Response Crafting

A risk of creating without understanding your user’s values? They may hijack the finished product.

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Here’s a history fact:

The man credited with the invention of the shopping mall ultimately refused to be associated with them, instead calling them “bastard developments.”

Victor Gruen was an Austrian architect who immigrated to the United States in his mid-thirties in 1938. He arrived with one goal in mind: to bring the European city center and street scenery to the American suburbs; to integrate shopping and centers into everyday life.

Graben Square, Vienna, 1900

He brought a new vision for retail areas and began planning some of the first “regional shopping centers” – areas that were to serve a social purpose; to act as centers in places that did not have them. He had no idea how this concept would ultimately evolve to shape american suburbia while gutting urban city centers.

As the concept was perpetuated and duplicated, with first one development and then many more following, across the country, merchandisers soon realized that they could make more money by eliminating the social spaces and focusing solely on the commercial. Over time, the designs lost their social focus and took on a specifically consumerist one, emphasizing leasable space while reducing the common areas.

But this shift was not entirely the fault of the developers; they were not building these beasts in a vacuum, after all.

The evolution was also spurred by shoppers, who were clamoring for more consumer space, and shopping centers expanded in direct response to our expansive consumer aspirations. In this sense, suburb shopping malls were a distinct sign of the times – a product of an era when our culture was consumer-centric and prosperous Americans, having just spent the war years cutting back, swept through stores on a rampant spending spree.

Fresh from our victory overseas, the American consumer was praised as a patriotic citizen in the 1950s. And in a time when many were eager to defend their social status, consumerism was an easy way to show it off. The shopping mall readily served this new, fast-growing need.

Vienna Cafe Zion Square

As he watched city centers replaced by the shopping mall, Gruen grew distressed and then disheartened over time. By the end of his career, once he realized what he had done, he was “heart broken.”

Ultimately, Gruen responded:

“I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all. I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”

Gruen’s story is one of how easily passion and purpose can end poorly if directed at the wrong project, or in the wrong way, with inadequate understanding of its context.

Context is everything – understanding what we now know about the 1950’s American as a shopper, it is perhaps inevitable that the shopping mall was fated to become what it did. (I wrote about this previously, here.)

In any case, though, Gruen’s own professional story is reflective of the heartbreak that can happen if we misalign our objectives with only one perspective; if we build something that represents our own values without consideration for those of our users, leaving the idea at risk of being “bastardized” so that it does.

For more info on Gruen and his influence on the shopping mall, check this out


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