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Retail in detail

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English Shops and Shopping - An Architectural History By Kathryn Morrison. Yale University Press, 2003. 342pp. £35

With our record levels of personal consumer debt, we are addicted to shopping.Admittedly, we may increasingly spend the money we do not possess on intangibles like holidays, but the old-fashioned notion of walking into a shop and leaving with an object we have bought remains robustly persistent.

Kathryn Morrison's book, the outcome of research carried out within English Heritage, provides the best survey yet of this building type in England, which will prove valuable for reference and for thinking about the wider implications of retailing in relation to architecture, urbanism and conservation.

Here at last is a book ambitious enough to cover the whole range of retail types, from individual shops to arcades, department stores and malls. The chapter on multiple stores, with case studies of WH Smith, Boots, Burton and Marks and Spencer, in particular, successfully integrates the story of the buildings with the story of the businesses. In other areas, the information is somewhat pigeonholed, but it is dependable and comes right up to date, while the photographs and plans alone are well worth the price, since these have also benefited from the resources of English Heritage (which would be beyond the budget of any independent author and publisher).

Architects are not always named in Morrison's book, and the history of the building type prevails over any story about architectural style and quality. Rather like theatre architects, shop architects need to combine pragmatism about site, budget and operational needs with a sense of publicity, producing buildings that by the standards of high design are often compromised and superficial.When successful, they can create a brand image out of architectural dross, as at Harrods.

Many of the finest smaller shopfronts were the work of specialist shopfitters or joiners, and those from the late-18th and early-19th century retail boom, of which mercifully many survive, are unfailingly beautiful. One strand missing from Morrison's history of the later-20th century is the brisk business in reproducing them in conservation schemes.Nor does she concern herself much with lettering and colour, which often give more character than the bare bones of the structure, and therefore make a contribution to the quality of urban space that is crucial, even though left largely to chance.

Evolving expertise about customer behaviour in relation to dwell time, the definition of the threshold, the disposition of stock and sales staff and so on, has left its mark in the physical form of shops. This is illuminated incidentally, but never discussed as a theme in itself.

There are other issues, outside the scope of the book, which deserve further thought.

We may wring our hands when yet another old-fashioned high street retailer shuts down, to be replaced by another estate agent or charity shop, but there are no signs that anyone is tackling the underlying causes of the high overheads that make small-scale shopkeeping a labour of love, whose contribution to society should be more tangibly recognised and encouraged.

The relationship between shops and other building types and uses frequently crops up, and many of the plans are instructive about the interlacing of public and private spaces, whether it is the shopkeeper living at the back, or the employees in dormitories overhead in department stores.

We tend not to do this so much now, since our highest ambition is to let the flats over the shops, but if we can no longer bring the stores into town, perhaps we should take the town to them. Residential accommodation is surely the one thing missing from a place like Bluewater, which has all the infrastructure needed for a successful community.

If you put together the innovations made in department stores in the early-20th century, such as escalators, roof gardens and creches, you have a utopia worthy of Archigram. As Morrison and other writers before her have observed, the history of shopping is a feminist theme, offering copious evidence of a ratchet effect between consumption and the social and economic freedom of women in modern society. Has this tendency peaked? If so, what will replace it, and how can we continue to juggle the deliberately blurred boundaries between necessity and luxury as we grapple with our gender identity and credit card debt?

Alan Powers is an architectural historian

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