Vienna Meets The Mall

After 20 years of planning, train ­station shopping centres open door

As a gateway to the city for travellers arriv- ing from the airport, Wien Mitte Mall may have disgusted the Austrian “inventor of the shopping mall”, Vic- tor Gruen (r.). The new train station malls were erected after countless failed designs | Photos: Wien Mitte Mall, The American Heritage Center (r.)

New train station malls have been erected after countless failed designs | Photos: Wien Mitte Mall, The American Heritage Center (r.)

April saw the opening of the much-anticipated “Wien Mitte The Mall”, the transformed transportation hub at Wien Mitte that allows newcomers to enter Vienna via the City Airport Train (CAT) into a brand-new, six-story shopping mall.

For some five years, this point of entry was plagued by scaffolding, construction and shifting labyrinthine detours, offering a somewhat chaotic first view of the city.


Enter through the gift shop

Last year, another gate to the city, Westbahnhof, was reintroduced as a shopping mall called “Bahnhof City Wien West”, giving the nearby Mariahilferstraße, the most trafficked shopping area in central Vienna, a run for its money. Both are gleaming piles of concrete, chrome and glass and similarly non-descript, cloned from so many others across the world.

Shopping malls of this sort could be called “pseudo-urban” zones, a term the American architect Alex Wall used once to refer to the increasingly touristic Vienna Innere Stadt.

This is perhaps a bit unfair, as the Old City is still where the Viennese actually live and work and where sightseers can visit in addition to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, some dozen churches, two monasteries, several museums, galleries, antique shops and cinemas and countless restaurants and cafes. But this was before the emergence of these new generic shopping malls, filled with chain stores, food courts and escalators, which are surely what Wall truly feared for Vienna.

As a gateway to the city for ­travellers arriving from the airport, Wien Mitte Mall may have ­disgusted the ­Austrian “­inventor of the ­shopping mall”, Victor Gruen | Photo: The American Heritage Center

As a gateway to the city for ­travellers arriving from the airport, Wien Mitte Mall may have ­disgusted the ­Austrian “­inventor of the ­shopping mall”, Victor Gruen | Photo: The American Heritage Center


Shopping malls: an Austrian invention

A lover of european cities in all their variety, Wall has made a study of the life and work of Victor Gruen, the famed Austrian architect who fled in 1938 to the U.S., where his vision for merging the social and commercial spaces that he had so loved in Vienna with American suburbs ultimately earned him the dubious honour of being the inventor of what we now call the shopping mall.

In Wall’s 2006 book, Victor Gruen: From Urban Shop to New City, Wall describes how Gruen began in New York with a revolutionary new concept for storefronts – as recessed refuges that drew people in from the street, eventually luring them into the store. The idea evolved into Gruen’s most famous creation 15 years later: southdale, a gigantic, enclosed shopping complex in the Minneapolis suburbs, an archetype that has since been reproduced in endless iterations across the U.s. and the world.

Gruen’s intention for the mall was to bring the urban, social-hub atmosphere of the city centre into soulless suburbs. What resulted instead was the ultimate sales machine, which many feel destroyed the American landscape. Gruen hated it.

“I am always referred to as the ‘father of the shopping mall’. I want to take this opportunity to renounce this title,” Gruen said in 1978. “I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They have destroyed our cities.”

Highly respected in the U.S., Gruen eventually returned to Vienna, where, ironically, he had to give up the official title of “Architekt”; he had not been able to finish his studies before fleeing Austria. But his reputation still allowed him to present a plan to the mayor of Vienna for revitalising the city centre, which resulted in the pedestrian zone that we now know in the innere stadt.


Investment architecture: visions vs. realities

alls were erected after countless failed designs | Photos: Wien Mitte Mall

Photo: Wien Mitte Mall

In the 2010 documentary, The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall, director Anette Baldauf ends with a reflection on the role of the architect: “There’s this general assumption that architects are creators of the world, which totally neglects the fact that this is all embedded in political and financial decisions.”

So what would Gruen have said, in 2013, about the gates to his beloved city becoming the shopping malls that he himself spawned and spent the latter part of his life trying to disown?

It’s no surprise that it took 20 years for “Wien Mitte The Mall” to become reality. Facing financial limits, objections by the community and the cultural heritage folks at UnesCO, and countless failed designs – it’s no wonder that co-developer Thomas Jakoubek, the managing director of Bauträger Austria immobilien, told Der Standard that he was proud simply to have completed the project.

“It’s easy to sit around in the park and discuss things like architecture, aesthetics, and sustainability, but in view of all the difficult circumstances we overcame, I still think we are pioneers.”

At one point during the epic Wien Mitte development saga, an architectural competition was held (in 2003) to bring in fresh ideas. Politics intervened and the winning design was eventually scrapped. in Harun Farocki’s fascinating 2001 documentary, Creators of the Shopping World, he chronicles the evolution of a similar competition in Germany. The film begins with a revealing and heated discussion between the members of the jury over the qualifying criteria for their selection.

“This centre has to cover its costs. to put it bluntly, it’s an investment. We’re not talking about a municipal renovation measure here… We have to assure a degree of profitability and feasibility; that’s where the idea of the shopping mall was born.”

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