Welcome to our ersatz world

The architecture announces the developer's right not to care

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One of the discoveries made by southern trekkers once they get past Scotch Corner is the Metro Centre in Gateshead, the greatest retail spectacle in Europe. Half a million people do their shopping there in an average week, with around 90,000 of th ose perambulating down its malls each Sunday for the pre-Christmas binge.

The Metro Centre, built on a polluted riverside, emerged from lagoons of ash dumped by an old power station. Its triumph lends itself to myths about urban death and reincarnation, and propaganda about competition and consumption. According to the myth, the Metro Centre has created a new culture of consumption in Tyneside, a region represented - by other regions - as a proletarian paradise, but a consumers' desert.

Trekkers are taken around the industrial archaeology of Tyneside and the purportedly riotous rookeries which produced one of the country's highest crime rates, before they alight on the Metro Centre as an altar of renewal. But neither the myth nor the propaganda alert us to the Metro Centre as a medley of contradictions. It is not an exemplar of something new in the North, but of the ancient sport of shopping in a region where income-earners have generally been able to spend a greater portion of their wages in the shops because of lower transport and housing costs.

Tyneside's reputation among retailers was as their greatest market outside London - a remarkable commitment to consumption amid a population one-eighth the size of the capital.

John Bryson, the Metro Centre manager, says: "Tyneside was always famous among retailers as one of the best markets outside London. Marks & Spencer regarded its Newcastle branch as the best outside Marble Arch." But that branch, in Northumberland Street,reached its limits in the early Eighties. When John Hall proposed the Gateshead redevelopment, Marks & Spencer stationed its new store at the heart of it.

What is often forgotten is that the Metro Centre, situated three or four miles from the old city centres of Newcastle and Gateshead, is a focus for shoppers across a massive landscape - it services a population between Leeds and Edinburgh.

Unlike Newcastle's spectacular cityscape, but rather like Gateshead itself, the Metro Centre is triumphantly ugly. It is an eyeless fortress - its resemblance to a castle confirmed by the flags perched on top of the blank perimeter walls.

But its ugliness is not just to do with its lack of art. The Metro Centre's architecture announces the developer's right not to care, the defiance of a duty to the landscape or to civic pride. The centre was relieved of these burdens by Michael Heseltinein the early Eighties. In his enterprise zones, he banished the public from the planning process, and gave property developers subsidised permission to blight city centres by evacuating a single function, shopping, to somewhere else. The develo pers' desertion prompted the Secretary for the Environment, John Gummer, recently to impose a moratorium on out-of-town malls.

What the high street offers, at its best, is complexity - a CAB and a haberdasher next door to Top Shop, dance classes and pool halls. The high street, unlike the mall, is still the public realm. Tyneside exemplifies the distinction. Despite the spectacular success of the Metro Centre, Newcastle's old city centre hums with street life, casual congregations around traditional squares where animal liberationists, musicians, Christians, Class War, hippies and heavy metallers, drinkers and clubbers, petitioners and protesters bring witty and chaotic pleasure to public space.

In contrast to this benign chaos, the Metro Centre's inside is a celebration of control. Policed by security sentries, it feels safe. But it also feels purged of unruly, unfocused assemblies.

Its design arouses middle-class contempt for its ersatz nooks and crannies - there is a Roman forum, a 42nd Street, a Mediterranean Village, there are fountains every hundred yards, there is "street art" but no graffiti, and there is a fairground for children. It is common in the way that Blackpool or Butlins is common. And like Blackpool and Butlins, it is reassuring, the customers know exactly what to do and where to go.

The middle class may mock, but while the Metro Centre suppresses the multi-functions that used to define the lived-in city centre, it offers what the average High Street does not. One of its great achievements is that this monument to anti-planning is planned. The ease of its internal traffic offers a poignant contrast to the High Street: buggies and wheelchairs are free to roam around its malls, in and out of its lifts and cafes in a way that is impossible in British cities, which remain doggedly hostile not only to the disabled, but to anyone who needs to rest, make a wee-wee or a telephone call.

Disabled access was imposed on all the Metro Centre retailers; and they collectively provided a creche. But not for the children of the 6,000 workers, mainly part-time, poor women. The malls, quadrants and courts of the Metro Centre accuse the High Street of a failure of democracy, a failure to service shoppers as citizens. The Metro Centre, by the same measure, reveals the limits of the city conceived merely as a market.

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