Approach Westfield Stratford City from London’s Olympic Park, and you’d be forgiven for feeling dizzy, practically vertiginous. It’s from this angle that the mall’s clash of forms and surfaces is at its most disturbing.
First comes Chestnut Plaza, its foreground filled with the wood panelling and handwritten signs of shabby chic “market-style” restaurants, its rear occupied by the polished granite and buffed metal of stores such as Prada, Mulberry and Omega. Above this textural counterpoint, massive logos for Vue, Aspers Casino and Holiday Inn dangle at twisted angles from buildings whose lines and planes fold back on one another like an MC Escher drawing. It’s as if a crashing computer spat out a stew of brands and architectural blue prints based solely on the word “juxtaposition”.
Round the corner, the junction of The Street and Four Dials is not immediately as confusing. Dawdle, however, and you’d be forgiven for wondering what’s really going on there.
For a start, The Street is a glass-covered shopping arcade and not a “street” at all. Then, of course, there’s the Covent Garden reference of Four Dials. But unlike its namesake, Seven Dials, this intersection is not in a neighbourhood with a 300-year legacy of organic growth and human bustle.
No. This is a recently-constructed, heavily-planned quadrant of shopping mall. One surrounded on all sides by meticulously-designed high-street restaurant franchises such as Jamie’s Italian, Levi Root’s Smokehouse and Bumpkin’s Best of British.
It all brings to mind Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 essay, “Simulacra and Simulations”, in which he muses that “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us think that the rest [of America] is real.” So if theme parks convince us that the world outside them is “real” and fixed rather than constructed and malleable, what does a mall such as Stratford’s Westfield want us to believe about the world that exists beyond its borders?
Let’s start with the easy stuff – the shrub-filled planters on wheels demarcating each restaurant’s outdoor area. These ask us to believe that nature is conquered, reduced to a portable fixture so powerless that it now marks the legal transitions of the human world.
Next up is Chestnut Plaza’s juxtaposition of “market-style” eateries with the high-end trim of Prada and Mulberry. The side-by-side presentation of these two contradictory aesthetics tells us that the rough and ready look once adopted by neighbourhood restaurants and hipster coffee shops to cut costs is now as cynically employed as the luxury metals and expensive minerals that frame and sell upscale fashion brands.
Jamie’s Italian, Levi Root’s Smokehouse and Bumpkin’s Best of British teach us how shaky national identity is when filtered through the prism of the food industry. Jamie’s, for instance, reduces centuries of Italian culinary history to the limited interpretation made by a celebrity chef’s business managers. Levi Root’s, on the other hand, reinvents Jamaican cuisine as the latest instalment in the BBQ food trend. While Bumpkin is so confused about what “British fayre” means, that its menu is littered with chorizo, avocado and kohlrabi. The message these restaurants send us? That national identity, like Baudrillard’s America, is presented as fixed and “real”, when in reality it is fluid and malleable.
But enough of the low-hanging fruit, let’s take it up a gear. Let’s ponder the notion that the environment described above asks us to see the outdoors not as public, but as corporate, not as free, but as a commodity one accesses by shopping for mass-produced goods.
It’s a thought that leads us to the most significant idea suggested by Westfield Stratford City – that consumption is the pre-eminent activity of humankind. That is, after all, what all these extruded facades and twisted angles are for – to funnel us into shops and restaurants; to close quarters with commodities that we can project our inner-most desires onto, until finally, finding ourselves at the till, we are reborn in an act that Westfield’s cathedral of glass and steel and reclaimed wood asserts must be important, if not sacred: the transaction.
But despite Stratford Westfield being a setting explicitly promoting consumption and consumerism, Chestnut Plaza, The Street and Four Dials are actually full of genuine public life. Anarchic children run and scream, playing off-ground tick and catch. Old men sit and talk, puffing on cigarettes, flagrantly disregarding signs that say smoking is illegal except in designated areas. Teenage girls gossip and check out any good-looking boy who walks past. Shifty chavs sip at cans hidden inside brown paper bags, rubbing their fingertips together as if rehearsing their next sleight of hand. Plus, of course, Stratford is in London, so there is a certain multicultural bombast to the churn of shoppers, idlers and general bystanders.
The discovery of such rich and authentic human life in a mall like this doesn’t disprove the idea that, to echo Baudrillard, locations such as these are theme parks, part of whose purpose is to coerce us into acting and thinking in certain ways both within and without their perimeters. But the presence of uninhibited and uncommoditised behaviours – screaming children, displays of lust and addiction, intimations of borderline criminality – that transgress dominant cultural norms, suggests that not everyone present, at least not all of the time, has come here to live out the 80s mantra of “I shop therefore I am.”
Or as one passer-by puts it to a companion: “People come here, just to come here.”
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