You know those famous MC Escher engravings of staircases that wend up and up and then turn downwards and then winds around and then somehow, perplexingly, ends up exactly where they started?
Well, if you made those stairs ramps, surrounded them with a branch of every bland chain store you've bypassed while wandering through other malls (I’m looking at you, but not kikki.K and Dust. And The Reject Shop, couldn’t you have at least tried?) and filled the hole in the middle with a strange sculpture of a wireframe globe atop a huge multi-tiered wedding cake, you would have the exact architectural plan for the Macquarie Centre.
I spent an hour there this morning, on a trip that I thought would take approximately ten minutes, and I’m still suffering flashbacks. I got lost, and then eventually found a direction board, and then couldn’t understand it, and thought I’d figured it out, and then got lost. And it reminded me of everything I hate about malls.
Photo: Unknown via Aperture
If you’ve never visited Macquarie Centre – and you probably haven’t, because it’s designed in such a way that if you have ever been there, you’re more than likely still wandering around, trying but not succeeding to find the exit – let me paint the picture for you.
It's a mall in the Sydney suburb of North Ryde, which is a place companies go to inhabit large corporate parks so that instead of being drones in CBD skyscrapers, their employees can experience a bit of grass when they walk from the carpark to their foyer, and glimpse trees out the window.
Technology companies and drug companies and biotech startups have spread out their generic two or three-storey glass boxes in what is fair to call Australia's version of Silicon Valley, at least architecturally.
The one respite from all of this corporate parkery is Macquarie Centre. It's where our tech sector goes to shop and frolic, alongside the students of Macquarie University who initially transformed the area a centre of knowledge instead of generic quarter-acre blocks like the rest of Ryde.
I remember when I first visited Macquarie Centre as a child, in the 1980s. It seemed like paradise back when my group from the Macquarie Uni Vacation Play Centre used to go there on excursions. They had an ice rink, and above it, there was a McDonald’s which overlooked the ice rink. I couldn’t possibly imagine anything else my heart could possibly desire.
In my teenage years, they added in a cinema and a burger shop called Fuddrucker’s which was funny to say because it sounded almost like a swear word, but isn’t.
But when I went there today, I found myself wandering around in a state of confusion and frustration. If I ever knew my way around, I’ve certainly forgotten.
There are two kinds of mall: ones you know well, and ones you don’t. If you have an up-to-date mental map, you can park in the perfect place, enter right near the shop you need, grab the things you want with ninja-like speed and get out of there.
But if you don’t know your way around, it works like this: it takes ages to find a park, and then you park somewhere that, after a long walk, deposits you straight into the middle of a department store. You will wander around in a state of confusion, looking for the exit of the department store. Eventually, you will exhaust every other possible direction and emerge into the main mall.
There, you will see an atrium with a coffee shop in the centre that looks so depressing that the staff will highly likely make your latte using their own tears.
Looking up, you will see the sky – and it’s the only view you’ll get of that for some time, so store the memory away for when you’re lost later and can’t even find the atrium, let alone your car.
Around you, the mall will zig-zag off in random directions, none of which are clearly signposted. You will be able to see shops selling mobile phone accessories, cosmetics, mobile phone accessories, cheap knockoff sunglasses, mobile phone accessories, a nail salon, whatever weird colour-coded things Smiggle sells, mobile phone accessories and mobile phones.
While you will be able to see many things you do not want, you will not be able to see the thing you want, or any means of locating it.
And what especially irks me about malls, of course, is the idea that this design is probably deliberate. The name of the TV show The Gruen Transfer comes from that moment when, on entering a mall, the combination of the intentionally-confusing layout, the muzak, and your general sense of frustration about the circumstances in which your life has deposited you in the middle of a shopping mall lead you to forget the reason you were there in the first place.
Which perhaps answers my question of why anyone ever shops at The Reject Shop.
There has to be a better way of doing retail than building these behemoths, surely? Can we not do a run to the shops without also needing 200 other shops alongside the shop we intended to go to in the first place?
Well, apparently we can’t. These are the “retail formats” that are destroying our main streets, where everything was located in straight lines, and you could actually find your way around.
Instead, it seems we’re condemned to wandering around endless malls, looking for exits and bathrooms, and failing that, bargains. I went there to buy a present for a friend’s new baby, and for the amount of time it took to find it, I could practically have knitted something myself.
But I did buy several things I didn’t need, and experience a wave of nostalgia looking out at that ice rink. Which still has a Mackers overlooking it, by the way.