the Gruen effect: shopping centres


The Gruen Effect. Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall (HD 4GB) from pooldoks on Vimeo.


d.talks showed this film last week and then invited some local speakers to discuss it in front of an audience, which they actually didn't, discuss it that is, but talked instead about Calgary shopping malls, where the Gruen effect is alive and well.  
Highlights: Calgary expects to develop 15 million square feet of shopping centre retail space, or 10 Chinook Centres, over the next decade.
Alone, of all of North American cities, Calgary has not experienced any effects from the economic downturn that started in 2008.  It exists in a bubble of prosperity and retail consumption has simply continued to increase.
Shopping centres compete to provide memorable experiences, such as a 5 minute snowfall every afternoon in December in a mall in Florida: magical, calming, unforgettable.  

The documentary discusses the irony of Victor Gruen's ambitions and plans: the original shopping centre was meant as a community centre in the suburbs (where there was by definition no centre) along the lines of central Vienna – an open mix of courts, parks, cafés, department stores and shops, plus services such as libraries and banks.  No cars, a safe environment, easy access.  Rapacious development interests gradually eroded the service side in favour of total retail space.  The filmmakers returned to Vienna, which like most European cities, has become tourist magnet in its downtown core: a panoply of brand names and luxury stores, street entertainers and more tourists.  City centres have become like shopping centres themselves, placeless, or rather everyplace.  

Calgary's downtown core is a three-storey, two and a half-block long shopping mall built in 1975, anchored at one end by the Bay and originally at the other by Eaton's, but now by Holt Renfrew in the next block.  TD-Scotia Centre is the heart of the +15 system which connects major buildings throughout the core at the second and third-floor levels.
The subtext of the Gruen Effect documentary was that the social ambitions of Gruen were sabotaged by a virulent capitalism that extracts maximum revenue from the retail environment.  And that public spaces in today's downtown cores are actually private forecourts to corporate entities that 'look' public, but actually aren't.  As in, one cannot photograph them, sit in them, etc.  This is all true of Calgary, which I expect was the motive behind d.talks showing the documentary.

The d.talks discussion, as always has been in this city, was dominated by the complaint about the lack of any sort of interesting scene for young urbanites, most of whom I expect grew up in a suburb somewhere.  The mall representatives, a manager and an architect, talked about how malls have become nicer, with lamps and leather chairs, more like home, and two young entrepreneurs with a very cool men's clothing shop spoke about the economic advantages of being in the informal non-mall retail sector where their shop becomes a destination for client/friends to spend some time.  

Informal is my term because it seems that is how retail seems to divide.  Independents vs brands, each with its own architecture and urban spatiality.  Shopping centres and malls: islands in a sea of parking, food fairs and an exhaustive itinerary of unsurprising chain stores.  Independents: street parking and bus lines, small shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries and bookstores, a hinterland of streets and houses.  This 'independent' landscape is necessarily dispersed: each inner city neighbourhood now has a relatively hip but short main street down its centre, each with its own character.  Not every street has the same things, so they aren't like open air shopping centres as these informal retail streets aren't masterminded into a complete and balanced retail program.  They are intensely local, and there is the difference.  

Calgary, in its seemingly endless search for a character (which it confuses with its brand), looks for amenities to provide pleasant experiences, rather than recognising often awkward and stubborn independent ambition which doesn't try to be all things to all people, but is local and thus invested in the city.  

What is the proportion of informal to formal retail?  I asked, but it wasn't answered.  I expect it is very small.  Does size matter?  No, of course not, but there has to be a critical mass of both clients and entrepreneurs who value small independent venues, and support them.  It is a question whether Calgary, because it developed after the 1950s and is thus is constructed from fifty years of suburban models, has that critical mass.  If it does, they live in the pre-1950s inner city neighbourhoods and in the new downtown condos, but this is, relative to the whole city, a very small demographic.  Small, always present, and that actively discusses urban issues.

Stephanie Whiteurbanism