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Retail therapy

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'Shopping in the City', an AJ conference on retail design and planning at the RSA in London, examined how, through collaboration and commitment, impressive architecture could be created in the most unlikely of spaces. reports

The history of UK retail development goes like this: 700 years of agglomeration, mixed use, glazing, arcades, stores and multiples is disrupted by out-of-town shopping centres.

Now the old patterns are back again, with retail developments taking on the full characteristics of urban design, responding to local context - urban grain, permeability - and restoring vitality to our city centres.

A race through the story by BDP's Peter Drummond set the scene for the AJ one-day conference on retail design and planning, 'Shopping in the City'. Organised in association with the National Retail Planning Forum (and sponsored by WSP), it examined how design and planning could produce convincing architecture in unlikely circumstances, given combined commitment by public and private sectors. As Drummond pointed out, government guidance had resulted in poor mall schemes in Bracknell and Liverpool being rejected in favour of more considered developments, particularly in Liverpool, where Grosvenor Estates is undertaking the important Paradise Street development using an urban model related to its 300-year history.

In terms of the government's formal planning agenda, as planning consultant Geoff Wright (Robert Turley Associates) pointed out, retailing is not a priority - that honour going to sustainable communities. It was important, therefore, that planning authorities achieved what they wanted by detailed supplementary guidance covering hierarchies of centres and space targets, rather than what he called 'trend planning', responding to the latest twists of fashion.

'Why doesn't the planning system accept endemic uncertainty?' he wondered.

As an adviser to the Broadmead development, Wright played an informing role for the scheme by Chapman Taylor, presented by Adrian Griffiths, which involves scheduled monuments, a 3,000-space car park (by Wilkinson Eyre) and the revamping of a failed 1960s retail model. Griffiths noted the inherent flexibility of its planning approach, which set out a series of principles to accompany an outline application for much of the scheme, and which in turn referred to a range of areas and storey heights.

By contrast, the Grosvenor scheme in Liverpool comprises 30 individual buildings, roads and public spaces designed by, among others, Cesar Pelli, Jacques Herzog, Allies and Morrison, BDP and Piers Gough (a nattylooking unit for 'Herbert the Hairdresser').

Grosvenor's Rod Holmes observed that each time a new wave of retail development took place, there was a concomitant change in the relationship between developer, designer, funding agent, etc. His view was that in order to achieve the 'new urban agenda' required, investors, retailers and agents had to commit in advance of detailed design. Timescales were crucial and he reserved particular criticism for lawyers who insisted on painting 'what if?' scenarios instead of addressing the 'how can we?' questions posed by clients.

Mixed-use dilemmas Presentations by Jim Greaves from Hopkins Architects and John Harding of GMW Architects analysed in some detail the very different dilemmas faced in creating developments in, respectively, Bury St Edmunds and Ilford - one dealing with the mixed-use extension of a market town, the other creating an urban centre combining retail and public-realm elements. Both had comments on the need for ground-floor activity, Greaves reminding us that buildings have four elevations, and Harding suggesting to Sainsbury's that 'big oranges don't make active frontages'.

An interesting presentation by Jonathan Baldock of CB Richard Ellis revealed the result of a detailed survey into secondary shopping locations, such as district centres, small towns and non-prime streets in big towns, on behalf of the National Retail Planning Forum. Conclusions included that most of these areas were changing, not dying (except in cases of extreme traffic change); that larger centres were growing faster; that Asian food outlets were keeping things lively; and that survival depended on specialisation.

Baldock called for changes to the Leasehold Properties Repairs Act 1938 to brighten up individual units, advised local authorities to ensure parking facilities were kept close, and urged supermarket chains not to mop up the specialist services that keep secondary areas active. He believed town-centre management policies should be applied as much to secondary as to primary locations.

The final speakers, Pat Brown from Central London Partnership and Keith Brownlie of Wilkinson Eyre, looked at the subject from different ends of the telescope. For Brown, the retail context was one in which 28 million visitors annually spent £1.53 billion and 78 per cent of visitors to London's West End went there to shop - but facilities were poor for families and the old, there was not enough town-centre management to look after the 'walking wallets', and cities outside London were doing things much better. She looked to the Business Improvement District model, complete with levies on business rates, as a way forward.

Brownlie concentrated on a neglected aspect of retail development: car-park buildings. A good experience would encourage return visits, and the second-rate wouldn't.

In design terms you had to break down the mass of the car parking; celebrate or disguise function; decide whether to run ramps inside or outside the box (or both); think about how to 'facade out' the soffit; and think about how to arrest the view from the outside while making it clear within. Nice examples of the practice's current work made his points and, as he noted, every driver and passenger, having arrived at a car park, becomes a pedestrian: 'They convert.'

John Gummer summed up the need for both first-rate parking and a retail offer: 'Go and smell Cambridge car park and see if it's somewhere you want to go.'

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