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Let's stop being snooty about shopping centres


The completion of the giant Bluewater shopping complex in Kent, complete with television advertisements which make a point of not showing the scheme, marks the occasion for a spate of articles which treat 'retail architecture' as a phenomenon which has only a tangential relationship to 'real' architecture. The latter can be defined in relation to a familiar canon of iconic buildings (especially those of the twentieth century); it is just like F R Leavis determining for generations of English students at Cambridge what constituted real literature, and what was beyond the pale. This presented a problem in assessing the value of new work (suppose it would transform the canon?), but it made critical life easy. Either it was Leavisite or it wasn't worth considering.

Unhappily for British architecture, the same sort of attitude infected the way in which architects thought about commercial buildings for five decades post-1945: on the vertical measure of high and low culture, social buildings were perceived to have far more value than mere offices, or factories, or shopping centres - even though all these building types were also, at least in part, 'social'. 'Commercial architect' was a phrase that could be used with a slight curl of the lip.

It is certain that too many talented architects stayed out of commercial architecture for too long (happily the balance has been redressed in recent years). No doubt that helps explain why UK shopping centres, and those in much of Europe, have been so hopeless. Those 1960s precincts designed on the assumption that it did not rain; the lack of facilities for coats, children, delivery and parking mirrored the disadvantages of the traditional high street instead of offering real alternatives. I hope to visit Bluewater soon, to see if it lives up to the claims being made for it, and will do so in the hope of finding not 'retail architecture', but good architecture which happens to deal with shopping . . . and shoppers.

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