Fergus Butler-Gallie

The depressing rise of the cathedral gimmick

Even our most sacred spaces have begun the process of Westfield-isation

(Photo: Southwark Cathedral)

They say that shopping centres are the cathedrals of late capitalism. It is amusing sometimes to think of future generations shuffling reverently around the monumental structures of glass, faux marble and strangely treated wood as if they were structures worthy of awe or wonder, perhaps pausing to peer at the tracery of a former Burger King. Westfield, London’s great temple that looms over Shepherd’s Bush, is an example of this genre I find particularly stressful. It is an endless cavalcade of stimuli: flashing adverts, muzak ricocheting off intensely polished surfaces, bright lights and endless, endless stuff to buy. We are not even spared olfactory assault, as the artificially intensified scents of everything from soaps to cinnamon buns are pumped into our nostrils.

The thing is, whilst Westfield is the most egregious example of modern commercial freneticism, it is by no means unique. Almost every part of our physical public sphere is given over to invasions of our space and pressures on our time and, most importantly, our wallets. Online is no better: using Instagram these days is like being digitally mugged by an advertising executive. The triumph of the mobile phone means that the general invasiveness and pressurisation of modern life can even enter our homes, carried on our very person. Now, even our most sacred spaces have begun the process of Westfield-isation.

The rush to fill our sacred spaces with the banal suggests that we fear what we might find after a period of reflection

The cathedral gimmick has become a feature of recent English summers – as reliable as Pimms in June or rain in August. As the holidaymakers descend on our cathedral cities, places dedicated to the majesty of the eternal briefly become shrines to temporary stimuli. Amidst the altars and alcoves there are exhibits designed to heighten engagement and bring people in, everything from bridges to minigolf to dinosaurs.

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