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Space time and shopping centres

Ahead of the opening of Barnsley’s Glassworks shopping centre in 2021, Senior Lecturer Dr Esther Pugh reflects on the enduring appeal of shopping centres in her latest guest blog.     

Space time and shopping centres

In September I spoke to Umar Farouq on ITV news, about Glassworks in Barnsley, a new shopping centre development, its name paying tribute to the area’s glass manufacturing past. Glassworks is reputed to be ‘creating a new energy and buzz’ and offering a ‘new heart and soul’ to this South Yorkshire town. Umar wanted to ask my opinion on the wisdom of opening a shopping centre in a pandemic. 

The government, as a result of Covid 19, is placing restrictions and boundaries on free, natural and playful human behaviour and according to the British Retail Consortium (2020), the steady decline in bricks and mortar retail sales are only exacerbated by the virus. Why, therefore do we need another shopping centre?

My answer pays homage to the link between space, time and shopping I explored in my PhD ‘Serendipitously Ludic Spaces: Vintage Fashion Fairs through the Lens of Critical Spatial Theory’. Retail, life and society are attached at the hip, and British shoppers for 200 years, have worshipped in ‘Cathedrals of Consumption’ (Baudrillard 1970). From the Burlington Arcade (1819) to the Bullring (1964), and beyond, shopping centres have become ‘Third Places’ (Oldenberg 1991), in between the home and workspace; spaces to ‘spend time’ and to succumb to the joy, pleasure and sensuality of shopping. They slow down the rhythm of life, they encourage consumers to lose track of time and space in a kind of ‘dreamlike state’ or the hypnotic ‘Gruen Effect’ (Csabat and Askegaard 1999:34). 

Resembling what Foucault (1967) called a ‘Heterotopia’, the shopping centre is an ‘other’ space, a separate world away from everyday life, offering a break from the usual rules of time and space, slowing down time and offering opportunities to dwell. It is the temporal and spatial opposite of speed and convenience of online shopping. In the traditional shopping centre, customers’ sense of spatial difference is blurred, and their experience of time is distorted (Mohammed 2019), so they enter another world. In ‘Liquid Modernity’ (Bauman 1999), shopping centres have evolved to be less centred around shopping and to embrace leisure and ‘retailtainment’. They are representative of the fragility, temporariness and vulnerability of shops today in the whirlwind that is the retail environment, where shops open and close repeatedly like the bellows of an accordion.

But shopping centre developments peaked in the UK in the 1990s. Alongside identikit high streets, they have contributed to a bland clone town effect, where all places look the same, lined with the same big chain stores, cinemas and bowling alleys. Whilst paying lip service to local and niche independent retailers, it is Starbucks, Sports Direct and Next who tend to dominate because they have the economic power for such locations. Brightly lit, timeless, ahistorical, constant, never changing ‘spaces without a place’ (Foucault 1967), many shopping centres are inauthentic and cultureless‘ non-places’ of capitalism (Augé 1995). 
Henri Lefebvre’s ‘Rhythmanalysis’ (2004) captures the interrelation between space and time in everyday activities, encapsulating a kind of musicality. As Karrholm (2009) argues, these are often centred around the synchronised beats and refrains of consumption.

Covid 19 has altered the rhythm of towns and cities, where most of the shopping centres reside, reducing the repetitive and timely footfall of commuters to a slow beat. Now, for as long as Coronavirus persists, it is even more essential for shopping centres to promote themselves as ‘destinations’, drawing people in to make special trips for reasons other than just shopping to, ’experience’ something outside the lockdown space of home.
Glassworks attempts to do this by highlighting new ways to position the shopping centre in time and space. It strives to be more than a generic space to buy stuff. Instead, it aims to be rooted in the space and time of Barnsley’s identity and to offer a patchwork of spatial and temporal rhythms:
Library @ The Lightbox, an innovative shared space; a place for study and reflection, featuring a statue of ‘Kes’ by local writer Barry Hines and a poem by Barnsley poet Ian Macmillan.
Liquid and flowing porous space fusing indoors and outdoors, incorporating the civic buildings of Barnsley’s history and heritage within their connecting public streets and squares.
Indoor and outdoor pop up and temporary markets, offering colour, theatre, atmosphere and a celebration of Barnsley’s past.

Time will tell whether Glassworks will ‘create a new energy and buzz’ offering a ‘heart and soul’ for Barnsley as promised? In order to do this, its developers and Barnsley Town Council will need to be attuned to the heartbeat and musicality of its residents long into the future, and to continually synchronise to the beat of future change.

To find out more about the Glassworks development, visit their website

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