Shopping around

Roselands
Opening day at Roselands, 1965. Australian Women’s Weekly, 27 October 1965, Powerhouse Museum Library.

A groovy shopping mall is a contradiction in terms for many people. Yet that is what has just opened at the Central Park development on Sydney’s Broadway. As malls go the new one is small but it’s illuminated from above by a Jean Nouvel-designed heliostat and according to the Herald, has the personality of ‘a well-dressed hipster with a short attention span’.

The fuss about the new mall reminds me of the 1960s, until recently the only decade in which ‘shopping malls’ and ‘cool’ were likely to be found in the same sentence. In 1965 Sydney was in a state of excitement about the launch of Roselands mall. Roselands wasn’t Sydney’s first shopping mall (Miranda Fair and Warringah Mall are older) but its interior was smartly designed, organising the shopping galleries around a three-level central court. Architect Richard Johnston found the Centre Court ‘all very exciting and stimulating, if somewhat confusing…this quality of visual excitement is important to the shopping activity…’ (Architecture in Australia, February 1969, p.104.) A few decades on the new Central Park mall follows the same design formula.

Roselands was brilliantly promoted by its owner Grace Bros and 65,000 people turned out for opening day, ready to gape at the Raindrop Fountain and eat at what was probably Sydney’s first food court, featuring servery counters titled London Roast, Red Dragon, Continental Court and the Chuck Wagon. Edna Everage declared that ‘heaven must be like Roselands’ and she was only one of numerous cultural personalities who felt compelled to visit the new phenomenon and pass judgement. Another to be heaven-fixated was the novelist Charmian Clift, struck by Roselands’ ‘assortment of heavens – food heavens and fashion heavens and beauty heavens…’

My own vague childhood memory is that Roselands seemed a much more exciting building than the Opera House, in 1965 stuck in the middle of its interminable design and construction. Certainly no Sydney shopping mall has ever recaptured that moment, when shopping was officially sanctioned as leisure rather than necessity.

So successful was the suburbanisation of shopping pioneered by Roselands that the city department stores began to struggle; Marcus Clark, Farmers and Anthony Horderns are among those long gone from the CBD. Sydney City Council responded with the development of Centrepoint, opened in 1972 (the Tower opened in 1981) the first of a new generation of city arcades including Mid City Centre (Harry Seidler’s sole shopping centre design, recently demolished and replaced), the remodelled QVB and Milan

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Milan. Photo by Charles Pickett.

The success of the new city arcades is not surprising as the covered shopping street has a long and architecturally distinguished history in Sydney and other cities. Probably the most famous are the grand shopping galleries of the 1800s such as Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and Naples’ Galleria Umberto 1. Although initially designed as a produce market, Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building has a similar urban grandeur. During the 1880s and 1890s Sydney also experienced a boom in arcade construction in the King and Market Street area – the Royal, Sydney, Strand, Imperial, Piccadilly, Her Majesty’s and Victoria arcades; only the Strand survives.

Royal arcade
Royal Arcade, Sydney about 1893. Photo by NSW Government Printer. Powerhouse Museum collection.

Of course these examples share city locales and the mall was not truly rehabilitated for the design cognoscenti until it returned to the city where its pedestrian character is not compromised by acres of car parks and other suburban add ons.

Skygarden and Centrepoint were two of several properties subsumed into the new Westfield Sydney development comprising as well as a new retail mall, a remodelled Market Street office tower and a new 27-storey office tower at 85 Castlereagh Street. Frank Lowy and John Saunders founded Westfield at Blacktown in 1958 and although the company is now the world’s largest retail property owner in Sydney it remains identified with its suburban malls. Westfield had to demonstrate its design credentials when developing its first Australian CBD mall, despite the fact that under the leadership of its design director Frank Alvarez Westfield had distinctly upped its design standard during the 1990s.

All up the design of Westfield Sydney took almost a decade of negotiations, appeals and redesigns including a limited international design competition, demonstrating the political complexity of large scale city architecture today. The original proposal included three residential towers, but these were ruled out by the City Council, as were any customer parking spaces.

westfield
Architectural model, proposal for Westfield Sydney retail and office centre, 2006. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Westfield Development, 2012.

The winning design by John Wardle Architects unifies the disparate elements of the site with a glass canopy and screen around the three facades of the mall, but the interior composition of the mall space was already largely decided by Westfield while the interior fit out is the work of Japanese design studio Wonderwall, specialists in retail design. If that isn’t complicated enough, Westfield also chose the mall’s main tenants and decided where to locate them. So its not surprising that the interior is busy, and fights a bit against the visual challenges posed by its unusually low ceilings though these are themselves products of the tight site and other urban constraints – further evidence that a city mall is a different beast to a sprawling suburban one.

It’s impossible for a new mall to recapture the buzz that greeted Roselands long ago but Westfield Sydney – and its groovy Broadway cousin – do a capable job, afurther proof of the continuing appeal of shopping as a social, visual and physical experience, despite the success of internet retailing even with products like fashion.

Charles Pickett, curator

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