transcribed from a place mat
Being in the general vicinity and needing to kill some time, I decided to take a look at the Westfield London shopping center, which opened with a vast amount of publicity some eighteen months ago in Shepherd’s Bush. As I write this I am still in it, ensconced in a booth at a restaurant on one of the upper floors, looking down into the central arena of this wing of the structure.
Westfield is an unsettling experience despite, and in fact because of, the non-threatening image that it carefully attempts to project. Following the tradition of mall design that has evolved through the last half-century, Westfield London’s architects have sought to enclose space in the least obtrusive fashion they could devise. They have attempted to give shoppers the feeling of being outside even though they are in; and to give them the impression of being free to roam and roost, like chickens in a barn. In reality, the shopper is funnelled through a long and witless parade of prefabricated brand stores that bear no relation to the virtual landscape which has been created for them. Slotting into their allotted cuboidal spaces, each store bears a frontage that sets it apart from its neighbors in some fashion, yet is not distinctive enough to alienate it from its clone-siblings somewhere out there in the retail universe.
Shoppers, as they pass along the aisles of high-street brands, can take the weight off their weary feet on one of a variety of vaguely Eero Saarinen-esque semi-designer chairs. Like the information desks, signs and all other objects on a Westfield floor, these come in a range of gently curved shapes – as if they had simply washed ashore after a decade or two of being worn down on the seabed by tireless waves. While emanating a whiff of designer style and stylish enough to pass muster to the aspirational middle-class eye, the furniture is nevertheless not daring enough to lodge in the mind’s eye for much longer than the buttock-prints will last in the soft foam of the seat after the shoppers have risen. As they sit, consumers may choose to look up and ponder the smooth undulations of the Norman Foster Lite geodesic glass panel roof, lying dynamically – yet gently – like a blanket draped over a minor forest of treelike branching steel columns. The inside-out feeling presents itself once again, offering vague hints of being in some upscaled, 21st-century version of the Arabian souk, sheltered from the fierce noonday drizzle in a cool oasis of commerce.
This effect, along with the homely familiarity of the brands presented in the mall, serves to effectively decouple the visitor from any sense of locale. You could be in any one of a dozen countries, and never know which; nor would it matter. With its white-painted walls, marble floors, glass and steel panels, Westfield London is indistinguishable from any airport terminal built within the last decade. The similarity extends beyond mere appearances: Westfield is a terminal. With its inside-out, everywhere-and-nowhere nature, it is the midway point on a U-shaped journey to nowhere, beginning and ending in the shopper’s home. Like an airport in which you spend several hours waiting for a connecting flight in a country that you do not intend to visit, it offers you no exit beyond that of your scheduled journey. The outside world, for all intents and purposes, does not exist.
After spending a while circulating in the microverse of the terminal I began to suspect that had I gone far enough, I would simply have arrived back where I began, like an ant marching along a Möbius strip in an M.C. Escher print. Eventually I realized that I could draw comfort from the feeling. The notion that there was, in fact, some kind of world that Westfield was the gateway to was a terrifying prospect. I began fearing that I could accidentally trace some nameless rune with my footsteps and cause the Westfield Gateway to open into an unimaginable world, like the girl solving the puzzle box in Hellraiser.
The nowhere aesthetic is characterized by the restaurant I am in. It, like almost everything in Westfield London, comes in a limited palette of shades: white, gray, taupe, black. (After becoming used to this desaturated world, the strident colors on display on the huge screens of the movie theater lobby upstairs come as a shock. “The biggest digital screen in Europe,” booms an amplified voice as your eyes, drained of color for the past few hours, frantically gorge themselves on whatever trailer is currently on show.) The restaurant served me a hamburger and fries. It was competently-enough produced, and proffered hints of the style and quality that consumers expect from the type of modern hamburger chain restaurants which have sprung up in droves over the last decade, but wasn’t quite able to follow through on those hints. (The restaurant’s name, “Byron”, offers an equally vague hint of cultured sophistication.) The experience of the burger, like that of Westfield itself, is one of transient satisfaction that fades into a vague taupe blur in the memory.
The return leg of a shopper’s commercial vacation to Westfield London will find them emerging into the distinctly less salubrious, yet infinitely more personable, streets of Shepherd’s Bush. The Westfield complex has landed on this somewhat down-at-heel area and erected what Douglas Adams called a “Somebody Else’s Problem field” over itself. Inside Westfield, the council estates and grubby fast-food venues of Shepherd’s Bush simply cease to exist. Why worry about or even notice the real world when you’re on a visit to Nowhere Land?
It is now perfectly clear to me what is on offer in the near future in Stratford, east London, close to my own home, an area sharing the worn-down vibe of Shepherd’s Bush, where a second huge Westfield complex is under heavy construction in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. The Westfield developers have invented the geographic memory hole, where all awareness of culture and locale is muted. Visitors to London’s Olympic Host Boroughs will be smoothly funneled away from the grit and dangers of real life in impoverished urban areas, into a steel and glass wonderland where their anxieties will be safely dulled and deadened for a few hours – until, having shot their wads into the chip and PIN terminals, they begin the journey home with their new possessions.
Charmless, characterless, and endless, Westfield is a living death.
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