Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

Just down the Holland Park Road from London's wealthy Notting Hill neighborhood, the community around Shepherd's Bush Commons is experiencing an interesting urban juxtaposition. Not far from the old, somewhat run down shops on Uxbridge Road and the adjoining park of Shepherd's Bush Commons lies the new London Westfield Mall (in the space labeled "White City" on this Google Map).

The shops along the commons, as can be seen in this Google "streetview" photo, are the run-of-the-mill type you'll find in various modest neighborhoods. A quick walk around the park suggests that the area is primarily dominated by immigrants from the Middle East and you'll often see women in full burkas. A few homeless people and drunks are in the park which is otherwise clean and well used with many children on the play equipment.

As you progress down the road to the recently refurbished tube station (opened in 2008) suddenly a very different image of life in London appears. According to a Wikipedia article on the Shepherd's Bush station the refurbishment was paid for by Westfield. Given the way in which the tube station and the adjoining overground station match the steel and glass architecture of the Westfield London shopping mall it is easy to make the connection.

(A blog by Scott Santoro has additional photos and commentary on the mall) The mall itself is a fascinating vision of what 21st century life in London (and around the world) may increasingly look like. Steel and sheer glass replace the humble beige brick. And in this version of London Prada and Gucci replace the "Super Save." One is tempted to ask who can really afford all of this luxury but on this Sunday afternoon the shops and restaurants were packed full of bag toting shoppers. A small play area for children had far exceeded its capacity as parents entertained small kids while the shopping went on.

The many contrasts in so small a physical space seemed accentuated to me by the way in which the mall is entirely cut off from the original neighborhood. The greenery on the photo above covers a high wall that serves as a solid barricade between middle and lower class apartments and the glitz of the mall. One could arrive by the underground or overground station, walk into the mall, and never realize that another London is just on the other side of this shrubbery.

Which is perhaps the point. People in the new London don't really want to be a part of the old London. This particular architectural contrast shows how there is a wide gap between the two, a gap that has always been a part of society. But a gap that is now defining itself in an architectural language which at once announces and embodies both the future and the past -- a future of clean bright spaces made of shiny materials and the past of ongoing segregation by economic class.

At least in Notting Hill there is a continuity between one neighborhood and the next. In the futurism of Westfield there is a complete break from the existing community. To be fair, the idea of the mall has evolved over time all over the world as a kind of tiny city which ignore the existing landscape in which they are placed, forming their own islands of commerce. But I wonder if one squints just a bit whether the London Westfield isn't just a mall but also a look at how urban planners will be rethinking entire communities (exclusively for the wealthy) in the decades ahead.

If so, we should begin to worry about how this visual and physical segregation of western society will exasperate the many social problems which we already are experiencing, and whether our architects and urban planners ought to think more about how to create connections and continuity between old and new.


Bart said...

I have lived in Shepherds Bush for the last 10 or so years, and I have never seen a burqa out there. Various other veils, niqab etc. - but never a burqa,

Paula Tomé said...

Hi, I happen to live in Shepherds Bush and find your post good and truthful, raising some very relevant questions. I might add that I do not like the new mall much, in fact I dislike it quite a lot. Lets hope the future looks less like it and more like the lovely sense of a village reaching out to another which is ultimately what makes up London one and many a city at once and also so special. Cheers!

JenV said...

I used to live on just the other side of the Holland Park Roundabout, behind the Sheraton. It was convenient to be able to say I lived in Holland Park or Shephard's Bush, as the situation warranted.

I was disappointed in the mall precisely for its cold, disjointed intrusion of the surrounding space. It's a harsh attempt at re-gentrification.

I didn't even bother to go inside so I don't know what's in there, but predict discount outlets within a decade. The rich have lots of other options in London and even Holland Park and Westbourne Grove, nearby, have huge turnover in retailers. A permanent farmer's market in place of the old abandoned exhibition space would have been much better.