BLUEWATER IS the largest shopping mall in Europe and, as revealed at yesterday's opening, it is also probably the strangest. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Most shopping malls are ghastly. Bluewater, near Greenhithe off the A2 in Kent, is not ghastly: it has seven lakes, a forest and 10,000 daffodils to blunt the truth of what goes on here. And that is shopping so excessive - there are 320 retail outlets - that it might be an Olympic sport before long. Bluewater's spokeswoman does not agree. "It's not really a shopping mall at all. It's more of a Destination Day Out." She said I couldn't miss it. She was right.
Bluewater looks like a futuristic mini-city. The building has pointy bits on the roof which the architect, Eric Kuhne, says are supposed to resonate with the shape of the Kentish oast house. It reminded me of Madonna's old Gaultier bustier but that could just be because he's from Texas and I'm from Kent.
It is easy to find and, with 13,000 parking spaces in specially designed people-friendly car parks (evidently a new concept), it is easy to park. Inside, you find yourself in a "welcome area". I later learn this is designed to prepare me to spend, spend, spend. "Here's a place to park your husband, park your coat, get a cappuccino and then get ready to punch a hole through your credit card!" exulted Stuart Hornery, chairman of Lend Lease, the Australian company behind Bluewater.
I did none of those things but did manage to get lost. Bluewater comprises three malls designed for three shopping experiences (I'm sorry to use such language but everyone does after breathing mall air for a few hours). The Guildhall is up-market, the Rose Gallery is family focus, the Thames Walk is the High Street. They are arranged in a triangle with each corner anchored by a store: John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser. There I was, lost and not even knowing what shopping experience I was supposed to be having, when I met a man.
"Hello there!" he said.
"Who are you?" I demanded.
"Why, I'm just someone saying hello," he said.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
I was still suspicious. "So, why are you here?"
He then revealed he was responsible for the toilets. He said they were the best toilets in any shopping mall ever. Quality, quality, quality.
The next man I met was the architect. Mr Kuhne is very large and tall, which is exactly how a Texan should be, and told me that Bluewater had begun as a poem. He composed the sonnet in July 1996 as a way of distilling the project's ethos. His sonnet begins, "White chalk cliffs and waters blue/surround the crystal city new" and ends with, "Build this dream with forthright hands and hearts that beat with industry". But he said that Bluewater was really best summed up by Keats. He said:
"To one who has been long in city pent,
'Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of heaven - to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament."
I said that I wasn't sure that took in the pounds 350m investment here. He quit quoting long enough to say that actually, with the shops in, the place was now worth pounds 1.12bn. Keats' words could be found engraved around the corner.
Bluewater is dotted with little seating areas. Most of the people seated in them are men. I introduced myself to Tony Sheppard, who had just bought a video. "Actually I'm really here to buy a wedding ring." He and his fiancee have been engaged for three years. He had already seen a few rings he liked. I mentioned poetry. "Great! I need some of that for the wedding." I didn't have the heart to tell him he is right smack in the middle of a Shopping Experience.
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