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What are we supposed to do with redundant shopping centres?

Paul Finch
  • 2 Comments

Longevity is the key to a building’s sustainability, writes Paul Finch

The shopping centre is a building type under increasing threat as a result of a combination of economic and social factors, none of which has anything to do with Brexit. The centre that has gone past its sell-by date poses an environmental challenge, since demolition and the waste of all that embodied carbon is exactly what we are trying to avoid. 

The most creative alternative approach to demolition I have yet experienced came in a conversation with an architect in Shanghai 18 months ago. He suggested that a shopping centre might make a very good hospital or medical centre.

Looking at a typical plan and section, complete with compulsory atrium, I was reminded of Chelsea & Westminster Hospital – and indeed that building, like many these days, incorporates shops and a café, very unlike the ‘traditional’ Carry On-style hospital we used to be brought up on, where the nearest thing to commerce used to be the florist.

This reminded me of conversations we had at CABE many years ago about long life, loose fit and low energy, the best mantra the RIBA ever dreamed up. It was simply this: a planning application for a significant building should include a second indicative application – for a completely different way of using the same structure, showing what would need to be changed or demolished. 

Such a policy would force designers to think about those two familiar issues, flexibility and adaptability, in a new way. Good designers often deal with flexibility because they have allowed for the fact that the way space is occupied may need to change significantly, even if the fundamental use remains the same. That is what flexibility is all about.

However, it is quite rare to come across propositions which assume an entirely different use, that it is say which have addressed the question of adaptability. If there is anyone out there who has designed a shopping centre with a second entirely different life in mind, do let us know.

The art of the architect

Another first-rate exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum, courtesy of senior curator Owen Hopkins, features more than 80 hand-drawings by Eric Parry.

This is turning into his annus mirabilis, with two volumes of his complete works just published by Artifice, and the imminent completion of the magnificent 120 Fenchurch Street in the City of London with its free-to-use roof garden, for which we should thank the generosity of the Italian investor, Generali, and the planning policies of the City Corporation.

Also in the City, Parry has just won the competition for a new court and police complex off Fleet Street, close to Wren’s St Bride’s church. There is also the ongoing not-so-little matter of his tallest-in-the-City replacement tower for the old Commercial Union/Aviva building next to the Cheesegrater.

The Soane exhibition shows the evolution of a serious architect from early days in the Middle East (beautiful sketches from Iran and Cairo) through to his significant contribution to the City and Westminster in recent years. Worth the detour.

Eric parry, elevation study for an office building at the proposed st pancras square, kings cross, london, 2003 14

Eric parry, elevation study for an office building at the proposed st pancras square, kings cross, london, 2003 14

Source: Sir John Soane’s Museum

Eric Parry, elevation study for an office building at the proposed St Pancras Square, King’s Cross, London, 2003-14

Eric parry, preliminary sketch of the lightwell and interlocking circular form, st martin’s in the fields, london, 2002–08

Eric parry, preliminary sketch of the lightwell and interlocking circular form, st martin’s in the fields, london, 2002–08

Source: Sir John Soane’s Museum

Eric Parry, preliminary sketch of the lightwell and interlocking circular form, St Martin’s in the Fields, London, 2002–08

Eric parry, bird's eye view of the holburne museum of art, bath, 2007

Eric Parry, bird’s eye view of the Holburne Museum of Art, Bath, 2007

Source: Sir John Soane’s Museum

Eric Parry, bird’s eye view of the Holburne Museum of Art, Bath, 2007

Keeping housing and carbon in perspective

What would save more carbon: insisting on zero-carbon new homes, or retrofitting/replacing the worst performing 10 per cent of the country’s housing stock? The answer is absolutely the latter, so we should be developing some real strategies to address the challenge. 

Of course it is easier to focus on the new than the existing, even though as a percentage of stock it is minute. Paul Morrell did a study about this when he was the government’s construction ‘czar’. It painted a gloomy picture about the pragmatics of delivering necessary change. But he knew where the real problem lay.

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • To expand on the economic and social factors, I just wonder whether the apparent inability of government to design a tax regime that creates a level playing field between the likes of Amazon and the typical 'high street' retail outlets might have quite a lot to do with the withering of shopping centers - not helped by the avarice of landlords and local tax collectors alike.
    Mike Ashley has shown that these latter obstacles can sometimes be faced down, but bad government seems to be a greater problem. This is not to say that there aren't a lot of worn out and tatty shopping centers that need either investment - which isn't encouraged by government doziness - or 'repurposing'.

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  • Wasn't there a period (post first world war maybe) where some schools were designed so they could be easily converted to hospital ward/convalescing type uses? Just in case there was another major war?

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