Alfred Taubman, who died April 17 at the age of 91, can expect to be remembered as having had a central position in the construction of contemporary culture.
But, despite his substantial donations to leading academic institutions, museums and literacy programs and his ownership of the fine art auction house Sothebys—which led to the greatest set-back of his life—it was his pivotal role in an altogether more egalitarian and quotidian sphere where he had the most impact.
The indoor suburban shopping mall, now a fixture in the major conurbations of every developed nation, owed its existence and many of its essential qualities to his vision.
These monuments to consumerism, as well as making Taubman’s fortune, became so central to modern life that they have affected quite unexpected aspects of the culture. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), which filled them with zombies, found them the perfect metaphor for unthinking consumption, while for Alicia Silverstone’s Valley Girl character in 1995’s Clueless, it had become a “sanctuary; a place where I could gather my thoughts and regain my strength.”
Taubman’s exceptional eye for design combined with his unrivalled understanding of how retail outlets actually function led to a series of architectural and commercial insights which became standard models from Detroit to Dubai.
No detail, according to colleagues, escaped Taubman’s attention. Floors were designed to resist stiletto heels; pedestrian traffic encouraged to move clockwise; cosmetic counters (with their astronomical mark-ups) placed at first floor entrances; prestigious stores had flagship locations; parking layouts made it easy to get away. Such innovations in constructing retail spaces made Taubman, during the 1980s, one of the 10 richest men in the USA.
But at the other end of the commercial spectrum, Taubman faced his one great disaster. In 1983, he took control of the auction giant Sothebys. Despite his populist background, he was well-regarded by the art world as a knowledgeable and discriminating collector, and at first all went well.
But in the late 1990s, the U.S. government began to examine a series of meetings between Taubman and his counterpart at Christie’s, Sir Anthony Tennant. The Justice Department eventually concluded that there was evidence of price fixing and collusion, and in 2000 Taubman resigned, along with his chief executive, Diana Brooks. She struck a deal with prosecutors and the following year Taubman found himself with a $7.5 million fine and a nine-and-a-half month prison sentence.
Adolph Alfred Taubman was born on Jan. 31, 1924 at Pontiac, Mich., the youngest son of a builder who had emigrated from Germany. He had difficulty at school; he had dyslexia and, though naturally left-handed, was forced to use his right. He also developed a stutter.
His strength was art, at which he showed early promise. His college days, at the University of Michigan and then Lawrence Tech, where he studied fine art and then architecture, were interrupted by war service during the Second World War, which also led him to drop Adolph in favour of his middle name.
In the event, he never graduated, opting instead to work as a shoe salesman to support his wife Reva and their daughter. But his ambition was to move into building, and he sought experience with other firms before launching his own company in 1950.
He began by remodelling shopfronts and building commercial property. But his great insight was in realising the potential in the suburbs which were beginning to spring up around Detroit, and in reasoning that those who lived there would need somewhere to shop—and that those outlets could be brought together on one site.
By 1955, he had his first million and went into partnership with the oil magnate Max Fisher, developing the Speedway chain of gas stations—which were among the first to feature convenience stores. Soon his malls and developments were springing up around other American cities; as each was completed, Taubman would leverage it against a new, and usually larger, project.
In 1970, he built Woodford in Chicago, then the world’s largest shopping centre, with 2 million square feet of space. In 1977, he acquired 77,000 acres of Orange County, Calif., in a deal which cost $337 million and returned more than $1 billion in 1983. Taubman’s share was over $100 million. He bought shares in Macy’s, acquired the fast-food chain A&W, Sotheby’s and the Michigan Panthers football team. Taubman Centers, the company now run by his sons, at one point had more than 70 million square feet of retail space; last month, it launched The Mall of San Juan in Puerto Rico.
But if Taubman brought in the cash, he was almost as quick to hand it out. His philanthropy invited comparisons with Carnegie. Nor was it a bid for redemption after his jail term; he had been a generous and engaged donor long before his stint in a low-security facility in Rochester, Minn., where he lost weight and played a lot of bridge.
The University of Michigan alone received some $142 million from him, making him far and away their largest donor. Hospitals, medical research, architecture schools and civil rights groups all benefited from his largesse. When Rosa Parks was attacked in her home in Detroit, Taubman arranged to move her to safe accommodation. Numerous building and institutes bore his name—including facilities at Harvard and Brown.
Taubman’s genuine enthusiasm for the projects he backed, and for programs in architecture, design and educating young people made him a popular figure, and his brief spell in prison was quickly ignored by many of his friends. For his part, he maintained that he had done nothing wrong, and in 2007 produced a memoir, Threshold Resistance (the title referred to tempting customers into a store) in which he argued that he had been the victim of a plea bargain deal.
Taubman’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1977. In 1982, he married his second wife, Judy Rounick, a former Miss Israel who had worked for Christie’s, Sotheby’s great rival. She, and his daughter and two sons from his first marriage, survive him.