The propaganda hits you the minute you see the sky-high brand name hieroglyphs. Giant smiling families gazing down over the entrance to a Mothercare. ‘M&S’ hanging like a massive totem. Floating retail commandments in single words, Breathe, Eat, Relax, Play...
About a year ago I went out on the streets in the thick of one of the worst riots in Manchester’s history since Peterloo, tail-ending the spectacularly violent summer of 2011 when a chain of British cities erupted in flames and looting. Having observed the hooded kids kicking in the doors of sportswear and mobile phone chain stores, I made the observation that for a generation programmed for retail, the sight of them looting a Foot Locker or a Carphone Warehouse wasn’t so much a street protest as a very forceful method of going shopping.
Only a couple of months later Europe’s largest mall opened up in Stratford on the Olympic site, a high security glass compound overshadowing the old indoor market, where proprietors are presumably looking forward to an Olympian record of bankruptcies now they have to compete with Xanadu over the road. It's colossal. Step out of the station and the sheer size of it knocks the wind out of you. You're wafted up a hill by obliging escalator beneath ceilings thirty foot high and giant flagship brands. Gleaming concourses mopped by immigrant sponges. Bent metal rods sticking out of the ground posing as sculpture. Downstairs there’s a prefab pub calling itself a Microbrewery with all the atmosphere of an antiseptic wipe.
One of the first things you notice is how small you feel. That’s what monumental architecture does, with its curtain wall cliffs, its glass canyons. It shrinks the human being. Just to get from M&S to Accessorize takes about two and a half days.
So why? Why does it all have to make you feel so insignificant?
Westfield Stratford isn’t a mall, it’s a monument. It’s a Great Exhibition Crystal Palace reborn for the age of retail. Just as that 1851 glass-walled construction embodied British might and bullishness at the peak of empire, so does Westfield justify shopping as the beating heart of the consumer society. It’s not agit-prop, it’s agit-shop. Covered arcades wide enough to house the chariot for a triumphal emperor? Spurious justification by government with words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘community’? Check, check. It’s not architectural shock and awe. It’s shop and awe.
Wandering around Westfield made me think back to those riots. Perhaps I was wrong, or perhaps I oversimplified things. I don’t think it’s incorrect to say unchecked materialism was one of the reasons people rioted, but it was only one of the reasons. There are lots of reasons why people riot. Because they’re angry. Because of peer pressure. I learnt a lot when I watched Manchester become a temporary minor war zone, and here’s one thing I learnt: that just like any other kind of social activity, a lot of the people involved are just sort of hanging round. No program, no target. As things got violent, some of them got violent. As things got nicked, some of them nicked things. It’s the way crowds work. Probably a good third of all the kids at the riots were little more than rubberneckers caught up in something they hardly comprehended. Throwing a stone at a luxury hotel, baiting a helmeted cop. Scooping up a discarded bottle of Evian or a bag of crisps, the way kids do. Some of them got prison sentences.
You look up at the Westfield Stratford complex and you know there could never be riots here. It’s a fortress protected by reinforced glass and CCTV. The ceilings stretch away from you. You’d never even reach.
I wandered out of the mall and onto the little bridge where an oily sun was descending over east London. Stretching away below me I could see late-stage preparations in the final push towards the Olympics: gates, watchtowers, electrified fencing, yellow coats, passes, wires, cameras. I watched it and I remembered back to that night. I recalled the broken glass and the flames and the sirens, and I thought about the other reason people riot. It’s one that I’ve never really come out and admitted, and yet it’s possibly the most powerful one of all, and it explains soccer hooligans, and pub fights, and the buildings burning in Athens, and lynchings, and just about any other descent into mob horror we see around us. I didn’t break the law once that night, and I don’t support looting or violence - but there was a moment when I stood watching the crowd surging and the glass breaking around me, and I can’t deny that I felt the thrill of it all. Perhaps that’s the final reason people riot. Because when you’re caught up in the whole thing, it’s just sort of fun.