Victor Gruen, who died some days ago in his native Vienna, was among the most important architect-planners of our time.
He led the fight to liberate the American city from the tryanny of the automobile. The answer to downtown traffic congestion, he said, "is not taming of people, but the taming of combustion engines."
Gruen invented the suburban shopping center, but later refused, as he put it, "to pay alimony for those bastard developments," because they detracted from the vitality of the city center.
The city center, "The Heart of Our Cities," as he titled the most important of his many books, was Victor Gruen's foremost concern. If he was not the first to say it, he was the one to say it most emphatically and in a language that downtown merchants could understand: "The city must be a many-purpose place. It must represent the quintessence of urbanity."
Gruen is rarely found on the roster of prominent immigrants from Central Europe of the 1930s who made decisive contributions to American culture and for whom we must thank Hitler. He was prominent and much honored in architectural circles, but never became famous as his colleagues and fellow refugees Mies vander Rohe and Walter Gropius. Yet his accomplishments are just as important, perhaps more so.
Americans tend to idolize the new, the original, the sensational. Gruen's work was none of these. He was -- I know he would forgive me for saying it -- a lousy architect when it came to designing buildings.
Individual buildings simply did not matter to him. What mattered to Gruen was the urban environment. He liked to call himself an "environmental designer." And he saw the city not just as a "working machine," which must be compartmentalized for efficiency in business, entertainment and residential districts, but as a conglomerate of all human interests and activities, the focal point of civilization.
He was the first architect-planner, as distinct from an urban philosopher such as Lewis Mumford, to stem the tide of the new technocratic vision of the human habitat, the calamitous "City of Tomorrow" with its Autobahnen and glass towers, that Mies, Gropius and the Swiss-born Frenchman Le Corbusier, had in store for us.
Gruen's importance, then, is somewhat like that of the little Dutch boy who stuck his finger in the dike. The little Dutch boy did not rate personality features in the Sunday sections, either.
As a young man in Vienna, Gruen was for a while the master of ceremonies in his own political cabaret, presenting little satires and ditties. He published humerous poetry and played a walk-on part in the bohemian-literary scene, which, in the Vienna of his time was set in the intellectual cafes. He also managed to study and practice architecture.
He arrived in New York in the summer of 1938, a few months after Hitler's army marched into Vienna, and he brought all his Viennese airs with him. Even as a highly successful architect-businessman in New York and Los Angeles, he always wore what seemed like the same, rumpled blue suit and bow tie and looked as though he had left the Cafe Hawelka only that morning with no time to change clothes.
He punned without mercy but with redeeming wit. His dry humor obviously helped him persuade downtown businessmen that "not even a Cadillac has ever bought a nickel's worth of merchandise."
Today, the cost of gasoline figures importantly, even in middle-income family budgets, riding public transit has become patriotic, if not chic, and Boston's Quincey Market is suddenly the talk of all towns. It is hard to remember the fever pitch of the freeway obsession of only a decade or so ago.
Every American city was being entangled in a spaghetti of freeways. Here in Washington, they considered digging one under the Lincoln Memorial, leaving poor Abe sitting in a cloud of carbon monoxide. If you demurred and refused to believe that the only True American Way was a 10-lane freeway to drive everyone out of town, you were a "beatnik" and subversive.
Gruen was both. He believed that even a suburban shopping center ought to have trees and fountains and, most of all, the kind of places that make for a sense of community, such as small theaters, playgrounds, meeting halls.
He subverted the traditional American credo that cities are evil and, as Eugene Raskin suggested in a New York Times article of May 1971, "physically obsolete, financially unworkable, crime-riden, garbage-strewn, polluted, torn by racial conflicts, wallowing in welfare, unemployment, despair, and official corruption . . . and destined to join the dinosaur in deserved extinction."
For the first few years in America, Gruen designed mostly stores. His and the country's first big regional shopping center, Northland, near Detroit, opened in 1954. It was followed by Southdale, near Minneapolis, in 1956 -- the first shopping center to be fully enclosed.
Both places were designed not just to group a number of stores along a common parking area, but to serve suburbia as an agora, a center, as Gruen said, "that serves social, cultural and civic purposes as well as commerce, in an environment safe from noises, dangers and fumes of mechanized traffic."
Northland and Southdale became places, as Gruen described them, "where friends met and families had dinner, where inactive civic, cultural and art organizations became active and where people could celebrate the Fourth of July."
Few subsequent shopping centers are like that.
In 1956 Victor Gruen took the modern agora idea downtown. Worried by the downtown business community of Fort Worth, Tex., asked Gruen to draw up a redevelopment plan. Gruen proposed a pedestrian oasis.
Automobiles were to be parked on the periphery of the downtown business district. Goods and services were to be bought in via underground tunnels at basement level. Pedestrian circulation was to be helped along with slow-moving electric tourmobiles. Streets and squares were to be attractively landscaped.
Although it was never carried out, the Fort Worth Plan was an important event in the history of American city planning. The parking lot operators, a powerful lobby everywhere, managed to defeat it. But the Fort Worth Plan, as someone observed, is the only unborn child who had hundreds of grandchildren.
The most attractive of them on this side of the Atlantic is the downtown mall in Fresno, Calif., also designed by Gruen and his associates. It is lavishly landscaped by Eckbo, Dean, Austin & Williams. The mall, with its fountains, cascades, pools, brooks and excellent sculptures, opened in 1964 with an arts festival. The festival is still going on.
Largely because of Gruen and his insistance on separating "human flesh from combustion engines," the hearts of our cities are beating more strongly.
But Gruen knew and taught "that a healthy heart within a chaotic region is just as unworkable an absurdity as a metropolitan region with a dying heart." To bring some order into the chaos, Gruen proposed to strengthen existing neighborhoods and plan for new neighborhood concentrations.
He saw the neighborhood as the basic cell of the metropolitan organism. The cells cluster to form towns, which, in turn, cluster into cities and metropolitan regions.
Gruen freely admitted that back in 1894, Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the New Towns movement, had had pretty much the same idea. "When I discovered Howard's little book, 'Garden Cities of Tomorrow,' I had a double-edged feeling," Gruen said. "On one hand, I felt disappointed that I had not been as original as I thought I was. On the other hand, I felt the satisfaction that I was obviously as profound a thinker as the famous Sir Ebenezer Howard."
In 1972, Gruen retired from his U. S. firm and moved back to Vienna. His idea of retirement was to plan extensive heart surgery on his hometown. It is doing fine, thank you.
Gruen's ideas are no doubt, the best things a native son ever brought home from America.