6 February 2011

The Hyperreality of The Trafford Centre

Political and economic decision making in the contemporary world, even one currently operating within a framework of financial austerity, is "less based on the production of goods [and] more on the production and consumption of culture" (Jayne). These new consumption practices are commonly seen "as a foundation of forms for social relations, sociability and the nature of urban life itself" (Jayne) and has led to a proliferation of visibly spectacular signs of hypperreality - "concealing that the real is no longer real" (Jayne). This situation has created a "global culture of the hyperreal" (Appadurai) best represented in the now ubiquitous shopping mall typology, that has become a key model of economic growth, in both the urban core and the edges of our cities. The shopping mall represents both high and low culture, bringing together the two constructs of consumption and experience into one architectural or urban form. One such construction is The Trafford Centre, in Greater Manchester.

The Trafford Centre, Greater Manchester (Image by Charles Bowring, from Wikipedia)

Simulacrum, meaning 'likeness' or 'similarity', is a term used to describe a representation of another thing, for example a sculpture depicting a god or a painting copied from a photograph. The original 16th century word (derived from the Latin for likeness and image) had taken on a second meaning by the 19th century that implied an inferior representation that lacked the quality of the original. Since then the term has developed further, being adopted by fields of artistic appropriation and philosophy, most notably by the postmodern French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard. In his 1985 piece 'Simularca and Simulation' Baudrillard argues that simulacra becomes truth in there own right as signs become merely representations of other signs. He describes a four stage process of sign-making - faithful reproduction, perversion of reality, a copy with no original, and pure simulation - with three types of simulacra particular to historical periods. Simulacra can be seen through out architectural production in contemporary society for example the relentless simulation of purely gestural motifs in an attempt to 'contextualise' projects. Whilst the reproduction of an architectural language becomes a shadow, not a pure representation of the original, such as 'International Modernisms' appropriation into a 'Coporate Modernism', reproduced so many times that it can no longer be seen to be an accurate representation of the original.

Baudrillard's description of fourth stage simulacra can be understood to be a description of hyperreality. A hypothetical construct, hyperreality, theorised on by Baudrillard and others, including Albert Borgmann, David J. Boorstin and Umberto Eco, is a simulation of something which never really existed but is taken to be authentic. Disney Land or Las Vegas are often held up as examples of hyperreality however other examples proliferate in contemporary consumer societies. The Trafford Centre, the UK's sixth largest shopping centre with 137,347m2 of retail space, can be seen as just another hyperreal "warehouse of cultural scenarios" (Appadaurai).

Inside The Trafford Centre (Image by Hamed Masoumi, from Wikipedia)

In 2009 30 million visitors came to the complex that boasts 200 stores, 60 restaurants and cafes, a multi-screen cinema and a range of other leisure activities, with an average spend of £100 per party per visit. The centre draws its customer base from a catchment area of 5.3 million people (defined as living within a 45-minute drive, this makes it the most populous catchment area of any regional shopping centre) but regularly receives visitors from much further afield. Highly stylized the complex's architectural detailing reproduces both the Late-Baroque and Rococo styles, these flamboyant and highly expressive languages are used to create a heightened sensory experience.

The white, pink and gold colours combine with marble floors, statues and gold railings to create an imagined space drawn from the palaces and churches of the 18th century. The spaces evoke memories of grandeur drawn from spaces we have likely only ever 'consumed' or experienced via the two-dimensional television or computer screen. What has become an unextraordinary experience, shopping as a leisure activity, is redressed with extraordinary signs (Urry). Uneasily juxtaposed against this fake 18th century environment are other architectural languages, most notably  in 'The Orient' (Europe's largest indoor eatery) where Art Deco 'Cruiseship' meets 'Oriental', 'Aztec' and 'New Orleans' façades. This, combined with the 21st century products being consumed and the standardized nature of the shop fittings themselves, only serves to heighten the hyperreality on show. Space and time are compressed so that the "the past is now not a land to return to" (Appadurai) but a place to inhabit freely, without inhibition, moving effortlessly from one imagined experienced to another. One moment you are eating a cheeseburger on the bow of an ocean-liner, the next visiting the Apple Store in a 18th century promenade; all of it though feels so 'normal'.

In conversation with Hans-Ulrich Obrist Rem Koolhaas commented on this contemporary situation of consumer society and how it is being dressed in architectural styles drawn not from 'real' history but from memory - "We are living in a completely paradoxical moment of modernization where all modernization is driven by nostalgia, on every level ... there are more instruments of memory and less actual remembrance ... nostalgia means living permanently in a form of denial."

Barton Square, Trafford Centre, Manchester (Image from Wikipedia)

If The Trafford Centre is a simulacrum then it's recent extension, Barton Square, is also one. The £86 million development, that extended the original footprint of the covered shopping centre, complete with campanile as enigmatic signifier, can be read a simulacrum of the original simulacra - a reproduction of the reproduction which in turn is a reproduction of nothing. As signs copy signs that have copied signs, and so forth, the architectural experience becomes ever more diluted yet the essence of the hyperreality remains. The experience of opulence no longer has to be sold to consumers, to the same degree, as after over 10 years of existence The Trafford Centre has been established as an anchor of cultural consumerism within Greater Manchester and the North West.

To return again to Koolhass, "the moment is very interesting because we live in a traditional world with its own history, its own laws, its own demands; but superimposed onto that is a whole series of other spatial experiences, particularly provoked by globalization and the virtual".


Jayne, M. (2006), Cities and Consumption, 1st Edition, New York: Routledge
Appadurai, A. (1996), Modernity at Large, 1st Edition, University of Minnesota Press
Urry, J. (2002), The Tourist Gaze, 2nd Edition, London: Sage Publications
Obrist, Hans-Ulrich (2007), The Conversation Series, Number 4—Rem Koolhaas. Köln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig, 'Simulacrum' [Online] [first accessed 5th February 2011]
The Trafford Centre, 'About Us: Corporate' [Online] [first accessed 6th February 2011]