PAPER — In 2017, Janina Gosseye and Tom Avermaete were invited by the Belgian architecture magazine A+ to write a piece on the development of shopping centres in Belgium, from the early 1960s to today. This paper was published in both dutch and french in their December 2017 issue. The full text is available in english below:
The development of a new shopping centre often elicits strong reactions. The Uplace saga, which has dominated Belgian news headlines for years, is only one example. But this distrust towards shopping centres is not new. In 1963, for instance, Dutch economist A.W. Luyckx wrote in the periodical Actuele Onderwerpen:
Tussen Delft en Den Haag, in Rijswijk, is een modern winkelcentrum in aanbouw … Ook op andere punten in ons land wordt de oprichting van dergelijke “shopping centres” overwogen … Ook in de overige Beneluxlanden is de situatie gelijk… dit allemaal in navolging van Amerika. Zullen de winkelstraten in het centrum van Amsterdam, Antwerpen, Brussel, Den Haag, Luik, Luxemburg of Rotterdam ontvolkt worden?
When the American shopping centre type first arrived in Europe in the mid 20th century, countless concerns were voiced about the impact that it would have on the historical city centre and the wider urban territory. Many countries thus sent ‘missions’ to the US to investigate this new type first hand. Between 1953 and 1963, several Swiss, British, Dutch and German delegations journeyed across the Atlantic, as well as one from Belgium. Between 14 October and 6 November 1960, representatives of the Belgische Dienst Opvoering Productiviteit travelled to the US, where they visited a myriad of malls. Upon their return, they published a travel report, which bluntly stated: ‘Het is … zielig getuige te zijn van de doodstrijd, om niet te spreken van de dood, van een stadscentrum waaruit het leven zich op een versneld ritme terugtrekt.’ The assassin, the mission believed, was the American suburban shopping centre.
One of the most prominent advocates of the suburban shopping centre in the US was Victor Gruen, an Austrian architect who had in 1938 fled to America, where he arrived just in time to witness the onset of drastic urban transformations. Starting from the 1940s, the construction of hundreds of thousands of new houses, along with the rapid increase in car ownership and federally funded highway construction resulted in an explosive expansion of suburban areas, which were almost exclusively residential and lacking in urban amenity.
As an antidote, Gruen conceived the shopping centre. He defined it as a tool to redress America’s unfettered suburban sprawl by injecting amenities and collective spaces. He thought of the shopping centre as a ‘satellite downtown’ that – once several were realized – could develop into a network of nodes, which would structure decentralization around large cities and (importantly!) safeguard the commercial viability of the city centre.
Gruen’s approach was best illustrated in Edina (Minnesota) where in 1956 his most famous shopping centre, Southdale, opened. This was the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled suburban shopping centre in the US – a prototype that in 20 short years would come to dominate American retailing. In early plans, Gruen had placed Southdale shopping centre at the heart of a larger development, with schools, a medical centre, a park, a lake, etc. However, its developer, Dayton’s, was not interested in realising any of these communal benefits. And so, only a solitary, climate-controlled retail container was built.
In 1968, little over a decade but many disappointments later, Gruen left the US, and returned to Vienna. That same year, he was invited to speak at a conference in Brussels, where he noted: ‘To me it seems unnecessary, illogical and tragic, that Europe and other regions should repeat the mistakes made in the United States rather than to make use of the new concepts which have arisen from our own shortcomings and our search for better methods.’
Gruen’s criticism resonated with European proponents of the shopping centre, many of whom had travelled to the US on study tours. Two key lessons that these European experts took away from their visits, was the need to include the city in their reflection, and the importance for governments and public administrations to harness the power of this commercial juggernaut. In Belgium, these lessons were implemented to varying degrees of success.
The first shopping centre to open in Belgium was Shopping 1 in Genk. Much like in Gruen’s plans, the underlying motivation for its construction was to mend the town’s metastasizing urban growth. When in the early 1960s it became clear that the region’s natural resources were finite, Genk set out to reinvent itself as a modern commercial magnet and tabled a proposal to develop a shopping centre. Bordering the municipality’s budding ‘downtown’ along the Europalaan, Shopping 1 was destined to contribute to the formation of an urban core of regional allure, which would also offer centrality to Genk’s dispersed urban fabric that had grown around 3 major mining sites. This strategic placement of the shopping centre was a direct result of the lead role that the municipality adopted in its development: the municipality selected the site, expropriated the land and commissioned an architect of its choice to develop a design.
In 1964 architect J.M. Plumier presented his first plans: a complex of detached, rectilinear buildings, all connected through an intricate system of pedestrian streets in the sky, and located in a car free area surrounded by parking lots. Next to retail, this open-air complex incorporated a large housing block, offices, an administrative centre, a hotel, a café, a restaurant and several communal facilities such as a day-care centre and a swimming pool.
On the basis of Plumier’s plans, which were further developed over the following year, the municipality opened a tendering procedure and in 1965 commissioned Constructions et Entreprises Industrielles (C.E.I.) to construct the complex. However, in the contract that C.E.I. sent to the municipality, it suggested that the established price was still negotiable if the municipality was to refrain from obliging the company to build the non-retail components of the design. Genk budged. Over the following year, the plans were adjusted, and when Shopping 1 opened its doors in August 1968, it no longer remotely resembled the initial design that Plumier had made. Instead, only a fully enclosed, climate-controlled, shopping centre was built, which had parking for 1000 cars on its roof, and an awkward relationship with the downtown that it adjoined.
Less than 10 years later, an inner city shopping centre also opened in Waregem, whose design was akin to the early plans drawn up for its Limburg predecessor. Fascinated by the possibilities afforded by ‘commercial urbanism’, Waregem initiated the development of this shopping centre in the early 1960s and attributed Het Pand (as the new complex was called) a key role in its bid to revitalize the city centre and create a modern, mixed-use urban core.
With fierce determination, the municipality earmarked the houses along the southern edge of its Marktplein for demolition. Behind this row of houses a large, largely defunct, industrial site existed, beyond which a new sports centre had been built. Eugeen Vanassche, a young architect from Bruges, designed a new 4-storey complex on the levelled industrial site. Its ground floor served as a car park and effectively bridged the 2-metre height difference between the Marktplein and the sports centre. This enabled the creation of a car-free upper deck, where, at grade with the Marktplein, the new shopping centre was built. Structured around an open-air pedestrian mall, this new shopping centre not only offered 12,000 m2 of retail space, but also housed the city’s administration, a cinema, a library and a cultural centre.
Amassing the necessary finances to build this complex was difficult, but the municipality persisted and drew on several funds to realize its ambitious project through various stages. The cultural centre was constructed first. It opened in 1971 and was aptly named De Schakel, as it provided a link between the sports grounds and shopping centre. Over the following six years, the municipality gradually worked its way north until the complex was complete and formally opened on 23 September 1977.
Apart from these early inner-city shopping centres, several large suburban shopping centres were also built in Belgium. The earliest instances of this type are to be found in Brussels, where Woluwe and Westland opened in 1968 and 1972 respectively. One located to the East of the capital, the other to the West, these shopping centres served as catalysts for the development of new multifunctional nodes that, much like Gruen had envisaged, aimed to structure suburbanization around Brussels.
The initiative to construct Woluwe shopping centre was taken by Devimo, a real estate company. However, when Devimo presented its plans to the municipality, Woluwe quickly capitalized on this opportunity to create a fully-fledged urban heart for the municipality. It prepared a masterplan, which proposed to combine the shopping centre with cultural and leisure facilities in a larger complex located along the Boulevard de la Woluwe, on either side of the Avenue P. Hymans, and connected by an elevated pedestrian walkway. This master plan was however never officially adopted and thus never realised. As a result, the ancillary functions and the pedestrian walkway disappeared, as Woluwe transformed into a run-of-the-mill, fully enclosed, climate-controlled shopping mall.
A similar story unfolded in Anderlecht. However, here it was the municipality itself that took the initiative to develop a shopping centre. Convinced that Anderlecht had the potential to become the sub-capital of the western suburbs, the municipality entered into a collaboration with Devimo. As a result of this public-private partnership, Westland shopping centre was adopted in a larger masterplan, which through various pedestrian walkways connected to a larger park system that weaved together different neighbourhoods, as well as cultural and civic facilities in Anderlecht. After the final plan was approved in 1971, the shopping centre was quickly built and opened in 1972. However, when the economic crisis hit in 1973, little else of the masterplan had been completed, and few resources were available to do so.
A few other large peripheral shopping centres opened in Belgium in the early 1970s, including Koopcenter Waasland in Sint-Niklaas (1972) and Ring Shopping Centre in Kortrijk (1973). However, as a result of the economic crisis, the development of such large shopping centres in the urban periphery, mostly died down from the mid-1970s and only resurfaced in the early 1990s, when a few new commercial ventures, such as Wijnegem in Antwerp (1993) and Belle-Île in Luik (1995), were built. At the time of their opening, these shopping centres all measured around 35,000 m2 – a benchmark set by Woluwe and Westland. However, contrary to Woluwe and Westland, Wijnegem and Belle-Île as well as Koopcenter Waasland and Ring Shopping Centre, were all exclusively private initiatives and thus had no incentive to fulfil a public function that radiated beyond their own borders.
The recommendation for governments to harness private retail investment, which was originally made in the 1960s, following several missions to the US, was only rediscovered in Belgium’s most recent shopping-centre-wave. Shopping K in Kortrijk (2010) is a successful example, and also Neo, which is to be built in the North-west of Brussels, has a strong list of public backers. Much like the original shopping centre proposal that was drafted for Genk, Neo promises a suite of public amenities, such as a park, a lake, a swimming pool, a sports centre, etc. Only time will tell if these ambitious plans will be more fully realised on the Heysel Plateau than they were in Genk’s Campine plane.
However, when considering Belgium’s latest shopping centre wave, which is by and large taking place in the Capital Region, a much larger concern emerges, which has to do with its impact on the historic city and the wider region. With a retail area of 80,000 m2 – exceeding that of Woluwe and Westland combined – Neo promises to become the country’s largest shopping centre. What’s more, it will be located at a distance of merely 3 km from the new Docks shopping centre, which opened last year and has a commercial surface of 41,000 m2, and a mere 6 kilometres away from Uplace, which will inject approximately 55,000 additional square metres of retail area in the region. As many inner-city shops and shopping centres in Brussels already struggle to survive – the galleries around the Louizalaan are particularly harrowing examples – there is little evidence that the potential effect of these new developments on the historical city, an its larger urban territory (including its existing shopping centre stock), has been thoroughly considered. Gruen’s idea of the shopping centre as part of network of urban nodes, including the historical city centre, seems to be long forgotten. And also the old models of mobility on which the recent shopping-centre-wave relies, remain troublesome. Though the private car was enthusiastically proposed as the main transportation mode for the shopping centre in the 1960s, in Belgium’s contemporary congested territory this choice seems all but evident.
As the welfare state continues to crumble, Belgium is thus increasingly, ostensibly blindly, following in America’s footsteps – heedlessly following wherever it is that developers might take them, instead of proactively steering private investment. So perhaps another mission should be sent to the US, so those charged with caring for our built environment can witness first hand what the absence of planning of – and governmental control over commercial investment has created there: a landscape dotted with desolate dead malls.
- ― Shopping Centres: Verslag van de Belgische Zending naar de Verenigde Staten (Belgische Dienst Opvoering Productiviteit, 1960).
- Malcolm Gladwell, “The Terrazzo Jungle,” New Yorker, 15 March 2004, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/03/15/the-terrazzo-jungle
- Janina Gosseye, “The Janus-faced Shopping Centre: The Low Countries in Search of a Fitting Shopping Paradigm”, Journal of Urban History (published online before print 1 April 2016).
- Janina Gosseye and Tom Avermaete (eds.), Shopping Towns Europe 1945-1975: Commercial Collectivity and the Architecture of the Shopping Centre (London, Bloomsbury, 2017).
- Jeffrey Hardwick, Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
- A.W. Luyckx, “Winkelcentrum: Van Markt tot Shopping Center,” Actuele Onderwerpen 953 (15 March 1963).
- Yannick Vanhaelen & Géry Leloutre, “Shopping Centres as Catalyst for New Multifunctional Urban Centralities: The Case of Two Shopping Centres around Brussels”, in Janina Gosseye and Tom Avermaete (eds.), Shopping Towns Europe 1945-1975: Commercial Collectivity and the Architecture of the Shopping Centre (London, Bloomsbury, 2017), 51 – 64.
Janina Gosseye, Tom Avermaete, “Shopping Towns Belgium”, A+, no. 269 (December 2017), 36-38.