2.17 The Lighthouse: An Introduction

The usual route to work takes me through The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and Condominium Complex. The subway connects to The Lighthouse and is located in a newly gentrified downtown neighbourhood. There is every store you can imagine, library, condo building, restaurant, movie theatre, bar, gym and food court. There is no need to go outside – everything is accessible through an interconnected series of tunnels. The Lighthouse Series showcases the various inhabitants, employees and idiosyncratic characters I have met by spending way too much time inside this complex. The good times never end at The Lighthouse! The fifth largest shopping centre in the country is a living, breathing infrastructure. Literally. They installed one of those trendy new living walls last year. At almost two million square feet, The Lighthouse Shopping Centre and Condominium Complex promotes itself as the ultimate consumer experience.

After exiting the subway during rush hour, a stream of red-eyed and tired people walk through the pedestrian tunnel, getting hit in the face with a trail of smells emitting from the food court. The Lighthouse has a complex series of specifically engineered fans that circulate the smell of the various processed foods. When different forms of this fake food meet, the combination smells like bacon. In the food court, at all hours of the day, people stuff themselves with kebabs, slurp Thai noodles, lick sub sauce off fingers. And coffee. There are five coffee places in The Lighthouse with products from every developing country you can think of.

FUN FACT #1: According to the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC), Canadian Division (yes, there is such an organization – you are as surprised as I am. Founded in 1957, the council is the global trade association of the shopping centre industry. It has more then 40,000 members in the United States and Canada and has associates in over 75 other countries including Europe and Asia Pacific. They provide all kinds of juicy tid bits that form the basis of these fun facts.), there are 4,389 shopping centres in Canada, 1,754 of them are located in the province of Ontario. Shopping centres employ over 1,209,400 people and in a given year account for approximately $111.5 billion in revenue representing 50% of all non-automotive retail sales. Fun! Fun!! Fun!!!

Upstairs, it’s really something: Three floors of slick tiles, mirrored walls and beautiful sales people. The mirrors on opposite walls create a vast infinite space that creates an illusion where the shopping centre goes on forever. Which, depending on your stance, is either a nightmare or a dream come true. The main shopping area is high tide for the boats (the management term for shoppers) and immaculate. The escalators cross each other and form giant X’s – ‘X’ marks the spot – and in total there are 8 of them plus two moving sidewalks.

The noise is condensed, heavy, loaded. Like when you’ve tried to talk underwater. Sounds spill out of stores: Hip Hop music, announcements, hair dryers, food processors making specialty juices. Underneath it all is the hum of the building. The walls breathe in and out, the hydroelectric energy flowing below the tiled skin.

FUN FACT #2: According to the ICSC, the largest shopping centre in the country is the West Edmonton Mall (WEM), located – obviously – in Edmonton, Alberta. West Edmonton Mall Clocks in at 3,800,000 square feet and if you count the ‘entertainment component’ it comes in at a whopping 5,200,000 square feet. The second largest shopping centre, Yorkdale, located in Toronto, is a paltry 1,735,262. Lame when compared to WEM. The third largest shopping centre is Square One, also located in Toronto (go figure) and besides its flashy retro name, is giving Yorkdale a run for its money at 1,600,000 square feet. This started as a ‘top three’ kind of list but the fourth largest – the Eaton Centre – is worth noting as it retained its name even after Eaton’s went out of business (the name + shopping centre were too intertwined) and was deemed a historical landmark by the Canadian government in 2001, cementing it as a pillar in the industry. In EC’s case, it is not size that counts but how you use it.

Lighting is designed to resemble the sun and windows are minimal. You were outside without really having to be outside and you could receive the doctor-recommended amount of Vitamin D and shop at the same time.

Can you hear the piano? Chopin. On the top floor beside the store that only sold bottled water, there is a grand piano. Every Thursday, a sad-looking man plays for two hours. Chairs are set up, his audience generally made up of old tenants from the attached condo building. Besides his older fans, he has a small crowd of young Chinese exchange students from the ESL school on the first floor who go crazy when he plays. Whooping and hollering kind of crazy. They go bananas when he plays Flight of the Bumblebee.

FUN FACT #3: According to the ICSC, shopping centres are defined as the following: neighborhood centre (convenience, supermarket), community centre (general merchandise), regional centre (general merchandise, fashion), super-regional centre (similar to regional centre but has more variety and assortment and just more super), fashion specialty centre (higher end, fashion centred), lifestyle centre (upscale specialty stores, dining and entertainment in outdoor setting), power centre (big box dominated, few small tenants), theme/festival centre (leisure, tourist-oriented), outlet centre (manufacturers’ outlet stores). The Lighthouse is its own category as it includes elements of fashion specialty centre, lifestyle centre and power centre – I sent an email to the ICSC calling for a new category which could be called fashion-lifestyle-power centre. I have yet to receive a response.

The escalators are often not working. The frozen pointy metal steps are unsettling when not moving. An accidental optical illusion. The escalator going from the basement floor up to the third floor are almost bi-weekly being ‘serviced’. Boats stand at the foot of the frozen escalator with their logo strewn shopping bags that overflow in an awkward way, they lean to one side with the weight, faces droop, their entire physical stature seems to fall prey to gravity, shoulders sagged, a boat with too much ballast. They stand a moment and you wonder if they are a screw-it-let’s-walk-up kind of person or a where’s-the-elevator kind of person. The walk up resembles a drunk walking the line before the police because the act of walking up a non-working escalator is counter-intuitive in every which way. Your subconscious plays tricks and miscalculates what is happening beneath your feet due to the confusion of the stairs that should be moving but are not moving. If the escalator is working, the protocol is standing on the right, walking up the left. Once you make the decision to walk up an unmoving escalator, all bets are off – right side or left side, it doesn’t matter – and there is no precedence and no rules and no turning back, only impatient people nipping at your heals.

FUN FACT #4: The Lighthouse includes three levels of fun filled shopping euphoria: fitness gym (with newly renovated state of the art space for ‘spin’ classes), family restaurant (turns into a ‘sort of’ bar after 9pm), a real bar (all the time), chain book store, chain record store, chain ‘big box’ store, chain grocery store, it is surrounded by a chain link fence, other assorted small stores (jewelry, various clothing and shoe stores, pet store [there’s always a pet store], etc.), Dolby sound digital multiplex movie theatre, food court (McD, NY Fries, Chinese, Subway, etc.) and attached via underground tunnel is the above mentioned library, subway, condominium building and recreational complex (with two arenas [one housing figure and speed skating clubs and the other hockey], curling rinks and another fitness training centre).

Everything in The Lighthouse is on purpose and specifically designed to encourage you to open your wallets and spend spend spend!

The Lighthouse will be an intermittent ongoing series. Stay tuned for the next installment: The Piano Man.