The Dominion Post had an article recently saying how K Mart, the giant US retailing store, wants to establish a branch in central Wellington. Given that K Mart stores are rather large, and Wellington CBD is rather skinny and small. It may be that they are aiming at Kilbirnie / Rongotai instead.
But it did remind me of an article by Elizabeth Farrelly, a former Kiwi now in position of architectural press power in Australia, with an Ode to the (not) pleasures of the Mall, from her recent book Blubberland – the Dangers of Happiness (MIT Press, 2008):
“The contemporary shopping mall is a classic instance, striving to ape the complexity and interest of a traditional market, but with one, overarching difference; the space is privately owned and entirely under private control. The air is cooled and conditioned and gently muzak-laced; the lighting, level changes, transparency and detail are minutely orchestrated to slow your gait within microseconds and lull you into buy-mode; and no one, other than the owner, has any right to be there. Everyone else is there on sufferance. Anyone undesirable, or homeless, or obviously poor, can be summarily shuffled out so that the mass-narcosis of consumerism never pops.
So it is interesting to note the increasing interiorisation of shopping as an activity. From the traditional street market where interiors were usually makeshift and temporary, to the modern mall where entire city blocks and precincts are interiorised to give the (usually female) shopper the illusion of being in a vast, sparkling, bejewelled, cathedral-like home. Woman like malls because they’re known, comfortable, clean and safe – from muggers and spitters, from sun, storms and mendicants. Here, at fantasy-home, women will relax, and when they relax, they will spend.
Malls titillate and relax, even while they make you feel needy, inadequate and dreamily disoriented. They’re meant to. It’s like chocolate. If you can be made to feel bad, in a small way, the more want soothing, and the more you buy. One thing you don’t see much of in a mega-wall, therefore, is social life. Whereas in a high street you might stop for a coffee, in a mall you bump into someone, you say hi and press on. This is because, from the first car-park moment, the place is designed as a disconnect, separating you from your reality and from your higher, warmer self. It’s designed to put you in a bubble – a car-like bubble – of self-gratification.
This is another reason why the mall experience begins and ends at the car park. Grey, fumy and jammed with other irritable, bubble-wrapped humans, the car park is no pleasure-dome. It’s designed to do a kind of good-cop-bad-cop routine with the mall interior, to make you more susceptible to the shopping urge. And because it is important that we come to it through the gates of hell, the mall is the first architectural type in history that has an inside but no outside. The mall has interior design, heavily themed and fantasised, but it has no street presence, no public self, no architecture.”
It is interesting to contrast that to the experience we have here on the street in Wellington. Almost alone amongst large NZ cities, because of our stubborn adherence to the natural geography, that we don’t have a major mall culture. They’ve changed that in Auckland, Christchurch, and even in Porirua and the Hutt – but not yet in Wellington, where we still brave the chills of the Southerly to walk along Willis St. What are your thoughts? We have a new opinion poll underway, just up to your right. Please feel free to add your comments.