The AJ/Crown Estate charrette asked six practices to reimagine an out-of-town retail park for 2030 and beyond – here are the results. Photography and film by Jim Stephenson
In recent years the AJ has had the privilege of being involved in various charrettes and, working once again with The Crown Estate, we have been reminded of the awesome creative energy these intensive design sessions seem to unleash.
Our latest such event, held in London last month, was the final stage of the Future Retail Destinations competition, launched by the AJ and The Crown Estate in March, and it certainly did not disappoint.
The Crown Estate is a UK-wide property owner, developer and manager with a £2.5 billion retail and leisure portfolio, which includes shopping destinations.
Future Retail Destinations sought to reimagine out-of-town retail parks for the year 2030 and beyond, adding a requirement for future-gazing to an already challenging brief. How might architects transform the environmental sustainability of these parks? How can they improve efficiency, transport and logistics? And, above all, how can they ensure that these destinations remain attractive to shoppers of all ages?
Almost 70 practices entered, submitting initial concept designs, and a dozen of these were shortlisted and presented their ideas to the jury in May.
After the selection of the final six, the teams then travelled to Silverlink Shopping Park near Newcastle to explore how their ideas might be developed and applied to Silverlink in the future. Finally, the architects translated their in-depth thinking into models and sketches at the charrette and presented their work to the client and the judges. The results show that the charrette has lost none of its magic.
AEW Architects & Designers
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For its shortlisted entry, AEW Architects & Designers proposed a retail park comprising a cluster of honeycomb-inspired units with an eye-catching drone funnel structure as its centrepiece.
While the early concept was a radical vision, prompted by the mantra ‘out of town retail schemes will need to evolve to survive’, at the charrette the Manchester-based practice outlined how simple improvements in three phases at the Silverlink Shopping Park could provide easy wins.
Focusing on the retail park’s known issues, such as its narrow entrance and the distance between the park’s two sites, two-man team Ross Huntingdon and Eamon O’Hara suggested breaking up the existing retail units into a horseshoe shape and installing a plaza level. Their proposals included a ‘multi-purpose public space’ for community events, exhibitions and yoga classes. The car park would be moved underground, alongside a subterranean goods storage and distribution centre.
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A key component of AEW’s concept was the consideration of ‘how to combine digital technology with bricks and mortar’ and the role artificial intelligence might play in future shopping experiences.
They foresaw shoppers of 2030 trying on clothes in augmented reality mirrors and an underground product library managed by robots.
But the scene-stealing element of the scheme was the vortex-like ‘drone funnel’ proposed for the centre of the new plaza. Quickly dubbed the ‘dronado’ by judge Sam Jacob, the structure, inspired by tree forms, could be used as a terminus for drones but also double as a canopy for the retail complex or pop-up event space, or be used as a screen for light show projections. ‘There’s no lake here to draw people in, so we thought: let’s build something. It could be a real spectacle,’ said Huntingdon. Judge Keely Stocker, editor of Drapers magazine, questioned whether the scheme was based more on tech than sustainability but O’Hara pointed to the project’s automated transport and park and ride elements and Huntington added that their proposal reused existing buildings.
The judges approved of how the scheme opened up the public realm, with Sam Jacob likening it to the creation of a ‘traditional town square’ at the heart of the retail complex.
Team members: Ross Huntingdon. Eamon O’Hara
CarverHaggard’s original proposal envisaged the transformation of Silverlink Shopping Park into ‘Market Square’, described by the team as ‘a local shopping centre for the post-fossil fuel age’.
Rather than knocking down the shopping park and starting from scratch, the architects proposed converting the existing retail buildings to provide warehouse-style spaces for smaller units.
This concept of a cluster of units was developed during the charrette and the team showed off an impressive series of models to illustrate their highly flexible proposal. One large model depicted in detail how the interior of the complex might function, with smaller ‘market-style’ retail units, cafés, and a variety of social spaces.
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In their presentation, the architects described how nearby historic buildings, such as the Grade I-listed covered Granger Market in Newcastle, had inspired their design choices. Sustainability was one of the key aspects of the Market Square proposal, with the team proposing that the complex’s roof and car park could be covered in photovoltaic panels, providing energy to run the centre and to charge electric vehicles.
CarverHaggard’s design also included plans for new parks with trees and playgrounds, as well as a rooftop greenhouse, where herbs and vegetables could be grown.
Practice director William Haggard observed that retail was going through a ‘massive transformation’, leading his team to think about the importance of building flexibility into the park – a recurring theme in the charrette. He explained how the scheme might be delivered incrementally, with the aim of gradually becoming car-free.
Judge Sam Jacob described CarverHaggard’s proposal as ‘expo-hall meets Selfridges’, while The Crown Estate’s John Grinnell pondered how much of a role the landlord would need to take in the ‘curation’ of the concept, which he described as the ‘retail version of WeWork’. He added: ‘It’s management-intensive, but it is the future.’
Team members: Alexandra Arad, Josh Carver, William Haggard, Luisa Männilaan
Friend and Company Architects
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Friend and Company’s original shortlisted concept was for a ‘Biophilic Nirvana’ that reimagined the traditional retail park as a giant garden.
Drawing on their experience of designing cultural projects – the practice is behind the V&A museum shop – the architects proposed that shopping was less about buying goods and more ‘a place for people to gather’.
Practice director Adrian Friend explained that the team had put the changing nature of shopping at the heart of their designs because the future of the sector will be about constructing ‘retail civicness’.
Through a series of detailed drawings, site plans and diagrams produced during the charrette, the Friend and Company team proposed a ‘living grid’ structure, forming areas of shelter, interspersed with pocket gardens. A car park structure beneath would be punctured by ‘vertical courtyards’. In their presentation, the architects explained how the structure – which could be prefabricated offsite using robotic craft technologies – would be installed gradually in phases.
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The ‘living grid’ concept was inspired by biophilic architecture – design incorporating natural materials – which, according to the practice, could play a role in changing the future of retail as well as extending the UN’s sustainable development goals.
The concept also considered how the changing demands of brands and shoppers would impact a future retail park. It proposed that Silverlink would in the future become ‘more high-end’ and shops would need to go beyond selling products and offer customers more immersive experiences, such as bespoke garment customisations or various types of retail event.
Friend and Company’s Agata Pilarska explained the scheme was about building beautifully designed spaces to ensure shoppers returned to the complex. ‘They will want to go to the centre, but they will also want to come back,’ she said.
The judges seemed impressed by the concept. The AJ’s Will Hurst asked whether there could be opportunities for growing produce in the living grid structure. Sam Jacob said: ‘You can imagine in the future that these kinds of possibilities will expand and become more common.’
Team members: Adrian Friend, Philip Longman, Agata Pilarska, Rianna Reid
Richard Faith Architecture Bureau
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Richard Faith’s original proposal reimagined the Silverlink Shopping Park as a ‘Chinese garden’, comprising boutique shops surrounded by high-quality planted landscaping. In the charrette, the one-man team built on his designs for a series of pavilions and courtyards with a variety of individual architectural characteristics.
The designs also included courtyards that would provide spaces for shoppers to gather, with gallery displays and stall areas for micro-retailers.
The design proposed that, in 2030, online shopping could render stockrooms unprofitable, and predicted that brands would require smaller ‘customer-facing units’ with a larger, automated back-of-house operation. Also important in Faith’s scheme was how the land vacated by larger units might be used, with one idea including a large distribution centre.
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The architect also proposed that retail units could capitalise on their abundance of land to provide a range of spaces for product testing or promotional campaigns.
The proposals also placed a heavy emphasis on landscaping, with plans for parks and green spaces to attract shoppers to come to the complex for a day out.
In his original scheme, Faith had proposed an automated taxi service to and from Silverlink to reduce the amount of land lost to car parking and encourage more teenagers and those without their own means of transport to visit. In his presentation, he spoke further about the ages and socio-economic profiles of Silverlink’s current users and how they might travel to and from the complex.
The judges were interested in Faith’s designs for the distribution centre, with Montagu Evans partner Craig Blatchford, an observer on the day who works closely with The Crown Estate, commenting it could be used as a ‘black box’ logistics hub for the region.
Sam Jacob said Faith’s scheme reminded him of a Disneyland-style experience, where visitors experience a tailored boutique retail offering with the larger infrastructure hidden behind the scenes.
Weston Williamson + Partners
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In its original concept, Weston Williamson + Partners proposed an entirely new retail park over three levels with a strong emphasis on improved public realm and shopper experience.
During the charrette, they built on this scheme with a ‘mutated figure-of-eight’ structure, comprising an underground level for logistics and transport, retail on ground level and food, leisure and community use on a first floor.
The designs included retail pavilions configured in a flexible layout under a single roof, linked by a network of streets and including squares, courtyards and dynamic public spaces.
Larger shops for big retailers were combined with smaller units aimed at independent retailers. Flexibility would be built-in, with spaces that are easy to reconfigure and public space that is easy to re-programme, allowing for a different experience every visit.
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A key focus for the project was the cultural and community offering of the scheme, which was imagined as a 24/7 venue with sports and other entertainments. The team described how the Nike store roof could double as a running track, while there was also a proposal for a community theatre space.
The designs proposed that the key to liberating the site of its car park was to look to future modes of transport. Automated vehicles might be deployed on demand from isolated holding areas, with visitors dropped at the front door.
The centre of the park would be pedestrianised and cars relegated to a narrow strip on the perimeter, with over 50 per cent of the site given back to public realm.
Weston Williamson’s Nick McGough explained how the project would transform the retail park from ‘a place of pure consumption to production’.
Judges praised the team’s boldness in erasing the existing retail park and designing an entirely new complex, commenting they were clearly ‘not afraid of scale’. Will Hurst wondered, tongue in cheek, whether the 24-hour entertainment offer meant the scheme represented a ‘never-ending retail Glastonbury’.
Team members: Adam Brown, Pablo Claramunt, Nick McGough, Louise Scannell
Whittam Cox Architects
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Whittam Cox Architects’ original proposal was for a retail park that would rethink the principle of a ‘linear bank of uninspiring buildings’ fronted by car parking. Instead, the architects proposed a leisure-focused ecosystem that ‘put the park into retail park’, complete with open parkland, a climbing wall, adventure trails and cycle routes.
In the charrette, the team developed its designs to elaborate on how the leisure offering might be complemented by an undulating spine of shops, breaking up the boxy arrangement of retail units to create a more intimate shopping experience.
In the presentation, Whittam Cox director Andrew Dabbs explained how a place where people feel comfortable spending their leisure time would increase footfall and improve opportunities for both retail and leisure operators. ‘It would create something more beautiful, more permeable, more well-connected,’ he said.
The designs focused on how the car park might be replaced as the focal point of the complex with green spaces, water features and small coffee shops.
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Car parking would be moved to the outer areas of the site, and visitors would be able to travel around the park either on a slow-moving automated transport route or by bike.
In the future, the retail park could be incrementally built upon to include residential elements, the architects said.
The team also considered future uses of technology and included plans for direct connectivity to a large automated logistics hub with drone delivery capability. The hub would centralise storage requirements and reduce the scale of each individual retail unit while also reducing the need for extensive, impermeable service roads, yards and plant around the site.
Some of the judges said they felt there was a trade-off at play between park and retail and questioned whether the team’s proposal was on its way to becoming a small town. But Dabbs insisted that, especially for those with a family, a complex that combined shopping with leisure was a far more attractive proposal. Judge Sam Jacob said he saw how the Whittam Cox team had tried to show the park could be a ‘reason for people to get off their armchairs’.
Team members: Andrew Dabbs , Pete Darby, Catalina Ionita, Antonio Serban
Conclusion: ‘It has been fascinating to explore how forward-looking design can shape our future’
Jo Francis, head of retail operations for The Crown Estate’s regional portfolio
Bulky units, large customer car parks, big-name brands and fixed-term leases have long been the defining features of retail parks across the UK.
But, as the first generation of smart phone natives hits the shops – or fails to – both retailers and landlords recognise that they must evolve to keep pace, ensuring that bricks-and-mortar stores remain a relevant, compelling part of the shopping experience.
As part of this, we at The Crown Estate are challenging ourselves to look ahead, thinking differently about the expectations of retailers and their shoppers out to 2030 and beyond.
This competition, in partnership with the AJ, has been a great opportunity to explore some fantastic ideas from a broad and talented mix of architects on everything from innovative ways of introducing more green space and sustainable design, to new thinking on how we can build in flexibility and create a greater sense of place.
One thing that is clear from all of the ideas on display is that the future of retail destinations will require both property owners and retailers to work more collaboratively, to do more.
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At The Crown Estate, we’re already seeing the benefit of delivering forward-thinking destinations. At Rushden Lakes in Northamptonshire, launched last summer, retail and restaurants sit beside over 200 acres of stunning SSSI wetlands reserve, managed in partnership with The Wildlife Trusts. Here, shopping is just one part of the visitor experience, with outdoor discovery in the form of nature trails, cycling and canoeing becoming a real visitor attraction.
As we shape our portfolio for the future, we want to go further, continuing to adapt the offer for shoppers and embrace new trends and technologies. In whittling more than 60 fantastic entries down to the final six, we explored an impressive breadth of ideas for mixed use destinations, from taking a more proactive role in logistics, through shared servicing strategies or warehousing, to an expanded role in curating the retail mix, with traditional anchors sitting alongside smaller pop-ups or local traders. Through the course of this competition, it has been fascinating to explore how forward-looking design could influence not only the look and build of schemes, but also how we manage our places in the future.
Clearly investing in great design and placemaking will be key and, since it’s impossible to predict the future with complete certainty, so is the need to build in a degree of flexibility, enabling these destinations to continue to evolve to meet changing expectations over time
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Retailers are working hard at this, too, exploring what more they can do to boost the experience for shoppers by investing in their stores, offering bespoke experiences and embracing new technologies, including a seamless online offer. Across our own assets, we are already seeing retailers experiment with new options, from pop-up stores at new locations, to in-store beauty bars or integrated click and collect pick-up points, connecting internet browsing with collections in-store.
As we move forward, we are focused on continuing to work in close partnership with our retailers, our local communities and the best architects to create thriving destinations where people can enjoy shopping and spending time. The future is about so much more than retail parks as we know them today.
Aj tce future retail index2
- AEW Architects & Designers
- Brian Connolly and Anna Prajs
- Chapman Taylor
- Duggan Morris Architects
- Friend and Company Architects
- Leslie Jones Architecture
- Make Architects
- Neubau Architecture
- Richard Faith Architecture Bureau
- Weston Williamson + Partners
- Whittam Cox Architects
- John Grinnell, deputy head of development and project management, The Crown Estate
- Claire Haywood, partner, Sheppard Robson
- Will Hurst, managing editor, The Architects’ Journal
- Sam Jacob, director, Sam Jacob Studio
- Lara Marrero, strategy director and global retail practice leader, Gensler
- Keely Stocker, editor, Drapers
The Crown Estate team
- Jo Francis, head of retail operations (regional portfolio)
- John Grinnell, deputy head of development and project management
- Donna Springall, asset manager (regional portfolio)
- Clare Field, media relations manager
The AJ team
- Elizabeth Burke, business development manager
- Candice Duckett, senior events manager
- Will Hurst, managing editor, The Architects’ Journal
- Ella Jessel, senior news reporter
- Jean-Philippe Le Coq, client delivery executive