In Praise of the Mall Experience

Austerity and Abundance Special:
Compared to the squalor of the high street, shopping centres offer a comfortable refuge in hard times

Peter Whittle

Five years ago, during the first real public panic over the spread of so-called teenage “hoodies” and the crime they brought in their wake, Bluewater shopping centre, in Kent, announced that it was introducing a code of conduct, which would ban clothing that obscured the face. For liberal commentators at the time, the “hoodie ban” was a source of both smirking derision and alarm at the supposed erosion of civil liberties. As an answer to spiralling youth crime, it was written off as a petty response from ghastly petit-bourgeois quarters. But within a week of the new rule coming into force, the number of people visiting the centre had shot up by nearly 25 per cent.

Nothing, it seems, works quite like quick decisive action, especially in situations when those opposing you have nothing but snide criticism to offer by way of an alternative. But what it also illustrated was the obvious belief on the part of the public that a massive private enterprise such as Bluewater would be immediately effective in dealing with such a situation, even if this was borne of purely enlightened commercial self-interest. By contrast, they have no such faith in the guardians of the traditional public arena that, as it continues to fragment and fall apart, they are increasingly deserting.

When it opened ten years ago in a former quarry near Greenhithe, Bluewater, with its 330 stores, 13-screen cinema and 40 cafés and restaurants, was regarded as a benchmark in the progress of the humble shopping mall. Retailers visited from all over Europe to see how it should be done. With its ornamental wrought iron and sculptural reliefs, it set a new standard in sophistication for these developments, in the same way that Gateshead’s sprawling MetroCentre outside Newcastle had more than a decade before. Now both of these have been overtaken in sheer lavishness, if not size, by the glistening vistas of the Westfield centre in west London. Costing £1.4 billion, it is the largest “urban area” (as opposed to out-of-town) indoor shopping destination in Europe, the equivalent in space to 30 football pitches. Of course, if the current recession turns into a decade-long depression, Westfield – and, indeed, Bluewater and the MetroCentre – could become synonymous with an era that ended in failure, a symbol of something terrible that we would prefer to leave behind, like the Millennium Dome. Already, half a dozen retailers and two restaurants at Westfield have closed, and MetroCentre has its defunct Woolworths and a couple of Pound stores that wouldn’t have been there just a few years ago. But as they stand now, they are each in their own way examples of a trend that over the past 30 years has changed the way in which the large sections of the public gather and interact in this country, and on this, there is no going back.

The rise of the shopping mall (or centre, as the British still tend to call them) brings out blotches on the skin of angry country conservatives and urban liberals alike. They are regarded by such groups in much the same way as TV-watching was in the 1960s. Few people seem to have a kind word to say about them, at least in public, and even less admit to visiting them on a regular basis. J G Ballard links them to popular fascism in his novels. Zombie films are set in them, the marauding ghouls implicitly representing their drone-like crowds of customers. They have become a byword for unthinking consumerism. “Soulless” is the word that is habitually trotted out to describe them. They are viewed by some not even as a necessary evil but as part of a destructive force which, along with residential gated communities, is gradually privatising the public space, an enemy of the all-hallowed principle of “diversity” in everything which, while remaining undefined, must not be questioned. Underlying all of this there is a barely disguised contempt for the people who visit them and who, heaven help them, might actually do so enthusiastically. If I were to be socially profiled by your average retail marketing company, I should emerge as a staunch enemy of these places. I don’t particularly enjoy shopping and loathe the way in which it has become fetishised. I get my spiritual uplift from going to the odd gallery and become wistful at the sight of a medieval ruin in the early evening sunlight. I write for Standpoint, for God’s sake.

Yet, I enjoy going to the mall. I should know that I am not alone (a quarter of a billion people have visited Bluewater in its ten years) but still, I find myself standing up for them when the critical onslaught starts. One reason is simply that I have never had a bad experience in one. This is to say that I have not been mugged, queue-jumped, verbally abused or vomited over at closing time. I have not felt the sense of hostility which underlies life on too many an old-fashioned high street now. This might be hard to understand if your local high street is Marylebone in London or Burnham Market in Norfolk, but for many suburban areas in particular it is the reality and one which is pushing people into their cars and on to the nearest covered-in complex. On a visit to Westfield recently, I asked a number of people what the attraction was and they replied, it was clean, orderly, safe (“although,” added one woman, “I’m not so sure I’d feel that about the surrounding area.”) There’s no doubting that it’s about convenience too. My journey time by car from a corner of south-east London into the West End has doubled in the past ten years. Using public transport might, if you’re lucky that day, be quicker. But this, too, has become an experience fraught with small incivilities and nuisances from which there is no apparent protection.

The delights of the traditional shopping destinations of the capital are, for many people, becoming harder and harder to fathom. In the past decade, as the country has undergone what amounts to a massive social experiment in terms of population increase, they have also taken on an air of crowded unfamiliarity. Far from being the anonymous canyons hated by their critics, places such as Bluewater, for better or worse, offer social familiarity to many, even on a subconscious level. Young families, in particular, have virtually vanished from the streets of London in recent years. Yet they are out in force at Bluewater. Similarly, on a recent visit to MetroCentre, it was astonishing to see how many very young children there were – enough, in fact, to populate a biggish audience for a “science-can-be-fun” event being laid on for them in one of the central courts. This would be impossible in many city centres now and not just because of the threat of bad weather. Public spaces of the old sort have become places to manoeuvre through, not relax in and enjoy.

This might seem like a counsel of despair. But if there is not the political will or strength on the part of those in public office to restore something like social order, I am happy to go along with those who provide it merely as a by-product (sometimes, beyond the call of duty: MetroCentre has its own chapel). As things are, many of the people who disdain the shopping malls are in certain respects the very same who have spent years chipping away at notions of social restraint, who have disarmed the authority of law enforcement and caused a crisis in the social fabric – who, in short, have done for the traditional public arena they claim to value so much. Perhaps the results of what were, for such people, nice ideas on paper, are finally confronting them via a brick through the sash window.

But that’s enough about social cohesion. What about the aesthetics of these places? Aren’t they just simply awful, with their airport glitziness, insidious and banal muzak and antiseptic marble floors? As Stephen Tennant once said when asked about the First World War: “My dear, the people! And the noise!” Well, I am perfectly happy with all this too, most of the time. The walkways are getting wider and wider and the ceilings higher and higher. The corridors at MetroCentre are positively cosy and cramped when compared to the meadows of space at Westfield. The embellishments – which at Bluewater include famous poetic quotes engraved into the walls and the sculptured coats of arms of each of the guilds represented at London Guildhall – are nothing like as coercive and dreary as your average piece of “locally-inspired” (that is, by committee) public art. Malls tend too to be big on Christmas decorations. It is popular taste through and through, and I have a tendency to get sentimental when I see it being enjoyed.

In this respect, are malls not simply the modern-day heirs to the gin palaces and extravagantly ornate cinemas of the past, those places that gave a sense of occasion to ordinary pastimes for people who otherwise, in their day-to-day lives, had little access to luxury or some sort of splendour? Places which, in an odd way, flattered their paying customers by bothering to provide them with elaborate surroundings? It is no wonder to me that groups of kids are drawn to them as places in which to gather. Their expanses of cheap restaurants are neon-lit and colourful, the seats at their cinemas usually cheaper, the sense of an aimless afternoon browsing then giving way to an evening’s entertainment palpable. The same popular ethic is at work in the major stores that form the “anchors” to all malls. Marks and Spencer has food outlets on every high street in the country, but it is in malls that its version of the food hall can be seen at its best. They are an aesthetic pleasure even for those not shopping. It is one of the very best examples of popular capitalism at work.

Perhaps, then, the reason I defend shopping malls is that they offer an alternative form of public life. It occurred to me recently that, in a patriotic sense, I am more attached to the fortunes of stores like John Lewis and M&S than I am to the fate of the BBC. I am made more anxious about the state of the country when these institutions falter than when the future of the state broadcaster is thrown, as it periodically is, into doubt. Besides, they’ve both been around longer. The much derided mall is a far more recent arrival, of course, but that is no reason to fear or dismiss it. While we wait for the country to get back on track, it’s probably the best place to be.

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