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Retail behemoths are an all too common blot on the South African landscape, as this vulgar pillaging of Victorian values in Durban aptly demonstrates.

This is perhaps not the best introduction to an issue concerned with the most inspiring examples of South African architecture, but it does highlight some peculiarly South African paradoxes. The country is geographically huge and public transport is erratic (and often unsafe), so people travel by motor vehicle - whether by minibus taxi or Mercedes. Urban development tends to follow the American model of a central business core surrounded by concentric rings of increasingly dislocated suburbia.

Within this car-fixated context, vast, hermetically sealed shopping malls are an integral feature of the landscape. The trick with big blind boxes (as anyone who has learnt from Las Vegas knows), is to decorate your shed in order to attract passing trade. Bentel Abramson & Partners, the designers of The Pavilion shopping mall in Durban, have at least taken this advice to heart. The Pavilion, with its immense acreage of malls and retail warehouses, easily succeeds in creating its own highly superficial, internal reality, but it desperately needed an identity to distinguish it from a power station or prison, which it resembles in scale, if nothing else. And what better in the former Grown Colony of Natal, than to ruthlessly ransack English architectural history and engage in some sly pillaging from Crystal Palace. This vulgar petrification of Paxton is carded out with negligible sensitivity and an arrogant disregard for history. The Victorians gave much to South Africa - towns such as Pietermaritzburg are gorgeously preserved examples of their art and architecture; Durban City Council even runs a programme of awards for conservation. Yet when confronted with the rampant forces of retail development, reason is abruptly dispensed with and sickly imagineering takes over. The sense of dismay generated by the architectural crudity is intensified by the building's context. In Durban's steeply undulating terrain, the surreal, bloated confection is visible for miles around, dwarfing the scores of informal shack settlements that surround it - a horribly ironic collision of first and third worlds that sadly epitomises some of the painful absurdities of life in South Africa.
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Title Annotation:effect of lavish retail outlets on South African landscape
Author:Slessor, Catherine
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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