CONSUMERISM GONE MAD
While dreaming of my first South African Starbucks coffee this week, I came across the words of Joseph Campbell in a tweet shared by philosopher Alain de Botton. Campbell said: “If we want to know what a society believes in, you must look at what its largest buildings are devoted to.” The tweet came during the week that the Atterbury Group launched the Mall of Africa, the largest built in a single phase in southern Africa, situated within their already enormous Waterfall City gated residential development. The idea of a mall within a gated community is typically the description of hell for anyone interested in city building, but this developer-imagined city is now upon us, and so we must live with it.
If you listened closely when the ribbons of the mall were cut this week, you could hear “The Mall Maker” and original sculptor of consumerism, architect Victor Gruen, wailing from the grave at the hideous irony of the commuters stuck in the hours of traffic outside the mall on its opening day. Gruen designed the first climate-controlled indoor shopping centres to remedy, even cure, America of the ills of a car-based city, so just imagine his pen crashing to the ground when reading on the mall’s website, “The Mall of Africa has 6 500 parking bays, the majority of which are underground. That’s 11 817 000 kilograms of cars!”
Inside the mall, one is promised an “African shopping experience”, a veritable spending safari through spaces such as the Forest Walk, inspired by the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the Court of the Great Lakes, intended to echo Lake Tanganyika, and the Desert Court – a desolate valley of glass and marble inspired by the sands of the Sahara Desert offering shoppers “an opportunity to slow down and take a moment for yourself”. The true wonder of Mall of Africa, however, is that, in all of these great African spaces, one struggles to find anything actually African to spend money on. With all that space, could they not spare a few square metres to support some local brands or artisans selling things actually made or manufactured within the continent?
Despite all this, I can’t help but find myself rearranging plans I had for the weekend so I can experience it all for myself. I can’t wait to be drowned in fluorescent lights that flood my brain with all those memories of a childhood growing up in 1990s Johannesburg where Friday nights were spent roaming the empty corridors of shops after the movies. I defended myself from the marauding gang of high school boys that used to stalk outside Woolworths and I had too many birthday songs to remember sung by “American Indians” at Spur. I kissed a love under the painted moonlight-and-LED stars of Monte Casino.
Is the Mall of Africa the worst thing to happen to city planning in Johannesburg since apartheid? Yes, it is. Well, along with Steyn City. But now that it’s here, I will not fear it the way I have been since reading about it. In the end, I will probably treat it the way I did those bullies outside Woolworths – by running away screaming in the opposite direction.
IN GESTATION While the megamall was being constructed
READY TO RUMBLE The finished Mall of Africa