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When the "new" Southlake Mall opened in 1974 along a stretch of cornfields off U.S. 30 in what was then deemed Merrillville, it was the major destination.

The days of free-standing department stores were fading, and only Marquette Mall in Michigan City served this region as the only other indoor retail oasis for eager shoppers. (River Oaks Mall in Calumet City originally was an open-air outdoor mall.)

When the new space first opened, it originally only included a span from east to west, with Sears and JC Penney as the two primary anchors. Later, north and south wings were added with Carson Pirie Scott and LS Ayres as additional large store anchors.

But first and foremost, it was the design, architecture and decor that impressed new guests. With large seating areas featuring live tropical palms and fountains surrounding a focal point of modern art sculptures and hanging mobiles, it made shopping mall history as one of the first two-story indoor malls in the Chicago area.

Now in its third year, the Architecture & Design Film Festival, which is the nation's largest film festival dedicated to celebrating the creative spirit that drives architecture and design, is celebrating "the architecture firsts of shopping malls" during the festival's final day of offerings today.

Held at the iconic Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, just a stone's throw from Wrigley Field, this year's festival began Thursday and concludes with tonight's Chicago premiere of the new documentary "The Gruen Effect: Victor Gruen and the Shopping Mall."

The 50-minute feature, which originated in Austria in 2009, is being shown at 9:15 tonight.

I learned from Kyle Bergman, director and founder of the Architecture & Design Film Festival, "The Gruen Effect" reveals this architect's life, work and critical humor "become a means to make sense of the cities we live in today."

"There is a natural connection between film and architecture," Bergman said.

"Designing a building and making a film are a similar process. Both require a balance between art and science, both tell stories and are labors of love."

Viennese architect Victor Gruen, who died in 1980, is certainly acknowledged as "the father of the shopping mall."

His ideas about urban planning, both influential and abused, have led to cities, that as Bergman explains, "serve the new gods of consumption."

By tracing Gruen's path from prewar Vienna to 1950s America and back to Europe in 1968, the documentary explores the themes and mistranslations that have come to define urban life.

In addition to the Gruen documentary, this year's five-day festival included a lineup of 31 films from 13 countries, along with lively discussions with exceptional filmmakers, architects, designers and industry leaders.

The Architecture & Design Film Festival is the nation's largest film festival celebrating the creative spirit behind some of the world's most remarkable architecture and design. The films profile visionary architects, the creative design process, environmental issues and the brilliant designs that we see and use every day.

The 2012 ADFF kicked off with the Chicago premiere of "Unfinished Spaces," the brilliant new film about the utopian fantasy that swept Cuba when Fidel Castro came to power and commissioned an arts school complex that was meant to be "the most beautiful" in the world.

But ultimately, the buildings were left unfinished for more than 30 years and upended the careers of the three young architects who participated in the project.

Film tickets are $8 for students and $11 for general admission and available at or in-person at the Music Box Theatre box office.

The opinions are the writer's. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.