Tuesday, March 09, 2004

comrades, to the mall!
In the New Yorker, Macolm Gladwell outlines the odd relationship between European socialism and American commercialism in the person of Victor Gruen, father of the shopping mall.

Not long after Southdale was built, Gruen gave the keynote address at a Progressive Architecture awards ceremony in New Orleans, and he took the occasion to lash out at American suburbia, whose roads, he said, were “avenues of horror,” “flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity—billboards, motels, gas stations, shanties, car lots, miscellaneous industrial equipment, hot dog stands, wayside stores—ever collected by mankind.” American suburbia was chaos, and the only solution to chaos was planning. When Gruen first drew up the plans for Southdale, he placed the shopping center at the heart of a tidy four-hundred-and-sixty-three-acre development, complete with apartment buildings, houses, schools, a medical center, a park, and a lake.

As we know, all the happy, caring-sharing stuff was ditched. What remains is a testament to the commercial power of central planning. In fact, the whole purpose of a mall is to enable its owners to have total control over its environment:

The same goes for parking. Suppose that there was a downtown where the biggest draw was a major department store. Ideally, you ought to put the garage across the street and two blocks away, so shoppers, on their way from their cars and to their destination, would pass by the stores in between—dramatically increasing the traffic for all the intervening merchants. But in a downtown, obviously, you can’t put a parking garage just anywhere, and even if you could, you couldn’t insure that the stores in that high-traffic corridor had the optimal adjacencies, or that the sidewalk would feel right under the thin soles of women’s shoes. And because the stores are arrayed along a road with cars on it, you don’t really have a mall where customers can wander from side to side. And what happens when they get to the department store? It’s four or five floors high, and shoppers are like water, remember: they flow downhill. So it’s going to be hard to generate traffic on the upper levels. There is a tendency in America to wax nostalgic for the traditional downtown, but those who first believed in the mall—and understood its potential—found it hard to look at the old downtown with anything but frustration.

Gruen was Viennese and Jewish, arriving in the US in 1938, with eight dollars to his name. It’s curious how much the modern world has been influenced by the old Austro-Hungarian empire. Consider the litany: free market economics, psychoanalysis, urban planning, shopping malls, musical theatre, the question of equitable governbance of a multi-ethnic state, the general notion that popular pleasures could be developed in such a way as to constitute a civilization.

A couple of other thoughts occur. The first is that the Austro-Hungarian model of governance, where different linguistic and cultural groups exist cheek by jowl with their own traditional forms of governance, but are administered throughout by a unified civil service under a central authority prefigures the EU. And finally, your topic for today: the split in opinion over the war in Iraq amongst US conservatives and libertarians is really a debate between Austrians and Prussians. Discuss.