In ‘Millennium People’ futurist author JG Ballard imagined a five-minutes-from-now world of gated communities and shopping malls where a quiet rebellion against middle-class normality is taking place. As civic responsibility and the trappings of consumer society are jettisoned, the movement grows belligerent and Ballard’s hero is lured in by the idea of revolution and terror. The shopping mall becomes a symbol of oppression are is smashed.
Ever since George A Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’, the shopping mall has been seen as the ultimate sign of aggravated consumerism and conformity (not to mention prepackaged tastelessness), but it seems that in different places shopping malls mean different things.
In America, according to people the Daily Beast interviewed this week, malls offer something that online retailers can’t provide: social interaction. The argument is that without developed historic areas, communities still need a central place in which to gather and shopping malls come close to delivering them. They’re guarded, warm, clean, safe and watched over. Now some are being given makeovers to become specifically ethnic in terms of visiting shoppers, who are catered for by separate shops.
The malls’ marketing shills don’t deny they are building closed-off hubs for immigrants, and see no problem with the idea. As someone who believes strongly in integration mixed with a little chaos, I find this downright creepy. Isn’t this segregation by any other name? The idea of ghetto-ising malls because whites think they’re not good enough is patronising and deeply disturbing.
In other societies, the public’s relationship with shopping malls is more complex.
In Japan, arguably the world’s most consumerist nation, department stores trump malls because their staffs act with formal rigour and grace, keeping the quality of the experience high, but it’s hard to gather in any area that not specifically in a park without being sold something.
In Spain malls are virtually non-existent; in Barcelona one is built out in the sea and only accessible by a footbridge, homegrown farmers’ markets still rule, and barrios have locally-run free community centres. People of every age and ethnicity gather wherever there is a bench and interact so well that it feels impossible to be alone.
In London the absence of large available space has relegated malls to the outskirts of the city, catering only to suburbanites. They are often seen as the ultimate in unfashionability, or even vulgarity. In Bloomsbury, the Brunswick Centre sells itself on being a community until you try and take a photograph, when a guard will arrive and tell you to stop.
China, Canada and the Phillippines have some of the world’s largest but emptiest malls.
So does it simply come down to a lie? That the owners want us to believe we can make communities there when all they want to do is sell more?