Thursday, 23 October 2008

The Westfield Empire storms on

I am simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the new development of Westfield London at White City. Week after week Design Week announces the design of a flagship designer store in the centre. It must have created a huge boom for retail designers over the last 12 months or so and must, I believe, create job opportunities for the local population - which must be a good thing. It has a 'village' of high-spec designer outlets, it has a rich mix of high street standards, it has 'anchor' stores like M&S, Waitrose and Debenhams. It has 50 restaurants. It has a fourteen screen cinema. It has a gym, a luxury spa, a new state-of-the-art library, and even a wildlife centre (of which I have no details) - so it must be good. So why my feelings of discomfort and mild horror?

It's big - very, very big. It has been built on what Time Out's Maggie Davis described as 'what was a vast area of wasteland.' Well, I'm sure that is true in many ways - but I happen to be rather a fan of those odd gaps in cities that you always think, 'Why has no-one built on that?' They are often populated by sprouting purple buddleia - a favourite with butterflies, and turn out to be the home of some long-lost snail or microscopic worm thought to have become extinct in Roman times. They create a breathing space in the proverbial concrete jungle. And this wasteland in particular had the last remaining buildings from the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 - a fantastic place, its pearly white surfaces giving it the enduring name 'White City', including the Olympic Stadium used for the 1908 games and host to 8 million visitors. The incongruous white arched hall that used to be next to Shepherds Bush Station was one of the remaining structures until its demolition.

So there's a curious nostalgia, a sense of loss, based on lots of stuff I never really saw - but somehow connected me back to the past, past pride, past achievement. Something I feel should be recognised, respected and remembered.

The things that irk me most about the new mega-mall (apart from the homage to retail and potential wasting of young lives as mall rats), is its total lack of respect and recognition of the local area. The name is purely a global brand building exercise of 'the largest listed retail property group by equity market capitalisation.' ( Every development - in the USA, Australia, New Zealand or the UK, is pre-fixed Westfield. When I first saw the Westfield name on the hoardings surrounding the building site I innocently thought maybe it had some connection to being in West London. How very wrong. The naming of the site as Westfield London doesn't even recognise its westerly position. A corporate quip quoted by John Ryan in his article for Retail Week suggested that Westfield had succeeded in 'rebranding a London suburb.' Urgh. And since when was Shepherds Bush suburban anyway?

Then there's the hideous green glass exterior. It has that two tone green effect that just reeks shopping centre and makes me feel mildly ill. The 4,500 parking spaces - that'll be fun at going home time on a Saturday afternoon - especially if it's a match day at Queens Park Rangers.

Underlying its detachment from the local area is the way almost every article describes White City and W12 as amongst the most deprived areas of London, if not the UK. So a Prada shop and a Tiffany shop are going to be a real boon to the locals. No surprise the 80 security guards and 680 CCTV cameras will ensure that no hoodies contaminate the pristine, marble-floored galleria. This of course is an outrageously poor understanding of both the local community and people who like wearing hooded tops.

And finally my feelings are well summed up, again from Maggie Davis's piece in Time Out, by the 'crude red 'Westfield' logo the size of a bus' attached to the 'ugly green, metal-panelled exterior.'

Surely in this cathedral to good design and taste, with its top New York architects and cutting edge retail, we deserve a good logo that looks like it might have been created within the last 20 years.

Photograph by Rob Greig