After years of construction, months of preparation and at least four weeks of thelondonpaper stories and radio specials, Europe's largest shopping center within the confines of a city opened today. The confining city is London, but given my ardent detachment from consumerism that wouldn't warrant a post. However, since the gods of commerce are striking in my immediate neighborhood, I can't isolate myself completely from the center's allure. Not knowing what to expect besides ungodly crowds, I stopped there on my way back from work this afternoon.
Before I could behold the fabled architecture, the much talked-about undulating glass roof or any of the shops at the edge of Shepherd's Bush, I almost drowned in a deluge of people. The recently reopened Central line and newly build National Rail stations were both disgorging dense streams of shopping tourists into the little plaza between them as if easy credit were still in everyone's purses. Right at the confluence of the two human streams were hundreds of bike racks, and that's were I carefully steered my steed. Five minutes later, I had escaped the frigid drizzle outside and found myself sprayed with bouncy music instead.
My first impression: This thing is ginormous! The developer must have nuked a good part of west London to execute their plans. The center doesn't pretend to be the Mall of America – it doesn't even have an amusement park – but as Mall of Shepherd's Bush, it takes size and glitz to a level above and beyond anything nearby (or even far). The West 12 shopping center on the other side of the Green looks so pathetic by comparison that I doubt it will survive far into 2009.
Underneath the stunning roof, which alone might justify a visit on a sunny day, there is an immense number of stores but sadly nothing special. Corporate world has opened its doors, and no one is missing. It feels a little like the malls of this world were congealed into one. There are no unique features or nifty details that might make you value your shopping experience above any other. Boring.
On the bright side, there is no atrocious plasticky food court, and fast-food outlets are entirely absent from the complex. Instead, a wide variety of small and quick restaurants are scattered all over the place. Unfortunately, they all seem to have been decked out with goodies from a cheap home furnishing catalog strictly following seventies style. If wood paneling that looks like synthetic bamboo, garish colors and scary sofa benches are dernier cri, they'll look old a year from now. Otherwise, and in my eyes, they already to.
Because of the sheer size, all the people that funneled through the entrance doors dispersed quickly, and it was much less crowded inside than out. Nevertheless, the clamor was deafening. At the heart of the center, a stage framed by gigantic video screens had been erected to celebrate the opening with credit crunch-mocking swank, and in all corners speakers and more screens were set up – some selling Sky subscriptions, some broadcasting fashion shows, some just making noise, unapologetically.
After a quick walk around the digital-watch-inspired figure 8 and before entering the first store, I was already shopped out. Luck had it that my eyes fell on a Foyles branch, so curiously deserted that at first I thought it hadn't opened yet. But it's doors were agape. When I entered, my mood lifted immediately – bookstores do this to me. While they are supposed to offer solace to distressed minds, this one was quite literally a sanctuary from the madness out there.
I slumped into a chair by a big window and surveyed the situation. Despite the November rain falling two days early, I would rather walk outside than breathe the filtered air of even the most glorified mall. Down on Oxford St. the crowds are ten times worse than in the Westfield, but at least you can step into a side street if you feel like you've had enough. I also prefer the grittiness of a real street over the Disneyesque factitiousness of polished walls and constantly swept floors. Lastly, in times when airports redefine themselves as aggressive shopping centers with travel not much more than an afterthought, large malls inevitably recall airports and all the misery associated with them, the feeling of wanting to go somewhere but not even being on the way yet.
As I was sitting there, browsing through travel literature, I knew I'd be back. Foyles might not even serve coffee to augment the experience, but they are the only bookstore around. And for that, for offering choice where there was none, for coming with their wares to where I live, I appreciate the Westfield. Good luck, guys.