Consuming the future

The creators of Bluewater know better than Hegel or Marx, for the key to world history is shopping
Click to follow
HEGEL SAW the World Spirit as the guiding force of history, shaping its evolution towards enlightenment, when consciousness returned to itself. For Marx, it was the ineluctable clash of contradictions within modes of production. The creators of the Bluewater centre, the behemoth that has risen in a former Blue Circle chalk quarry in north-western Kent, know better than these two 19th century prophets, however. The key to world history lies in shopping.

Shopping created the town centre, bringing consumer and producer together at the market, evolving into narrow streets filled with butchers, bakers and fishmongers, adding the high street, the department store and the urban shopping centre.

Now the vast forces of global capitalism are conspiring to ensure that in Britain, as in America, shopping means a pilgrimage to the mall. And with the shops go the cinemas, restaurants, play parks and hotels, creating cities outside the cities. It is retail cleansing.

Overwhelmingly, shopping in America is about malls: small ones, set out in strips in ugly corners of town in between car muffler shops; larger ones in the suburbs, full of teenagers hanging out by the fountains; and massive ones out beyond the suburbs in artificially created centres with whimsical names where security guards keep order and real life gets left in the car park.

The rise of the mall results from the desire of property developers and retailers to part people from their money in the most efficient way possible. The land is cheap, the site is accessible, the car parks expansive; the mall itself is usually created in an entertaining and upmarket way, making it a day out for the family; and an effective way to find a broader choice than in the local high street.

All this is not necessarily new, even for Britain. As Ian Jack pointed out in the paper some weeks ago, the rest of the country has been quietly succumbing for some time. Outside London, massive malls have already helped crush the old city centres, but Bluewater has sparked interest because it is right under the noses of Fleet Street, just a half an hour from Docklands. Lakeside at Thurrock is in Essex, and so it was often ignored in London as if it were in a separate country. Bluewater is in Kent, however, much closer spiritually and geographically.

Enough damage has been done already. For anyone who has shopped in parts of Kent in the recent past, the attraction of Bluewater will be clear. Maidstone, for example, has little choice for shoppers beyond the Checkers Centre and the remaining small cluster of shops around the High Street selling shoes and birthday cards. Bigness has already eased out many of the older places that brought the centre some character.

There is not even a fish shop in Maidstone any more: Safeways did away with that. There is still a very decent butcher's or two, but probably the best is now in the Checkers centre. If you live around Maidstone and you want some choice in big-ticket items - furniture, for instance - then a trip to Bluewater will make sense, and will also be a day out.

Aside from the small towns, it is the suburbs that will be badly hit. The suburbs evolved as people no longer wanted to live where they worked; but they still shopped where they lived. Now, even that will not be necessary.

It is no coincidence that Bluewater is so close to Bromley, a quietish suburb of London with little public transport, a small high street and few large stores. If you live in Bromley, the choice before was either going to Croydon, which has a larger set of stores, or into central London. Now, Bluewater beckons enticingly. Just as in the US, the creation of a large pole of attraction just outside the city centre will fragment the suburbs and weaken the attraction of the local high street.

The first mall was built in 1956, south of Minnesota, by Victor Gruen, a visionary who saw the mall as the future. His Southdale Centre ("Every day is a perfect shopping day," read the publicity) was a piece of social engineering. "If the shopping centre becomes a place that not only provides suburbanites with their physical living requirements, but simultaneously serves their civic, cultural and social community needs, it will make a most significant contribution to the enrichment of our lives," he wrote in Shopping Towns USA, his version of Das Kapital.

Of course, things have moved on a little since then. Just four miles away from Southdale stands The Mall of America, a vast place with a daytime population of 100,000 which attracts charter flights from around the country. It has 14 cinemas, 25 restaurants, 27 fast food joints, and eight music venues. Eat your heart out, Maidstone.

Bluewater will eat out the heart of the surrounding towns. The popular wisdom is that the supermall is a catastrophe for urban development, shredding communities and forcing even more traffic on to the roads. And as so often, the popular wisdom is right. Bluewater will do dreadful damage to the smaller towns and suburban enclaves of north-western Kent, if the US is a model.

It is tempting to take a contrary tack, and point out that Bluewater is rising from the soil of Kent just as Sherman Oaks, the California mall that was the natural home of the fabled Valley Girls, is closing down. There is, it is true, a movement under way in America to reclaim city centres, using corporate and residential development to lure people back to the deserted urban centres which they fled in the 1960s. Several large American retailing chains are experimenting with smaller stores, targeted at the consumer who just wants some six-inch nails or a sheaf of legal pads, not a two-hour expedition down the freeway to a different state.

A few branches of Office Depot and similar stationery shops in the city centres will not change mall culture, however. The aim is usually to eliminate any local competition - the stationery shop that has somehow escaped and remained in local ownership, for instance. And Sherman Oaks closed because there were bigger malls with better shops, not because everyone decided to go back to the high street.

Nor does the repopulation of the city centre that is being experimented with in the US mean a return to some prelapsarian idyll of mom'n'pop stores, soda fountains and the General Store. The target population is usually relatively high-income couples with no kids who will spend cash on local restaurants and shops. In general, the aim is to attract a few branches of big chain stores, so that Gap, Banana Republic and Old Navy (virtually identical American clothing shops) have a presence downtown as well as 15 miles out of the city.

Does this mean that American business is unaware of the costs of this consumer apocalypse? No, not a bit of it.

The latest fashion is "retrofitting" suburban high streets - recreating tiny boutique shops that sell bath salts and kitchen scales after all the normal shops have gone into exile. And the mallocrats have also started yearning for something new. At the International Council of Shopping Centres Conference in Las Vegas two years ago, they were fretting about the need for something "compelling", "architectural", "particular", which they called "a sense of place".

The fact that through years of dedication, hard work and brutal greed they had managed to expunge this from virtually every square centimetre of urban America seems not have struck these people. They have built a desert, and they call it progress.