Gilded palaces

If there are two things I dislike with a moderate but consistent intensity, they are shopping malls and crowds.  So it was against all sorts of better judgement that I visited Westfield Stratford this evening.

As we walked through the thronged corridors of shops clad in gleaming marble, shiny glass and fashionably-distressed copper, my companion observed that the crowds really looked and sounded like East London – loud, ethnically mixed, not particularly well-heeled.

This reminded me of a middle-aged man I watched being interviewed when the Royal Festival Hall was refurbished in 2007.  When the building opened in the 1940s, the interviewee was growing up in South London, and vividly remembered his first visit to the venue: he could not believe that someone like him was not only allowed but encouraged to visit somewhere with this thickness of carpet, this richness of marble, this elegance of balustrade.

In many ways Westfield Stratford, the apotheosis of 21st century consumer capitalism, is the polar opposite of the Royal Festival Hall, with its high-minded aspirations towards \’culture for the masses\’.  But the buildings share something too: like the Festival Hall, Westfield Stratford isn\’t a dumbed-down version of something else.  It doesn\’t fob local people off with cheap finishes and \’value\’ retail outlets, but gives them as good a high-end shopping mall that it would build anywhere else.

There are plenty of criticisms to level at malls – their gaudy promotion of consumerist fantasy, their impact on neighbouring shops, their introverted street systems and privatised public space – and Westfield Stratford will probably be accused of many of these. But it doesn\’t patronise, or pander to presumed poverty of aspiration.  It deserves credit for that.

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