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Celebrating the cleverest town centre in all England

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In all the hoo-ha surrounding the opening of Bluewater last week, most commentators either parroted the shopping centre's ginormous statistics, or else focused on the impenetrable question of whether it ought to have been built in the first place - this being the sort of horse-bolted-now-close-the-stable-door type of inquiry that strongly appeals to us Englanders.

A pity, this, for it meant there was little space left to acknowledge the supreme cleverness of Bluewater's detailed design, nor to note that, as befits a billion-pound investment, the great shopping centre is equipped with so many lifeboats that its American architect and Australian developer must have gamed in every possible disaster, up to and including the Titanic's maiden voyage, before they let loose the first digger.

Take the cleverness first. Not many know that the three malls at Bluewater, apart from their other design features, have different 'soundscapes' devised by adventurous acoustic architect Sandy Brown Associates. The object was to convert the malls into 'two-level retail auditoriums' wherein the positive impression made by Bluewater upon visiting shoppers would be reinforced by 'mood control' - the best results being achieved, the practice notes, 'by the creation of a balanced and unoppressive open soundscape operating from morning to night to maximise interaction between visitors and the mall environment.'

How a secret weapon like this will work out in practice it is too soon to say, but in any case today's canny retail developers are not the sort of people to put all their eggs in one basket of new technology. Just as last month Land Securities and Hammerson dropped plans to build two competing shopping centres in Birmingham - and joined forces to knock down the Bull Ring and build a replacement in two phases instead - so has Bluewater's Lend Lease corporation found its own recession to M25 gridlock-proof strategy. Just over the brow of the chalk hills from the three malls are 2000 not-quite-rolling acres, where Lend Lease plans to build 10,000 houses as well as several campus-style office parks and a number of light industrial estates.

Better yet, it plans to develop the area around Ebbsfleet station on the Channel Tunnel line and turn it into a distribution complex.

Could it be that, in the long run, Bluewater is not so much intended to serve as a shopping centre for the five million people who live within 30 minutes' drive, as a future town centre for the 30,000 people who will live within a few minutes' walk?

This remains speculation, but it should be noted that not only does Lend Lease have an ongoing research programme into 'cities of the future', but the same future town centre idea is the driver behind the planned expansion of that other giant, CentrO in Oberhausen.

Given the dark clouds on the horizon of retail - no more out-of-town centres; brown land only to build on; the flowing tide of Internet shopping and the ebbing tide of private motoring - it would be surprising if a corporation clever enough to practise 'mood control' by acoustics was not clever enough to grow its own citizens by building a town for them.

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