THE EMPEROR’S NEW MALL
Magculture wrote: "Claire Healy explores the strange inbetweenness of shopping mall culture in a way that reminds me of Rem Koolhaas’ seminal essay on architectural ‘Junkspace’ but also of the mall scenes in contemporary fiction writer Natasha Stagg’s novel Surveys."
I used to go to Westfield, Shepherds Bush, every day. I didn’t work inside its walls, but rather above them, as an ad-hoc product copywriter at Net-a-Porter: the mainspring of dot com luxury fashion that is ironically headquartered on the top floor of one of London’s largest, billion-pound, bricks-and-mortar shopping centres.
To get to the office, you have to walk through the mall. Every day, at 8.30 AM, I would ascend the shopping centre’s many levels, climbing escalators one-by-one to get to the clinical, open-plan HQ. After passing the chain restaurants and large digital screens that line the paved entrance, I would arrive at ‘The Village’, Westfield’s preening, self-pronounced ‘designer alley’. Meanwhile, Prada and Dior stores yawned open their high-security shutters, revealing the cleaners who hoovered between the handbags. In designer alley, an array of plush armchairs are situated around a permanently unplayed grand piano. The shop windows are curved and imposing, winking back at you like so many cut-glass crystal ornaments. Fabulous, LED-lit chandeliers dangle threateningly from on high; on the ceiling, expanding circles, glowing pink and yellow, are embedded with even tinier circles, an effect at once tropical and trypophobic. Don’t look up.
‘If you play that John Lennon song backwards, it says, “Imagine all the people, browsing in a mall,” says Daria Morgendorffer in a 1997 episode of the MTV animated series that shares her name. ‘Isn't that weird?’ At 8.30 in the morning, Westfield London is weird; a shopping centre without its shoppers, a familiar song played backwards. Escalating higher and higher, I would finally arrive at my anonymous desk, to produce words for a company whose revenue relies on people not going to the shopping centre at all.
A shopping centre without its shoppers creates a consumer vacuum, transforming place to space. And yet ‘mall culture’—rising with the global consumerism of the 80s and 90s—has always intensified ambiguities of space and time. Not home, not work, not school, the rise of the mall is the rise of a third, unifying space.
If any place must have its purpose, then the shopping centre exists to sell products. Its very survival relies on the inexhaustible human desire for transformation. And yet, in the digital age, the once indispensable shopping centre is starting to look somewhat exhausted itself. One website, deadmalls.com, exists to record and chronicle these once-grand destinations, now robbed of their purpose altogether: all those ‘Malls of the Millennium’ that are shutting down as shoppers turn to Amazon. The website's founders appear to be a dedicated middle-aged crew, the Ghostbusters of middle America retail (Who ya gonna call!)
Back in London, just shy of the North Circular, is Wood Green Shopping City. Much like Westfield, it dominates its particular pocket of London; unlike Westfield, it doesn’t lay claim to any tourist-attracting global alliances. Instead, to enter Wood Green’s mall is to enter an ecosystem all its own. Sure, there are the usual chain stores, but unique stalls lay in wait in-between. A Turkish bakery sells various, uncovered delights. A passport photo stall takes a baby’s first photo while a formally-dressed Muslim family spill out on either side, watching. A lone stand sells uncanny objects resembling your favourite emojis. And just beyond that, there’s the ‘Market Hall:’ an indoor mall-in-a-mall, where local vendors sell absolutely everything you may (or may not) need, like a blown-up version of a junk drawer. There, you’ll find brandless suitcases, Chinese medicine, greetings cards, hair extensions and door frames. Between the candy store and ‘Tropical Paradise’ greengrocers, the first thing that strikes you is a heavily-layered scent, like too many sample perfumes spritzed on a single wrist.
The indoor market in Wood Green is a complex, messy vision of the immigrant experience as it collides and co-exists with the white working classes of North London: grannies having cups of tea, Polish dads, Muslim women in veils. Westfield’s designer alley, on the other hand, uneasily attempts to reconcile global market ambitions with the reality of its footfall: it has an Arabic version of its website, actively encourages tourism and tries to establish itself as a destination for rich Middle Eastern visitors to buy handbags.
In Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, he defines a bizarre concept that he calls ‘The Emperor’s New Mall’: ‘the popular notion that shopping malls exist on the insides only and have no exterior’, allowing shoppers to pretend that the large, cement blocks thrust into their environment do not, in fact, exist. And yet this assertion of shopping mall as a mental space above a physical space has some truth. For Jon Caramanica, the mall is similarly a thought space as well as a known one: describing the luxury mall recently erected across the street from Ground Zero in The New York Times, for him, the mall’s symbolic, communal purpose is to tell us that capitalism is the safest space, and that ‘as long as we protect it, almost any pain can be shouted down.’
For one anonymous reviewer online, Wood Green’s mall doesn’t feel like a safe space at all. ‘Wood Green Shopping Centre always makes me feel so lonely,’ he writes. ‘No-one seems to know anyone and yet people seem united in their rapacious appetite to consume, to look good, to look hard.’
But to observe people united in consumption doesn’t feel so lonely as all that. Wood Green Shopping City, refusing Westfield’s Click-and-Collect culture and ‘edgy Urban trends,’ makes a curious case for the survival of the shopping mall. In embracing the physicality of the consumer experience, it too embraces the clash and rub and stickiness of all-too-human interaction. At its furthest from 5-inch screens, and in its truest, non-digital sense, interaction ought to amount to a kind of friction, after all.
By witnessing global diaspora at the local level, the survival of shopping centres like Wood Green are a riposte to websites like Net-a-Porter and their determined globalism, where the majority of profits come from a handful of the superrich in the Middle East. But they are also a riposte to Westfield’s own, uneasy attempts to appeal to that same audience. Westfield, stuck between two modes of structuring identity in relation to shopping—an old way of the real-life mall, and the new way of the globalised, commercial internet—represents the inbetweenness of mall culture now. And the more that it attempts to emulate the mental spaces of the internet, the more the cracks begin to surface in those high, glass walls it has so carefully built.
You can buy Fruitlands Issue 2 here.