Saving Southdale

Let's hope America's first mall gets its groove back.

Southdale Center
Stephanie Colgan

Back to the Future

If Southdale were to achieve more of a town square effect, it would get back to Gruen’s original vision—which included apartments, offices, a medical center, and a school connected to Southdale.

Those birds in center court were no afterthought for Gruen. Southdale’s architect intended the enclosed court to be a place of beauty, with exotic trees and sculptures. A place where the community wanted to gather, even after store hours.

Over the years, the birdcages were replaced by massage chairs ($10 for 10 minutes!) and kiosks selling anything from calendars to wireless phones to $5 lattes.

Progress over preservation. The mall mindset prompted Gruen, in the late 1970s, to denounce the shopping center he is credited with creating. He became horrified by the sprawling “ugliness” around malls throughout the country and the singular focus on commerce at the expense of community.

Yet, even in the age of amazon.com, we continue to gather at shopping malls. “We as a species need to look at other people,” Underhill says. “The mall is one of the ways we get to experience some sense of community.

“The mall is not going to die,” he adds. “Too many of us grew up in a mall to basically walk away. But our needs have changed.”

Today’s most forward-thinking malls are overseas. In Dubai, malls are connected to hotels, cultural arts centers, and even indoor ski slopes. In Stockholm, there’s a mall with a church in it.

“We need a more comprehensive meeting of public and private interests,” Underhill says. He points to New York’s Shops at Columbus Circle as a shining example of a well-planned, multi-use development with a hotel, condominiums, office tower, concert hall, restaurants, bars, more than 40 stores, and a Whole Foods all under one roof.

It’s not all that different from the master plan Gruen mapped out for Southdale more than half a century ago.

Photographs by Stephanie Colgan


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