The blandness of unreality

1 November 2008

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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On London

17 October 2008

I recently received a link to the Boston Globe’s website, oddly enough, which – thinking about the end of the Beijing Olympics – has been looking forward another four years to London 2012. They have published some amazing photographs by aerial photographer Jason Hawkes which show my city at it’s best:

I must admit, I am very much a city boy. I love the way cities look and feel, even if they’re not seen in such a beautiful way as the nineteen pictures on the Boston Globe website. They’re places of surprise, where you never know what will be around the corner. They’re places where people have to mix, where you’ll share the same space, the same air, as someone you would never normally associate with. The heterogeneity of cities brings together a diversity of people creating a dynamic social mixture and cultural variety all of its own.

Even the least loved – not that agree that Birmingham, where I spent a lot of time growing up, is an ugly city – have relationships with people. But the relationships are not neutral. They’re personal. An individual’s relationship with the city is not just the physical. It’s about people, and places, and their interaction.

I love living in London – where children speak over 300 different home languages, where people come to find not just their fortune, but themselves. It’s easy to forget, stood on the Northern Line each morning – especially in a world of economic upheaval – that the city is more than just bankers and lawyers (and each of them has their own identity somewhere beneath the pinstripes).

It’s the yummy mummys of Knightsbridge, the suburbanites of Bromley, Brent and Barnet, the Indians of Brick Lane, goths of Camden, indies and dirty-fashionistas of Shoreditch, gays of Soho (and older gay men of Earl’s Court and lesbians of Stoke Newington), the Pechkamites, Claptonites, Kentish Towners and riches of Richmond. And it’s about how they all interact with where they are, as well as each other.

I never fail to be fascinated, walking along the street, who I see. I sit in a coffee shop, look out and wonder where the old lady’s going, what the schoolkids have been up to today, and why the rich bald man’s driving a 4×4 down Camden High Street, speeding through the red lights – what’s he got to rush to?

Try it sometime. Change your perspective.


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