thoughts on our urban future

Westfield Stratford, where the Olympics and shopping come together

Westfield Stratford, one of the largest urban shopping centers in Europe opened this September about a mile from my house.  For all intents and purposes, Westfield Stratford is a mall.  A traditional indoor mall with four floors and multiple food courts as well as restuarants and an 18 screen cinema.  But also an outdoor mall of the more modern variety which tries to mimic the ‘main street’ feel by providing an outdoor pedestrianized experience complete with restaurants with outdoor seating (in good weather) and an ice skating rink (in winter).

I have been to Westfield Stratford a few times.  It is ridiculously easy to get to from the train or tube.  You exit the station, and you are simply right there.  There is also an enormous garage which seems all very tidy and accessible.  In truth, although Stratford is a place in its own right, I doubt very much that anyone who visits Westfield Stratford would be aware of this, as you can pretty much avoid it completely.  Given the general quality of Stratford as a place, this is perhaps not a bad thing, but not very helpful in regards to truly regenerating the place- as the distinct separation means that there is very little dialogue between the new and the old.

But Westfield Stratford as a mall is not the main point of interest for me, although perhaps some other time I can espouse on the urban design of malls.  What makes Westfield Stratford somewhat interesting from a design point of view is that it provides the ‘gateway’ to the Olympic Park from Stratford Station.  In other words, Olympic tourists and spectators will be forced (if they arrive via Stratford which will be most of the attendees to be sure) to go through a portion of the shopping mall in order to get from one to the other.

This is not a secret.  It’s a very direct form of manipulation of the public to hopefully gain extra revenue during a time of tourism.  Once the Olympics are gone, the park will continue to be a tourist destination and the mall will still provide the link between the station and the site.

So is this design at its best or design at its worst?  I suppose that depends on what your intention is, or rather, what’s the intention of the person paying the fee.  It’s clearly a brilliant stroke of genius from a marketing perspective.  It will provide a glitzy shiny active gateway in an area where the general architectural tone is well less than average.  On the other hand, it’s the worst sort of symbol of excess showcasing the rampant consumerism that has come to showcase so much of modern life.

It’s not that I don’t understand the intention or the rationale, I suppose it’s just that it’s disappointing to be so blatant.  I think the Olympics will be a fantastic event for London and the UK.  I think the regeneration of the Olympic site will help to heal an ugly rift that has been left to fester for so long.  Westfield Stratford is clearly a success as every visit of mine has shown, being full and busy every time.  So what’s the reticence?  I suppose what I’m not seeing is something that is greater than the sum of its parts.  I’m not seeing cohesion or true regeneration.  I see edges and boundaries and distinct separations with shopping practically overshadowing the entire reason that the shopping has been put there.

Have you been to Westfield Stratford?  What do you think?

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