We know what shopping centres are all about. Developers and specialist architects have been telling us for years. Cram in the parking, on the ground or in the usually hideous multi-storey block. Concentrate on those anchor tenants, and make sure circulation forces punters to pass every other outlet before they reach the Marks & Spencer magnet. Remember that centres are designed for tenants, not users. But make the lease terms as inflexible as possible. Let the public know they are in a man-made environment by providing plenty of heating (but nowhere to leave a coat). Make the restaurants the sort that can only survive with a captive audience (who sees a 'food court' anywhere else?). Wherever possible, locate out- of-town. Who cares whether people drive 50 miles to Bluewater Park - thank God the planning permission arrived before John Gummer put an end to this sort of thing.
But shopping centres could be urban, designed for public transport, full of decent restaurants, the sort of place you would go to congregate as well as shop. And in what will be the biggest innovation in this building type since the out-of-town mega-centre, developer Chelsfield with Ian Ritchie Architects and executive architect Benoy is about to test those ideas. The 16ha site is in White City, West London, diagonally opposite the bbc's new centre. Served by two underground stations at either end of the site, the development will comprise 170,000m2 of retail, plus 30,000m2 of restaurant, cinema and other uses - a retail equivalent of London's Broadgate centre, suggests Nigel Hugill of Chelsfield. The company has not developed anything like this before, but knows about big centres from its ownership of the Merryhill Centre in the Black Country, now effectively the town centre of Dudley. 'The issues at White City are similar,' says Hugill. 'We are dealing with very substantial populations . . . we are creating an environment covering a whole town centre', in this case the centre of Shepherds Bush, identified for expansion in the local plan.
The origins of the current scheme began with a different developer, a more limited scheme, and a successful single regeneration grant bid. When Chelsfield took over, it rethought the approach to the development, brought in Ian Ritchie (who had never worked on a shopping centre, or even been to one) and transformed the original proposal, adding £150 million of public transport improvements. 'Shopping centres always seemed to be units in a line without any holes,' says Ritchie. What his masterplan proposes is an umbrella over streets, providing protection from rain, heat and wind, but retaining a sense that you are in the city. Parking for 4500 is pushed underground.
Ritchie's view of the centre is that it will be as much about 'retail exhibition' as about direct selling, that it should be a pleasure, and of a significantly different scale to the surroundings, while respecting the scale of resident gardens at the site edge. Certainly the scale is immense: the halls rise to 35m. The 'umbrella' is broken by a rhythm of glass, echoed in 'rules' from the streetfronts within the centre, comprising 7m-high glass frontages. Ritchie sees part of the design challenge as integrating the party wall/vertical structure elements of urbanity with the horizontal open space of Modernism. Horizontality is certainly important: the glass structure for the southern transport interchange is 400m long. The cinema element along the motorway route has a dramatic glass wall - the complex will look sensational at night.
A consultation exercise has helped the project on its way, with few planning hurdles now remaining. A start is expected soon for a project which will set new standards for urban shopping. 'This is a consumerist approach to shopping centre development,' says Hugill. Not before time.