arch-peace editorials

14 April 2007

The New Town Centre and the New Main Street

The New Town Centre and the New Main Street

The industrial revolution produced the antecedent of the shopping centre in the form of the department store of the 19th Century. The big box shopping centre phenomena, with its anchors of major department stores was born in post-war USA during a period of mass-produced low-cost housing developments located in car dependant suburbs on the periphery of large urban centres. The importation into Australia of this form of urban development was accelerated by the de-centralisation of cities in the 1960’s and 1970’s and manifests itself in poorly serviced and designed urban sprawl.

The 1980’s and 1990’s saw merger and expansion as the key facets of shopping centre development. Chadstone Shopping Centre’s gargantuan refit and the doubling in size of Knox City Shopping Centre are two examples that transformed outer suburban Melbourne, the notion of a city centre and raised the idea of the new main street – Shopping centres replacing town centres and public spaces.

The recent growth of the retail sector has large shopping centres in another round of growing fits. However, the ground has shifted somewhat as the suburbs have consolidated, land is not as easily or as cheaply available as it was in last quarter of the 20th century and the limits to how big a shopping centre can actually grow pose philosophical and social questions for what a city is and how it functions. Shopping Centres in their physical form and configuration are being challenged through both the economics of retail architecture and social demands for connected cities.

“ While all other cultures give space to the political by opening up the private, mass culture obstructs the political space by putting the private on display… Mass culture creates an atmosphere of irresponsible consumption”. (Matzner 2004)

The interior of the shopping centre accelerates the introversion of the public becoming private and the extroversion of the private in public through the transforming behaviour of mass culture as mass consumption.
This sociological inversion of the public and private is replicated in the physical form of the shopping centre itself that has no fa├žade and at least four backs, all turned on the public. This is changing as the big box shopping centre is forced to open up into the public realm.

Regardless of the weather, a shopping experience will not be delayed. In fact, the experience is heightened, like an extension of the home on a blustery winter’s day or a sweltering summer heat wave; it offers shelter from the elements. The analogy with the home and this interiorisation is a key to understanding the importance of the cultural shift that has occurred from the public into the private as we trade privacy for convenience, social for material wealth and an uncertain, self-sufficient individuality for a dogmatic individualism.

Not architecture, not even interior design but tilt slab economies of consumption, shopping centres are more like theatre design: a black box with a raw, perfunctory infrastructure upon which the media of illusion - lights, sound, props, sets, scenes and disbelief - are suspended in spatial temporality. Seasons and faux campaigns based on perpetual adolescence and entertainment as culture set the cyclic program and production schedule. Dates and days are dislodged from the calendar to be the same day, the same experience; a totality that delivers the notion of choice through a standardisation completing the sensation of an abundance of everything, everyday for the everyman.

The consumer aesthetic overwhelms the senses with a visual saturation and acoustic that demands a sensory muting of the consumer. The food court, with that olfactory mixture of fat, sugar and salt exhaled at most suburban intersections by the holy trinity of choice, McDonalds, Hungry Jacks and KFC, takes on a multinational multiculturalism reducing kebabs and sushi, noodles and falafels to the homogenous speed of transaction. Music and smell, triggers of involuntary memory and libidinal desire, permeate the air with pop culture pubescences, preservatives or pure and natural hyper-inflated value as the boost juice assumes the mantle of entrepreneurial activism.

The tactile impact of this concrete and glass echo chamber is buffered by the upholstered lounges, like those in airports, private hospitals or tourist resorts, that pepper these interior as resting places, each facing the other as shoppers seek refuge from shopping, travellers from travel, patients from treatment or tourists from the other.

Shopping Centres are safe places, monitored and surveyed, they are private concerns not muddied by issues of national sovereignty or local place but clarified by the contract, the lease and the rule of the free market housed in a single entity – retail space: a curious analogy for our national displacement.

So, what markers trace the history or meaning of our presence in a suburb whose New Town Centre might be the shopping centre? At its simplest level, street and place names are traditionally named after that to which they lead or after significant people of national life or historical events – Station street, Church Street, Market Street, Bourke Street, Victoria Street etc. So it is complete that of our Cardinal points of suburbia, Eastland Shopping Centre should have a Plaza Centre Way that leads from a car park, the accepted euphemism and antithesis of a plaza, to nowhere, that the juggernaut that is Southland Shopping Centre obliviously traverses the eight laned Nepean Highway (who was Nepean anyway?), that Waverley Gardens is a shopping centre without vegetation but a casino called Vegas that, according to an internal Tattersall report published by the Herald Sun (24/2/2007), extracts $150,000 per week from losing gamblers, and that Knox City Shopping Centre should be a surrogate public space with a piece of bitumen without footpaths called Capital City Boulevard, leading to the New Main Street. Chadstone Shopping Centre – the largest shopping centre in Australia thanks to the extension called “Chadstone Place” - has recently unseated Knox City Shopping Centre in the spatial war.

It was with apprehension that I visit several shopping centres to see how urban development and public space might work with the multinational retail space sector.

Parramatta, in Sydney’s West, offers a rare example of a local government engaging with the Westfield shopping centre and reasserting the place of the public over the private in the creation of our cities.

While not perfect, the city has leveraged public land holdings with state and private investment, citizen participation and clear and unnegotiable objectives for density, housing, employment, public transport, public space, art, heritage and culture for the cities development.

There has been a demonstrable change of mentality from the designers of this major shopping centre while containing the growth and opening up the “big box” to deliver urban amenity under the insistence of government.

The inside of the shopping centre is still a retail shopping centre. The exterior of the shopping centre is glass, not concrete, transparent, permeable and free of advertising and signage. Adjacent urban renewal has included the upgrade and integration of a bus terminal with cafes and active street frontages and an upgraded train station with restored historic buildings and modernised heavy rail transport and infrastructure.

But the Westfield shopping centre is not the New Town Centre, not even the New Main Street. The major development for Parramatta is the new city square, an open, public space with a library, technology centre and museum as the key public cultural facility that forms the New Town Centre, leads to and integrates the Old Main Street.

Anthony McInneny

Architects for Peace, April 2007

Vilem Flusser, Dinge and Undinge, Munich 1993 form the essay “Strassenlampen” quoted in an essay by Bogomir Ecker “Horse Sense and Cucumber Salad” in Matzner, Florian ed. 2004. Public art: a reader. Germany: Ostfildern-Ruit.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Anthony. You ed came to mind as I read an article with a Las Vegas developer about changes to a Moroccan-themed shopping mall in the downtown area. To do it up, they talk about taking the architecture out of it.Though there appears to be some confusion in the article between architecture and theming (this is Las Vegas after all).

"You know, we are going to look on a case-by-case basis to de-theme where possible and where appropriate. The concept of the property, when it was first built, is to let architecture be the story, almost to the detriment or expense of the retailers. What we are finding today is that we need to flip that and make it more, "Let the retailer be the story."

Any sense of the building being a unified design goes out the window, as the "old architectural format" is seen as a distraction from competing "expressive" retail experiences.



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