The Gruen Plan for Oberlin, Ohio
The Rise of Victor Gruen Associates

The story of Victor Gruen Associates starts with one man. Not surprisingly, this man is Victor Gruen. In his native Austria, he involved himself in city planning, architecture, and interior design. His work in theatre, however, probably attracted more attention. He was a director of a small cabaret that satirized Hitler and his Nazi party.

“One afternoon in 1938 Gruen called home, and his wife told him that the Gestapo was searching his apartment. He ran to his theatre and from the costumes trunk pulled out a Nazi lieutenant's uniform that he had worn in one of his satirical revues. He hitched a ride to a near by pasture that served as an airfield, and flew to America.” [i]

Victor Gruen arrived in the United States as a refugee. Within ten years of his departure from his homeland, he founded his own architectural/planning/engineering firm. [ii] This allowed him to deal with the feared sprawl of suburbanization by implementing his own theories, and developing new methods based on “Old World” city planning.

“Gruen's vision emphasized the need to create a centre of a city, a modern agora (the town squares of ancient Greece), that could serve social, cultural and civic purposes as well as facilitate commerce. In his book The Heart of our Cities, Gruen wrote about an Italian immigrant to Boston. This immigrant who had just arrived from Naples when asked what he thought about his new home said ‘I can get bathed and dressed much faster than in Italy, but then I do not know where to go.’" [iii]

Gruen did not only aim to please immigrants with his innovative designs. He was contracted to work for businesses that catered to suburban Americans. His published works reflect his preoccupation with members of this demographic.

“The basic need of the suburban shopper is for a conveniently accessible, amply stocked shopping area with plentiful and free parking. This is the purely practical need for which the shopping center was originally conceived and which many centers most adequately fulfill. Good planning, however, will create additional attractions for shoppers by meeting other needs which are inherent in the psychological climate peculiar to suburbia. By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities, shopping centers can fill an existing void. They can provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.” [iv]

VGA projects of particular interest include:

Milliron’s Department Store (now The Broadway) in Los Angeles, first one-story department store with roof parking.

The Mid-Wilshire Medical Building and two 13-story limit height Tishman Buildings in Los Angeles, all representing advances in design and planning (lightweight steel buildings).

A number of large regional shopping centers throughout the country, among them Northland in Detroit, the world’s largest. Southdale, in near Minneapolis, was the world’s first fully enclosed shopping mall. Others include Eastland, also in suburban Detroit, Glendale in Indianapolis, Valley Fair and Bay Fair, both in the San Francisco Bay area, and South Bay in Redondo Beach, California. (The later in association with Quincy Jones and Frederick Emmons, Architects A.I.A.).

Master planning for the Palos Verdes Peninsula, providing for residential, civic, commercial, educational and recreational development of an outstanding land area of 7000 acres.

Master planning for the redevelopment of a downtown area in Detroit (the Gratiot-Orleans area), in association with Oskar Stonorov and Minoru Yamasaki.

A comprehensive study for redevelopment of the entire downtown area of Fort Worth, Texas. The study has produced a dramatic plan for renewal of the heart of the city through a long-range program aimed at solving traffic, parking and urban rehabilitation problems. [v]


[iv] Gruen, Victor and Smith, Larry Shopping Towns U.S.A.: The Planning of Shopping Centers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1960. Available at: http://uwadmnweb.uwyo.edu/AMS/WebCt_Mall/myweb/gruen%20collection/gruen%20text.htm

Oberlin Central District Study
by Victor Gruen Associates
Downtown Oberlin, Ohio
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by Victor Gruen Associates
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