The retail shopping center is a familiar fixture of the American suburban landscape. Its ubiquity today obscures the fact that it represents a distinct architectural typology that has only recently emerged.
It is a curious fact of history that many of the defining innovations of retail architecture originated in Texas. This is partially due to the fact that Texans embraced the automobile earlier than the rest of the country. Developers and the architects they teamed up with saw the uniqueness of the emerging urban condition and endeavored to create an appropriate architectural response that was later exported to the rest of the country.
Three projects in particular — Highland Park Village and NorthPark Center in Dallas, and the Galleria in Houston — are important landmarks in the development of the modern shopping experience. While each of these projects is a product of its individual era, as a group they speak to the value that design can bring to cities and the people who live in them.
Highland Park Village
Incorporated in 1913, Highland Park was built as a garden suburb on the northern frontier of Dallas. As was the case with other western cities, the growth of Dallas was made possible not by the expansion of commuter rail lines but by the widespread ownership of the personal automobile. As a bedroom community, Highland Park offered a seductive alternative to urban living but lacked a traditional business district where residents could shop.
Developers Edgar Flippen and Hugh Prather recognized an opportunity to create a concentrated shopping center that would cater to the car-traveling shopper. Along with Dallas architects Fooshee & Cheek, they created a concept that organized individual shops around a central square of parking. The idea was that shoppers would drive to their new center, park for free, and then shop at several different stores before returning to their vehicles. By turning the center’s back to the surrounding neighborhood, they created a defined shopping plaza the likes of which had never been seen before Highland Park Village opened its doors in 1931.
The architects imbued the facades with an eclectic mix of the Mission Revival and Spanish Mediterranean styles. The aspirational quality of the architecture enhanced the novelty of the shopping experience and created a space that in some ways acted as a town square for the growing suburb of Highland Park. Other contemporary developments, such as Kansas City’s Country Club Village, also used an exotic architectural language to create a unified retail environment. But whereas that development sought to integrate the district into existing street grids, in Highland Park the goal was to create an inwardly focused plaza.
Highland Park Village originally provided local residents with conveniences such as a grocery store, drug store, and gas station. These types of amenities continued to define the offerings of Highland Park Village until the middle part of the last century, when many of the site’s unique architectural elements were altered or removed in attempts to “modernize” the property. After the plaza was sold in 1976, the new owners began to restore the architecture to its original grandeur and leverage its uniqueness to attract high-end retailers. OMNIPLAN of Dallas has continued this trend, making Highland Park Village one of Texas’ premier addresses for luxury retail.
By the mid-1960s, the model of providing for the retail needs of a growing suburban population with concentrated shopping centers had been well established. The new game for developers was to anticipate where a city’s growth was heading. This is precisely what Raymond Nasher did in the early 1960s when he acquired 97 acres approximately six miles north of Highland Park Village.
Nasher intended to build an enclosed shopping center on that land. On paper, this goal was unremarkable; NorthPark would not be the first enclosed, air-conditioned mall. But it would be the first one with a clear architectural vision. Nasher hired Harrell+Hamilton Architects of Dallas (now OMNIPLAN, the designers of the 2006 expansion of NorthPark) to create a premier modern shopping experience designed by prominent architects. When it opened, NorthPark was the world’s largest air-conditioned retail establishment. Eero Saarinen had been hired to design the Nieman Marcus store, but the architect’s sudden death in 1961 prevented this from occurring. Kevin Roche ultimately completed the project, creating a modern store that harmonized with the spatial design of the rest of NorthPark.
To animate the vast interior world of the mall, Nasher made the unprecedented decision to display much of his growing art collection within the public concourses. The fact that he was a collector of modern sculpture was lucky, for the large-scale works could be displayed without being overwhelmed by the spaces in which they were located. Art pieces were also incorporated into outdoor areas of the mall, creating an integrated composition with a landscaped courtyard space.
The other and perhaps more important innovation of the development was Nasher’s purchase of the surrounding land. He recognized that if he acquired the available property around the mall, the land could be sold later at a higher price to other developers looking to capitalize on of the proximity to the established mall. It thus acted as a catalyst for continued retail development.
The 1970 opening of the Galleria in Houston expanded on many of the ideas of NorthPark but deployed them at a larger, more audacious scale. Eventually growing to over 3 million sf, the Galleria is the largest mall in Texas. Similar to Nasher’s vision for exhibiting art in the vast corridors of NorthPark, developer Gerald Hines sought to pack his project with unique amenities that would make the mall itself a destination. These included two hotels, three office towers, and the first-ever ice skating rink located inside a mall.
Although its aesthetics were based on Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — a vast shopping district in Milan created by the construction of a low glazed vault above an existing city street — the Galleria in Houston is more like a walled citadel for shopping. Partially in response to Houston’s hot, humid climate, architects HOK and Neuhaus & Taylor created an environment where shoppers could park in a climate-controlled structure, walk through an enclosed skyway, and enter into the mall without ever touching the city or breathing outside air. The Galleria became not just a place to shop but an oasis that provided respite from Houston’s long summers.
Hines also actively sought to bring to Texas stores that had not previously had a presence in the state. From Chicago he imported Marshall Field’s and Crate & Barrel, and from New York he brought Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, and Tiffany’s. Although these stores have a ubiquitous presence in shopping malls today, their arrival in Houston was seen as a reflection of the city’s growing wealth and status.
With the success of the Galleria, the shopping mall was fully leveraged as a catalyst for wider urban development. The surrounding Uptown area of Houston grew throughout the 1970s and 80s to essentially become a city unto itself. With its own skyline and as much office space as many traditional urban centers, the area around the Galleria represented a new type of edge city that would become increasingly commonplace on the interstate loops of cities throughout America.
The cliche is that the key to any retail project is “location, location, location,” and while it is true that each of these three developments enjoyed a favorable address, their architecture proved to be an equally critical reason for their success. These projects show that good design brings sustained value over the course of many years. Most shopping centers go through a predictable cycle of growth followed by decay and ultimate closure, yet all three of these projects have remained vibrant centers of commerce for many decades.
Part of the Galleria’s lasting legacy is that it taught Texas developers about the importance of good architecture. By hiring notable talent to design individual stores (Philip Johnson, for example, designed the Marshall Field’s), Hines succeeding in creating an engaging shopping environment that was an attraction in itself. The success of the Galleria catapulted his career forward, and he would go on to work with other “starchitects” including I. M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, and Frank Gehry. In doing so, he proved that speculative projects could gain demonstrable value through design. Texas cities are more interesting places as a result.
It is an ironic twist that these private retail projects, often designed to mimic grand civic spaces in Europe, have at times presented favorable alternatives to the public spaces provided by Texas cities. While there will always be a need for public parks and plazas, the role of the shopping mall has become one of similar social significance. Nasher saw this fact not as an indictment of the low quality of our public spaces, but rather as a lofty goal that retail architecture should aspire to achieve. Indeed, he saw his mall as having a social responsibility to “serve as a catalyst to link art and business for the benefit of all.”
The annual ARTsPARK event held at NorthPark Center reinforces Nasher’s original goal. Arts and cultural organizations from Dallas and the surrounding counties come together to encourage the public to make art a part of their everyday lives. Painters and sculptors set up alongside live performances by dancers and children’s theater groups, filling the corridors of NorthPark with activity centered on local contemporary arts one day each spring. This event is not only a catalyst that links the arts and business for the benefit of all, but also a tribute to the creation and encouragement of community through good architectural design.
Published in Texas Architect, March/April 2013.