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Bluewater opens the shopping floodgates

You've seen the adverts, now shop in the real thing. The environment- themed Bluewater, Europe's largest retail mega-complex, is set to open its doors to eager shoppers on 16 March.

The 150,000m2 development, designed by us civic architect Eric Kuhne in a lake- and park-side setting in a former chalk quarry in north-west Kent, is triangular, as consumer research told developer Lend Lease this would make shopping easier. There is a department store at each corner - John Lewis, Marks & Spencer and House of Fraser - and the interconnecting malls group together similar retail types in a total of 320 shops. The Guildhall mall, for example, is predominantly high-fashion and 'lifestyle', with 'gourmet' restaurants and cafes; the Rose Gallery is geared toward the family, with high-street retailers, childrenswear, toy shops and family restaurants; and Thames Walk is an attempt to recreate shopping in the West End of London, with high-street fashion, cafes, bars and entertainment aimed at the young and fashion-conscious. Two hundred of the retailers are designing new concept and flagship stores for Bluewater.

There are five 'welcome halls' inspired by hotel lobbies, featuring information points and relaxation areas. Worn-out shoppers can choose between 40 restaurants, bars and cafes in areas with names like the Village, Water Circus and Wintergarden. The Wintergarden features a 1000m2 glass and steel atrium inspired by Kew Gardens and is the largest greenhouse built in the UK this century. It houses an indoor rainforest with 30m-high tropical trees, ponds and waterfalls. A 200-place creche in this zone should keep the kids out of parents' hair.

The cinema complex is by Australia's Hoyts, with the first uk multiplex designed by ghm Rock Townsend featuring a luxury option with lounge bar and extra-comfy seats. Outside, the 13,000 parking spaces are each 25 per cent bigger than usual for ease of manoeuvring pushchairs. The car parks are designed for maximum visibility, with the minimum number of pillars, open-sided stairways and glass-fronted lifts. Security is aided by an on-site police station.

Kuhne has designed the malls like balconied streets, with ornamental balustrades on two floors, topped with glass-sided domed roofs. Air comes in through rotating aluminium vents on the roofs - in the distinctive shape of traditional Kent oasthouse roofs - using eag's series 700 system.

The path of the Thames runs through the limestone floor of 'Thames Walk', which has Shakespearean sonnets inscribed in the walls. And artists and sculptors have supplied the public art, including individual sculptures of the craftsmen of the Medieval guilds. Architects are among them.

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