Bluewater, billed as Europe's largest mall when it opened recently in Northwest Kent, may be the first shopping centre to pose as a hotspot of cultural authenticity. While themed shopping has made significant advances over the last decade, this is a significant new twist in mall rhetoric. By contrast, other examples of vanguard retail architecture - such as the fabulous Caesar's Shopping Forum in Las Vegas, which recreates a Roman street with 'outdoor' cafes, animatronic statuary and an hourly man-made sunset - tend to revel in their sham theatrics. Not even Los Angeles' City Walk, an outdoor mall designed to be a condensed version of the city itself (sparing tourists the onerous task of navigating LA's actual streets), lays claim to authenticity of any kind.
But given that shopping has become our primary cultural activity - a development paralleled by high fashion's rising profile as well as the growth of spectacular 'superstores' - Bluewater's designers may be on to something. Their strategy of packaging the mall as a repository of Britishness supposedly grew out of a yearning expressed by focus groups for a shopping milieu with integrity; as interpreted by the centre's American architect Eric Kuhne, this concept finds expression in a diuretic slurry of pumped-up historical and decorative emblems.
Thus Bluewater's zinc roof boasts idiosyncratic vents inspired by Kentish oasthouses, as well as curious crystal forms based on perfume bottles from Harrods and Harvey Nichols. A domed greenhouse meant to evoke Decimus Burton's Palm House at Kew Gardens fronts one entrance, while a landscaped 'water circus' leads up to another. Inside, each leg of the triangular mall is thematically decorated to commemorate England's landscape, townscape and waterscape with sculptures, friezes and even theme-specific lighting fixtures. Fake stone walls and ceiling tiles based on William Morris designs, engraved fragments of poetry spanning Shakespeare to Vita Sackville-West, and a giant umbrella straight out of Claes Oldenburg are just a few of the elements that blithely mingled in this heady semiotic cocktail.
The most truly British thing about Bluewater, though, is its location: like the Gateshead Metrocentre and other regional shopping centres, it has been built on industrial wasteland. Nestled in the remains of an immense chalk quarry, Bluewater's gleaming skyline suggests a space-age city unearthed by Star Trek archaeologists, rather than a homage to English cultural history.
But perhaps that's a more appropriate reference point. The notion that megamalls are in fact a new form of city has been bandied about by their proponents for almost a decade; indeed, Kuhne insists that the only precedent for the experience of shopping at Bluewater is visiting the high streets of major urban centres. With its own police station, private road system and bus terminal, as well as a transient population estimated to swell to 150,000 at weekends, Bluewater actually possesses many of the attributes of a small city.
Megamall ideologues push the comparison a step further, insisting that such places have become the primary forum for our public life. According to architect Jon Jerde, who helped design Minnesota's Mall of America and LA's City Walk, giant regional shopping centres - or 'urbanopolises', as he calls them - form the core of a given area's community and cultural activity, providing a replacement for run-down urban areas. Malls, once regarded as profane halls of commerce, have now taken on the mantle of being curators of our civic virtues. (Kuhne, incidentally, initially considered including a golf driving range among Bluewater's amenities, but ultimately rejected the idea as lacking in civic spirit). Shopping in places like Bluewater, in other words, is not simply a means to an end nor even an entertainment in itself, but an expression of togetherness.
Mall critics tend to get apoplectic when they hear this kind of talk. Mike Davis complains in The Ecology of Fear (1998) that themed malls such as City Walk are the 'moral equivalent of the neutron bomb: the city emptied of all lived human experience'. The megamall, this line of thinking holds, is not a public space at all, but an alienated, corporate-controlled environment in which citizens are reduced to the single role of consumers.
Admittedly, the mall is not a space of political enfranchisement, but it makes little sense to hold it responsible (as many of its critics do) for the demise of viable public spaces in our cities. Those spaces have declined not because of the corrupt and irresistible charms of megamalls, but because civic life itself has waned, and with it, a clear sense of the borders that once delineated public and private behaviours. Technologies such as the mobile phone, which encourage people to shout out personal messages while walking in the street or riding on public transport, are emblematic of this erosion, as is the increasingly clownish profile of national and local governments as they hand over their responsibilities to private enterprise.
So malls like Bluewater, where people really do hang out and mingle with strangers, have filled the gap. While their atmosphere may be closer to that of an airport duty-free shopping zone than an actual city, such places serve as 'day-out destinations' (as they say in the trade) by mixing retail outlets with cafes, restaurants, lounge areas, multi-screen cinemas and (often) programs of free concerts and performances. And whatever their drawbacks, compared to that other emerging consumer paradigm - internet shopping - they seem positively populist. At least you get to see the faces of your fellow shoppers.
Finally, as if in response to opponents who decry the mall's aspiration to cityhood on the grounds that nobody actually lives there, Bluewater's developers plan to build an adjacent hotel, sited along one of the quarry's man-made 'lakes'. Given the success of Disney's town Celebration, can themed housing - and the inevitable birth of Bluewater's first citizens - be far behind?