September 22, 2011
Looking for a bookshop that was no longer there, I walked instead into a labyrinth designed as a trap. Leaving became an allusion, rather like Alice once she had stepped through the Looking Glass. Walls of glass curved into concentric circles as one “store” merged into another: Armani Exchange with Dinki Di Pies. Exits led to gauntlets of more “offers” and “exciting options”. Seeking a guide, I bought a lousy pair of sunglasses: anything to get out. It was a vision of hell. It was a Westfield mega mall.
This happened in Sydney — where the Westfield empire began — in a “mall” not half as mega as the one that opened in Stratford, east London on 13 September. “Everything” is here, reported the architectural critic Jonathan Glancey: from Apple to Primark, McDonalds’s to KFC and Krispy Kreme. There is a cinema with 17 screens and “luxurious VIP seats”, and a mega “luxury” bowling alley. Tracey Emin and Mary Portas lead the Westfield “cultural team”. The biggest casino in the land will overlook a “24-hour lifestyle street” called The Arcade. This will be the only way into the 2012 Olympic Games for 10m people attending the athletics. The simple, grotesque message of “buy me, buy me” will be London’s welcome to the world.
“If you’ve seen the Disney film Wall-E,” wrote Glancey in 2008, “you’ll certainly recognise Westfield and malls like it. In the film, humans who long ago abandoned the Earth they messed up through greed, live a supremely sedentary life shopping and eating. They are very tubby and have lost the use of their legs. Is this how we’ll end up? Or will we plunge into the depths of some mammoth recession …with nothing and nowhere to spend?” In the less apocalyptic short term, Westfield is “a step towards our collective desire to undermine the life and culture of the traditional city, along with its architecture, and to shop and shop some more.”
The original development plan for Stratford City evoked Barcelona: a grid of defined streets of shops and places to live. Modern, civilised. Then the Olympics loomed and so did Westfield, a major corporate sponsor. The mega mall, the biggest in Europe, is built in the midst of grey tower blocks not far from where the recent riots occurred, its “designer” products, made mostly with cheap, regimented labour, beckon the indebted. That it stands on a site where London workers made trains – thousands of locomotives, carriages and goods wagons – in what was once called manufacturing is of melancholy interest. The mega mall’s jobs produce nothing and are mostly low-paid. It is an emblem of extreme times.