Ever since the world’s first enclosed shopping centre opened in Edina Minnesota in 1956 there has been the suspicion that such places are designed in a way to seduce people into spending more money.
Indeed, the term Gruen Transfer (which inspired the name of the ABC TV show) is named after the architect of that centre Victor Gruen, who the pioneered the “big box” shopping mall.
The theory holds that visitors will be so entranced by the surroundings of a shopping centre that they will feel the impulse to spend money.
“In all his designs, he relied on visual surprises to amuse visitors, create consumers and produce profits,’’ says a recent biography of Gruen.
“His theory was simple: the more time people spent enjoying themselves in the commercial environment, the more money they would spend.”
Aside from his vision of creating a “shoppers paradise”, Gruen hoped his malls would also become centres of non-commercial activity.
He hoped they would, as he put it, “fill the vacuum created by the absence of social, cultural, and civic crystallisation points in our vast suburban areas”.
But over the past few decades, it has become evident that in many cases Gruen’s shopping centre designs, which were replicated in Australia from the late 1950s, have only added to this cultural vacuum.
Inward-looking and surrounded by large car parks, these centres actually isolated themselves from the surrounding communities they were meant to service.
With the rise of the internet and with consumers being better informed than ever in making purchasing decisions and able to purchase items without leaving home, the so-called Gruen Transfer (if it actually ever really existed) has well and truly worn off.
Shopping centres more than ever need to make themselves more than just places for people to shop if they are to survive.
They need to be places where people want to congregate and socialise. They need to have a range of experiences that do not revolve around the use of a credit card.
The power of free
The need to make centres more integrated with surrounding communities has seen a reversal of the so-called Gruen Effect.
To attract people, who in many cases can simply buy a product over the internet, shopping centres need to create public space where people just want to be. They also need to offer a bundle of experiences, from shopping, eating and entertainment.
Some centres have also created areas where people can gather and feel they are under no obligation to spend money. Public areas that allow the local community to congregate for reasons not related with the commercial activities of a centre.
Areas with no corporate identity or theming – such as the logo of the shopping centre owner plastered all over them.
Much of this thought went into the development of the central square in GPT’s Rouse Hill Town Centre in Sydney, which includes a paved area with benches and a fountain. In this less-controlled environment, people are encouraged to loiter and simply enjoy the open air.
Unlike traditional malls which are shut off from the outside, Rouse Hill Town Centre reflects a more traditional town centre with two main streets and pedestrian-friendly laneways.
With residential developments sprouting up around Rouse Hill along with a planned rail station opening in 2019, the ‘free space’ will help foster the creation of a bustling centre of diverse experiences – which will hopefully include the bundle of “social, cultural, and civic crystallisation points” that Gruen originally dreamed of.
The power of benches
Another example of the “power of free” is the GPT and QIC-owned MLC Centre, which was one of the first buildings in Sydney’s CBD to provide private land for public use when it opened in the late 1970s.
The steps on the forecourt of the centre on Martin Place over the years have become a popular spot in Sydney’s CBD for people to meet up and have a casual lunch.
In late 2014, seating cubes were installed on the stairs to encourage more visitors.
Since then more casual seating and outdoor dining tables have been installed around the outside public areas of the building on Martin Place. A survey in late 2014 found 30 per cent of the visitors to Martin Place came to sit, relax, eat and socialise, with 18 per cent saying the priority for the precinct was to have more benches.
While many people using the outside area do not buy their lunch at the MLC food court, they have helped the MLC Centre become one of the key meeting spots and landmarks in the Sydney CBD.
This has seen the centre remain relevant to the community around it and stand the test of time, while many other buildings from the same era have been demolished.
The power of the free has its long-term financial advantages.