On shopping certainly stands up to that title, with

    On a Saturday afternoon, the mall looks as
expected — packed and bustling. The ‘spatial activity’ of shopping certainly stands
up to that title, with little space left empty in the boulevards of stores and
advertisements. But why is this the way so many choose to spend their weekends?
How can we justify spending our only off hours somewhere dominated by
consumerism and corruption, participating in an activity that is typically
associated with greed? I believe that, in recognition of the culturally perceived
emptiness of the activity for which they provide the main social space, mall designers
create the illusion that something else other than mere shopping in going on.
Through the
configuration of space and a consciously designed symbolic landscape,
they twist the image of consumer capitalism so intensely that we don’t even
recognize it; they present an alternative rationale for the shopping center’s
existence and manipulate shoppers’ behavior. Whether it’s the physicality of
the mall, the intentional and specific branding and advertising, or the geographic
location, every aspect of the space is a precise decision to make us, the
shoppers, extend our stay and spend more money.

    Atmospheres, according to Gernot Bo?hme (2008, 2), ‘imbue
everything, they … bathe everything in a certain light, unify a diversity of
impressions’. Designers of shopping malls are well aware of this, doing everything
they can to establish a merchant ambiance; playing carefully prepared
background music, maintaining a constant average temperature, with even lighting
for optimal showcasing of products, strict control over the rules of behaviour
and ways of being, direction of pedestrian streams and spatial layout of
merchandise (Thibaud, 2014, 5). These shopping malls are therefore atmospherically
charged in the service of power, primarily in reproducing spaces of state and
commercial significance, to stabilize the meanings and feelings of place and
maintain an even, consistent atmosphere. Designers set ‘the conditions in which
the atmosphere appears’, creating ‘tuned’ spaces with tones, hues and shapes. It
is no stretch to identify the multiple ways in which shopping malls are managed
so as to produce a particular feel, mood or ambience, and as I witnessed in CF Rideau
Centre, to produce a comfortable atmosphere of homeliness and identity, and the
image of the idealized public street turns out to be the perfect vessel for
this. Rideau’s halls stretch out into boulevards of stores and marble walkways,
perpetually clean and naturally lit. Benches, alcoves and wooden patios are
scattered tastefully throughout the levels, and live tropical plants provide a
vacation like atmosphere. It creates an illusion of cleanliness and safety, and
reminds me of almost an upper-middle class neighbourhood – a suburb. This isn’t
surprising because, as John Goss points out in his work The Magic of the Mall,
‘suburb’ is a relatively democratic space. The shopping center re-presents a liberal
vision of consumption, in which credit-card citizenship allows all to buy an
identity and vicariously experience preferred lifestyles, without principles of
exclusion based on accumulated wealth or cultural capital (Zukin 1990, 41). It
is, however, a strongly bounded or purified social space (Sibley 1988, 409)
that excludes a significant minority of the population and so protects patrons
from the moral confusion that a confrontation with social difference might provoke
(see also Lewis 1990). Rideau Centre, in particular, seems essentially a space
for the white middle classes, and the brands and advertisements certainly bring
this into focus.

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            Speaking to this,
the advertisements and branding within the mall further the intention of the
physical space and are focused on attracting a specific demographic. In the
same way that temperature, lighting, and scenery are all kept consistent to
maintain a specific atmosphere and avoid the discomfort of the different, the
mall makes decisions about which brands to host based on what demographic they
will attract. ‘High-culture’ name brands like Gap and Old Navy and
H&M permeate the environment of Rideau Centre. They advertise products for
families, for business people and ‘happy’ or ‘normal’ people. Blinding, perfect
smiles stare down from signs, and the people in these advertisements indicate
which people the mall hopes will frequent the environment they’ve created –
said people being young, white, healthy and rich. The stores that the
mall chooses to host all represent the demographic they wish to attract. Consumers have become nothing more than pawns of huge multinational
corporations that determine, in large part, what is seen, heard, read and worn,
and some of these chosen brands have become identified with certain lifestyles
themselves. In choosing these specific brands, retail built environments play a
significant role in the structuration of the social classes that grace their
sites. While a full discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, some
preliminary suggestions can be made. Market researchers develop stereotypical
profiles of customers and apply a concept of social class, conflated with
lifestyle categories into market segments. The center is then designed to explicitly
meet the presumed environmental needs and desires of the segments dominating
market areas; thus the “look” of centers reflects and reinforces
conceptions of social class.

During
my observation period, I also noticed that the actual physical location of the
mall is also strategic for attracting shoppers. CF Rideau centre falls right in
the crossroads of three major demographics of shoppers: students (University of
Ottawa), tourists (Byward Market), and employed adults (Business District). It
also has two major bus stops on either side of the mall, forcing people to navigate
through it in order to transfer or catch busses, giving them ample opportunity
to be distracted and, if all goes as planned, shop. This location choice is
crucial to the populous of the mall at any given moment. Students commuting to
school, business people commuting to work, and tourists who essentially travel for
the purpose of shopping, are all forced to spend time in a place designed to
distract and capture.

It
is clear that extraordinary planning goes into every aspect of designing the
mall as a ‘place’ for people to be and consume, but it is also essential
that we do not construe subjects within such atmospheres as entirely passive.
Gernot Bo?hme (2008, 2) asserts that atmospheres, ‘without the sentient subject
… are nothing’. As we learned in class, place-making is a two-way street; people
modify and co-create the atmosphere. In the end, it is us who choose to succumb
to their design, despite the reality of the production behind some of the
brands or the ethical integrity of the shopping centre. We allow ourselves to
be lured into the carefully constructed illusion and in turn take for granted
the harm places such as these have on our society through constructing social hierarchies,
supporting terrible labour conditions, or being significantly tied up in issues
like gentrification. As much as the designers do everything to create a place
where we will consume, to bait us into spending time in their shopping centres
with false narratives and an illusion of identity, in the end it us who choose
to take this bait, hook line and sinker. While they do create this narrative of
place, malls still do need us to fill in the blanks. And we do, and we will.