Monday, May 30, 2011

LAMENTING WESTFIELD BURWOOD

Whenever I have the time to take a wander through Sydney's Westfield ‘Shoppingtown’ Burwood (rare these days), I wonder at the architectural change that took place on the site back in 2000. In a first for the shopping giant, Westfield entirely demolished the ‘original’ building in 1999, and opened a brand spanking-new centre a year later. The ‘new’ centre is completely unrecognisable from the old Westfield, but as I saunter through the Burwood Road entrance, I try to resurrect the ghosts of the olden days gone by, and lament somewhat over the passing of an old retail friend (be him bricks, mortar and asbestos) more than 10 years ago.

I was only 2 years old when the centre first opened in 1966, and trips to Westfield Burwood with my Mum were almost a weekly thing. The closest shopping centre to our home (and one of the first in Sydney), visiting Westfield Burwood really was like visiting a village, with its own culture, population, and in some ways, currency. The number 1 department store was Farmers, where staff turnover seemed to be non-existent. Irrespective of what year it was, my primary school uniform seemed to be fitted by the same shop assistant for the next 6 years.

My older sister (and eventually me too) would visit the orthodontist in the professional rooms upstairs, while Mum and I would do the rounds of the shops. A visit to the dough-nut shop was mandatory. That shop had an automatic mechanical dough-nut maker in the window, where loads of kids would watch dough-nuts being turned out for hours. If you were buying, you always had a choice of dough-nuts that had been sitting in the display, or of those that had just been turned out of the machine. Hot, warm and yummy.

If you turned around, you’d be facing the back of ‘centre-stage’ that contained another wonder of the 1960’s Westfield design. Gracing the circular stage was an ornate ‘air-fountain’, made-up of multiple columns that would shoot controlled compressed air into the sky, upon which perfectly balanced metallic coloured balls would float magically in the air…another amazing piece of machinery that would keep us in awe during this trip to the village.

The ‘old’ Westfield was not a great exploiter of retail space. In the middle of the centre was a substantial open area, kind of like a concrete version of the village green. Here the local primary schools could herald their work from an art competition, or the occasional display of Aboriginal culture was on show. My first ever concert was an Aboriginal Corroboree display on centre-stage. I remember the school excursion to Westfield being particularly exciting because ‘I’ve been there with my mum!’ Complete with chaperone nuns dressed head-to-toe in their habits… I recall thinking on that day that the nuns’ attire was OK for the classroom but quite impractical for everyday wear.

Escalators would lead from the village green up to the ‘special shops’ that included jewellers, a home hi-fi shop, a place that sold cushions and sheets (always a boring stop for me on the regular shopping tour), but best of all on that balcony was the Darrell Lea chocolate shop. I could hardly believe that such a place existed! AND the ladies that worked there always wore really happy clothes: big bow ties and colourful tops. It was amazing. RockLea Road was (and still remains) my favourite. From there, a run down the ramp and around to the right revealed whatever holiday activities the centre was holding. Sometimes painting, sometimes mini-electric car rides! Westfield Burwood really was a village in those days, a surprise at every turn, all indoors, never closed due to rain.

As I got older, I still loved to visit. I saw colour television for the first time in a Westfield Burwood shop window. Even when at boarding school for my secondary education, a trip to Westfield Burwood always reminded me that yes, I was home for the holidays. There was the doughnut-shop with the mechanical maker, there were the coloured balls floating on their magic carpet above centre stage, and in the later years, a kebab shop (a mere hole in the wall) in the ‘newer’ back section was turning out Middle East favourites worth making the car trip for.

Today, 11 years after the latest renovation, Westfield Burwood is a prime retail space, with plenty to be proud of. It’s gleaming, cosmopolitan and world class. A newer generation, who only know the post-2000 Westfield, will now have their memories, fond I hope, of shopping with Mum or hanging with friends in the food hall after school. While I am one who embraces change, I do miss the old Westfield Burwood: the old record stores, the open spaces, the old Hoyts Cinema on the ground floor (Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep especially…saw it twice!),  but hopefully, it will be many years before the renovators move in to finally renovate my own old memories of the retail village.






(Top Pic: Westfield Burwood prior to 2000 renovation)
(Lower Pic: Redex Bash centre stage presentation 1986)