One of the most dramatic events in the post-World War II period, of profound urban as well as architectural significance, was the rise of the big regional shopping center. The regional, differing from prewar community shopping centers in both size and function, was a hotly debated topic among architects and city planners in the late 1940s. Several of these new, experimental, gargantuan centers, 50 to 150 acres in size with stores and services numbering 100 or more, were in the planning stage across the country at the time. The urban-dimensioned problems that architects and planners faced, however, were formidable. Few were professionally equipped to handle them. The postwar period was marked by a boom in the retail industry: population was increasing, private incomes were rising, and the demand for consumer goods, long capped by the Depression and then by the war, soared. Meanwhile, as use of the private car became commonplace and high-speed freeway systems expanded, vast numbers of people moved to the suburbs. The situation was ripe for the emergence of the large-scale suburban retail center. These highly competitive, multimillion-dollar projects were, however, wholly financed by private investment, and the financial risks were enormous. It was a highly experimental period, with architects and developers following each other closely. The Northgate Shopping Center, located just outside Seattle and finished in 1950, was the first of the regional type to open. Designed by architect John Graham, its progress was monitored carefully by other shopping center planners and developers across the country, in particular, by William Wurster, Welton Becket, and Victor Gruen. Architecturally undistinguished, hence slighted by the architectural community, Northgate was financially highly successful. Graham's concept of a narrow pedestrian mall lined with a dense array of stores and services surrounded by easily accessible parking, attesting his thorough understanding of merchandising as well as architectural and planning problems, proved, in the last analysis, paradigmatic.
- Copyright 1984 The Society of Architectural Historians