The blandness of unreality

So it’s been a while since I posted anything other then my Delicious links, and I’m posting now with no experience of, but a judgment on, Westfield Shopping Centre in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. So, what’s the big deal? The centre opened to the public on 30th October 2008: 150,000m² (1.615m ft²) of space to shop in 255 stores, the third largest shopping centre in the UK, sold as a “new retail experience”. And it received some good press: a covered indoor mall combining the top and middle of the market – booming in its first few days even in a credit crunch.

But it hasn’t pleased everyone:

“It’s more Gatwick village than Liberty, all airport ambience and airlessness, an everywhere and nowhere place, everytown and no town, every familiar shop in every high street, the same, same, same. Eclectic, bold, extraordinary? Only if you have never seen a Tie Rack, Gap or New Look.”

But, let’s not forget it’s a shopping centre. This is the disneyland of retail – show and gloss, nothing real. Some people have suggested that it “is a unique and democratic way of shopping, where highstreet brands sit cheek by jowl with designer labels as well as supermarket shopping”. But the truth is it’s the most undemoctratic shopping experience that can exist – a fully privatised space where the company that runs it (who earned $5.58 billion profit in 2005/6) can control what happens. This is not a place. It’s a non-place. It’s not a city: a city is democratic – a city where you can demonstrate on the street, busk, shop or saunter.

And, this ‘democtratic’, privatised future of consumerist excess on cheap credit does nothing to help the very deprived area it’s landed, alien-like, in. It’s a closed-off traffic-jam generating privatised space with no connection to the place around it and very little benefit for it too. In the words of one resident:

“If you don’t turn off towards Europe’s newest, largest shopping mall but head into the grey autumn of Shepherd’s Bush Green, where the local residents walk their pitbulls and the 99p stores will sell you a handbag and an umbrella, but no real, authentic Prada or Chanel. The rest of the “Bush” looks terrible now up against all that is shiny and new. Squalid isn’t the word.”

And yet this is the place not built on billions of dollars of profit – it’s the city, where we live, which is maintained by our money, and which is democratic. So if we want to build something democrtatic let’s think about how places really work – not with closed off walls and revolving doors, but linked into the fabric of the city, where people can be without the approval of corporations or security guards.

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