Europe's biggest mall opens in London

Shop till you drop ... with 20 times the floor area of St Paul's Cathedral, Westfield Stratford City is Europe's biggest mall.
Shop till you drop ... with 20 times the floor area of St Paul's Cathedral, Westfield Stratford City is Europe's biggest mall. Photo: Getty Images

Westfield Stratford City is a hermetic citadel of commercial seduction, writes Jonathan Glancey.

The huge queue impatient for consumer goods was agog. ''There's celebrities and everything,'' says an excited teenage girl who really ought to have been at school.

The names of the celebrities seemed a little unfamiliar, but I learned that Nicole Scherzinger used to be lead singer of Pussycat Dolls and that Nick Grimshaw was not the bespectacled president of the Royal Academy, who goes by the same name, but a radio disc jockey.

Position, position position ... 7 million Games visitors will visit the mall.
Position, position position ... 7 million Games visitors will visit the mall. Photo: Bloomberg

The doors were opened and the crowd sprinted inside with Olympic verve. As each shop was opened, there was whooping, wild applause, ''Yo's'' and high fives. This, if you could Adam and Eve it, was east London, although as far removed from Dixon of Dock Green, working docks and rhyming slang as a Tesco Metro is from an Express Dairy corner shop.

Westfield Stratford City, however, is more than Europe's largest shopping centre. It is also the gateway to the 2012 London Olympics.

About 70 per cent of the 10 million visitors heading for the athletic venues at the other side of the new Australian-owned mall will pass through this retail portal, glancing or gawping at the promiscuous range of globally branded gewgaws on offer behind miles of polished glass shopfronts set between bold new branches of John Lewis and Marks & Spencer. Covering 175,000 square metres - 20 times the floor area of St Paul's Cathedral - Westfield Stratford City contains multitudes of chain shops: Apple, Bose, Lego, Primark, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara.

The mall houses more than 300 shops, 70 restaurants, a 14-screen cinema, three hotels and Britain's largest casino.
The mall houses more than 300 shops, 70 restaurants, a 14-screen cinema, three hotels and Britain's largest casino. Photo: Bloomberg

There are ''exciting'' food options: KFC, Krispy Kreme, McDonald's, Mr Pretzels, Starbucks and Subway. There is a ''state of the art'' 17-screen cinema, Vue, where you can book ''luxurious VIP seats''.

If you need more than a day to choose from the mountain of Made in China stuff sold here, hotels have been built into the complex. ''Shop then sleep,'' suggests the 267-bed Premier Inn. For the more active, there is a ''luxury'' bowling alley, while a casino, doubtless luxurious and fit for VIPs, opens in November.

It boasts a panoramic window overlooking the Olympics, so gamblers chancing on chips can watch athletes turning sprints into silver and games into gold. Whether you find all this uplifting or a vision of hell will turn, perhaps, on what you expect contemporary city streets to be.

Westfield Stratford City has risen from a derelict wasteland in one of the poorest areas in Britain.
Westfield Stratford City has risen from a derelict wasteland in one of the poorest areas in Britain. Photo: AFP

A decade ago, there was talk of Stratford City emerging in the guise of a grid of streets that would call to mind the tight urban grid of Barcelona rather than the hindquarters of Hackney marshes. What has emerged instead is this gargantuan international shopping mall; it swallows the site and belongs here as well as it might to Los Angeles, Lagos or Laputa.

A hermetic citadel of commercial seduction, Westfield Stratford City will delight those for whom shopping for luxury VIP goods is a way of life and sadden those for whom so much brightly packaged global design is no way to plan the future of a city nor to greet visitors to the Olympic Games.

A huge, shop-lined crescent that cuts through the offices and hotels from Stratford station to the Olympics site is mirrored by the indoor shopping arena, or 21st century souk, that makes even the most ambitious airport terminal seem lilliputian. This is the Arcade, ''an imposing 24-hour lifestyle street'' and the hub of Westfield Stratford City.

The company's in-house architects have made this a pillarless space, so that views of shopfronts are uninterrupted. Floors gleam, ceilings shine and doubtless there will be artworks here chosen by Westfield's own cultural team led by Mary Portas and Tracey Emin, to distract the souls of the shopped out.

Beyond the walls of Westfield and its offshoot, the 2012 Olympics, lies a very different London. Old streets, old terraces, old businesses. People without the wherewithal to indulge in the mall's 300 and more VIP shops. This was once the hub not of intense luxury shopping, but of manufacturing. This vast site was long home to Stratford Railway Works, finally closed in 1991. Here London workers crafted 1682 locomotives, 5500 carriages and 33,000 goods wagons.

Along the banks of the River Lea, flowing lugubriously through the Olympics site, were some of Britain's most innovative companies making, among other special things, aircraft and London buses.

While some of us might dream of a rejuvenated Stratford and a Lea Valley alive with modern factories and a highly skilled workforce, Westfield has won the day. Doubtless, it will be an Olympian success.

Guardian News & Media

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