David Grünbaum to Jewish parents in Vienna, Austria in 1903.  He studied architecture at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and opened his own firm in the city. Due to rising antisemitism and the German occupation of Austria in 1938, Gruen fled Vienna with his wife and settled in New York City where he changed his name to Victor Gruen. While he spoke no English, he found work as a draftsman with the help of a network of German-speaking immigrants and soon began to work as an architect, designing multiple stores. In 1941 he moved to Los Angeles, and in 1951 he founded the Victor Gruen Associates architectural firm.

In 1948, he began discussions with the owners of Hudson’s department store in Detroit, one of the largest department stores in the country at the time. He was trying to convince Hudson’s to take advantage of suburban growth by building branch stores, something the store was reluctant to do. Hudson’s eventually agreed and hired him to design their first anchor store. 

The facility Gruen designed was called Northland Center. Located in the Detroit suburb of Southfield, Michigan, it was the first open-air shopping facility in the U.S. and when it opened in 1954, it was the largest shopping center in the United States. Gruen’s vision was to attempt to recreate the pedestrian-friendly mix of shops, cafes and restaurants of his native Vienna outside of an urban area.  Although he was not the first person to have the idea to combine department stores and specialty stores in one location, he is still considered to be the father of the shopping mall, because he had the knowledge and skill to make that idea a reality. Many malls built in the following decades are said to have been built thanks to Gruen’s influence on the design and construction of shopping centers. However, later in his life, Gruen changed his mind and came to vehemently oppose the transformation of his open-air concept mall into our current version of enclosed spaces filled with chain stores. Gruen passed away in 1980, in Vienna. 



Northland Shopping Center, 1950s

Northland Shopping Center, 1961

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