Shopping centres as cultural icons?

 

unnamed-13The shopping centre and retail industry trade press is usually pretty much middle of the road, which is no different to any other industry. Occasionally, it delivers a ripper of a joke.

Such was the case in a recent issue of Shopping Centers Today, which included an article about the forthcoming Westfield mega mall in Milan, Italy.

Victor Busser Casas, GM of Milan-based Arcus Real Estate, which is Westfield’s local partner for the project, has a wicked sense of humour.

“We want this shopping centre to be an icon in Milan,” he is reported as saying.

Referring to the millions of visitors who flock annually to enjoy all the wonders Milan has to offer, he adds: “They can see the Galleria, ‘The Last Supper’, and they can see Westfield”.

At first I thought this was a rather offensive and hubris-ridden remark. But then I realised it was a joke and I could hardly stop laughing.

Now please don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of the transformative nature of some urban retail projects around the world.

In many instances, shopping centres have given the kiss of life to downtowns on their way to history’s landfill.

Such is not the case with Milan, but I am sure Westfield Milan will be a fine shopping centre nonetheless.

Of course, juxtaposing a contemporary shopping centre with the Galleria and The Last Supper implies it will be some kind of great cultural attraction, and, if seriously intended, the comment could be seen as a crass act of self importance, even by a person who is not a lover of fine art and historic buildings like I am.

The Last Supper, painted by da Vinci in the 1490s on a wall of the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie, is among the world’s most famous Renaissance paintings, up there with the Mona Lisa or Botticelli’s La Primavera.

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And the Galleria? The name is short for Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a glass vaulted and domed arcade built in the 1860s adjacent to the city’s famous cathedral.

It is believed by some to be the world’s oldest shopping centre, but whether it is or not – and I seriously doubt it – the Galleria is an architectural treasure.

So too is the Milan Cathedral next to it, and Teatro alla Scala on the other side of it, both of which Casas omitted from his short list of places that tourists might want to visit.

Perhaps, if he were to stretch his humorous streak a little further, he might have said that if tourists were pressured for time and compelled to make hard choices, they would eschew the 14th century cathedral and 18th century opera house in favour of the 21st century mega mall.

But now it is I who jest.

While Casas’ remarks may have been tongue in cheek, it does reflect an emerging issue in the industry that needs to be cut down before it gets completely out of hand.

It’s that shopping centres are generally getting bigger and more important as shopping patterns change, the strips continue to deteriorate and marginalise themselves, and people need a place to go to fulfil their social needs.

This enhanced role of the enlarged shopping centre is making some developers think they are creating masterpieces which, if dug up by archaeologists in 1000 years, will be revered in the same way we now prize the Roman Colisseum or the Taj Mahal.

Perhaps that is true, perhaps not. None of us will be around to find out. Either way though, it would be useful for the industry as a whole to keep a perspective on what it is contributing and not contributing to society at large.

Shopping centres, at the end of the day, were always created to be economic assets. But Milan’s cathedral, it’s opera house, it’s great art, were not.

Meanwhile, let’s keep rolling out the humour in the trade press – we all need some laughs and why not get them from within our own industry?

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at [email protected] and www.mbaker-retail.com.

 

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