Agents Of Change

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Soon a new generation of developers was building on Gruen’s ideas. Edward DeBartolo took to the air to scout locations for new malls; Melvin Simon and Alfred Taubman built fortunes in malls. James Rouse combined the basic mall with historical themes in old Eastern cities—with Quincy Market in Boston, Harborplace in Baltimore, and South Street Seaport in New York. So many developers hired Gruen himself that soon his firm had offices in six major cities. He was called in to replan whole downtowns, notably in Fort Worth. At the height of his influence, the Shah of Iran hired him to redesign Teheran.

But Gruen, looking on what he had wrought, was not pleased. He believed that malls “represent a great step forward. They are clearly defined urban organisms to fight sprawl.” But he also realized their deficiencies, chief among them the fact that no mall had “treated successfully the appearance of the area immediately surrounding the building core, which appears like an asphalt desert.” He had dreamed of social, cultural, and recreational crystallization points for amorphous, sprawling suburbs. But instead, the rise of the mall had freed suburbanites from the need to visit cities. When offices followed, the process was complete.

 

By 1964 Gruen was downplaying suburban malls in favor of the downtown pedestrian mall—the cheapest form of “urban redevelopment,” requiring simply the exclusion of traffic from an old Main Street, some paving blocks, and a few planters. But life had already left Main Street for Gruen’s malls.

His formula for the beginning of a richer, more humane environment had become something that could be reduced to the lowest common denominator, so totally planned that men’s shoe stores stood right next to women’s shoe stores, allowing couples to browse separately without getting lost. (So many mall stores seem to sell shoes; where do Americans ever walk enough to wear out so many shoes, except perhaps at malls?) Each store space was standardized into a module, so that if one enterprise failed, it could be jerked out and replaced like a defective computer chip. The stores became the same across the country, and so did the malls, sealed off from their local landscapes and finally coming to resemble huge ocean liners or spaceships—the starship Free Enterprise .

In 1967 Gruen returned somewhat downcast to Vienna, with its orderly urban plan of forts and battlements and ring roads, its cafés and plazas. He died there in 1980.

6 ALEXANDER PONIATOFF

Bing Crosby loved his golf game even more than he loved his radio show. So in 1948 he bought the first tape recorder marketed in America. It was made by Ampex, a company founded by a Russian émigré, Alexander M. Poniatoff, and named with his initials plus “ex for excellence.” Now Bing could hook and slice and three-putt to his heart’s delight while a nation of fans heard his voice, taped, on their radios.

Liberating GIs had brought the tape recorder back from Germany, along with Wernher von Braun and rocket science. It was clear that the next step would be a recorder for video. Crosby put his money into the videotape recorder (VTR) effort. So did Gen. David Sarnoff of RCA, who poured millions of dollars into a huge team of researchers during the fifties.

Poniatoff took a different approach to the problem. He was a former pilot in the czar’s air force who had fought on the White side during the Russian Civil War and later worked as an engineer in China before coming to the United States in 1927 and finding it much more amenable to his ambitions. He believed in hiring good engineers and giving them freedom. “You have to create an atmosphere where engineers do their work with some sort of deep personal interest and enthusiasm,” he said in 1960. His videotaperecorder effort was headed up by two young whizzes, Charles Ginsberg and Ray M. Dolby, a nineteen-year-old prodigy whose name would one day be synonymous with electronics used in virtually every tape recorder.

Their work paid off when they gave their machine its premiere at a national broadcasting industry convention in April 1956. Giant RCA had been beaten out by a small company from the so-called hobby lobby. Ampex’s key innovation had been the idea of recording on a bias, a strategy not unlike slicing carrots on the slant so that more of their surface is exposed for cooking. The method proved far more efficient.

Like photography and film, the videotape recorder subtly changed experience. Within months after Poniatoff showed his prototype machine, a VTR was used to tape-delay a national news program. The demand for Ampex machines exceeded all Poniatoff’s projections, and within a dozen year the value of his company more than doubled, to $220 million.

The machine inaugurated the era of the media event when the famous Nixon-Khrushchev “kitchen debate” took place in July 1959 at the Ampex booth of an American trade exposition in Moscow. It had been carefully set up by aides to the then Vice President, including the journalist William Safire, and was recorded on the VTR.