Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

“Can I help you?” How shops were being served…and might in the future

By Chris Rogers, Jun 28 2021 05:06PM

Shops in London are suffering, as I noted when looking at Oxford Street’s department stores and ways of bringing people back to the capital’s main shopping street. But last week, on a still-rare work day in town, I saw the former Kodak building on Kingsway under scaffolding and did a bit of digging. I was surprised to find that it once contained offices, retail and production facilities in a single, central London building, whilst more research showed that it was by no means the only well-known brand that has thought differently about merchandising across several topics (all beginning with ‘S’, below) and a hundred years or so. Perhaps those approaches can help us today?


1) Space: Kodak, 1911


Just before the Great War, the Kodak Company commissioned one of the earliest examples of a purpose-built office block in London to house not only its European headquarters but also a range of associated facilities and a flagship retail store to bring its popular photographic technology to the heart of the British capital. No. 61-65 Kingsway was designed by Sir John Burnet and Partners and built in 1911, one of a number of new commercial blocks lining a continental-style boulevard that had itself only been laid out a few years earlier and which featured street lighting and a tunnel for trams. Kodak’s new building was also highly advanced for the time, with a steel frame and casement windows, lifts, central heating and electric lighting. Its exterior used a minimum of decoration and emphasised the extent of the glazing. Inside, what we would now term its fit out included open-plan office floorplates and a staff restaurant, complemented by semi-industrial spaces such as an ancillary laboratory, photographic, dark and printing rooms and a warehouse. Marble and wood panelling was confined to the receptions and boardroom, with most areas finished in linoleum and brick. Burnet made a study tour of America in preparation for the project and whilst the austerity of the interior discomforted some, Kodak liked the simplicity – fittingly, I think, for a company whose smart advertising slogan (‘You press the button, we do the rest’) deliberately disarmed customers as to the complexity of its business.


2) Staff: Bourne & Hollingsworth, 1912

Founded in 1894 as a drapers, this department store was one of several to occupy purpose-built premises in Oxford Street. Family-owned until well after World War 2, the organization was paternalistic and in common with other large employers of the day maintained its own accommodation – off-site, and segregated – for its unmarried staff. The hostel for men was in Berners Street, with Warwickshire House (named after the county in which one of the partners was born) on Gower Street home to over 600 young women. Their board and lodging was paid for by the company, although they were required to strip and change their bed each day before and after work, and the building ultimately had a range of facilities including its own ballroom, swimming pool and dining hall. Like the girls’ school it resembled, sleeping and bathing were communal too and there was a curfew but attractions outside the doors were plentiful. Warwickshire House also permitted women who were not employees to stay, provided their references were satisfactory, a practice that continued into the 1960s when a new generation of single women were finding their freedom.



3) Supply: Sanderson, 1930


Initially selling only to trade via the wholesale market, the wallpaper firm began by Arthur Sanderson in 1860 expanded to produce paints and printed fabrics as the 1920s dawned. A few years later the firm’s technology was advanced enough to print faux wood and stone effects, laminates and vinyl and at the end of that decade, accompanying a plant for textiles in Uxbridge and a studio in Berners Street in the West End, a new factory for wallpaper manufacture was built in Perivale, Ealing. Barely more than a hamlet of farms at the time, the location offered large tracts of open land, easy access by rail and new, fast roads and was less than ten miles from Marble Arch. With its fancy Art Deco frontage concealing a vast, plain ‘shed’ for 900 workers, the structure proved more typical of the future than the small buildings, expanded in piecemeal fashion, that Sanderson had previously maintained in nearby urban Chiswick. By the time of Sanderson’s centenary the workforce had expanded to 1,650 and the site was of course surrounded by suburbia. Production there finally ceased in the 1970s.



4) Stock: John Lewis, 1963


John Lewis completed the rebuilding of its Oxford Street store in 1960 after wartime interruptions, before commissioning a radical new warehouse to the north of London to service it and other branches. It was designed by the noted Spanish-born Mexican engineer Félix Candela Outeriño, working with architects Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardall and engineers Clarke Nicholls and Marcel. Simple concrete piers supported inverted square pyramids of board-marked concrete, joined together but pulled up where they face north so as to form gaps that were glazed as light scoops. Thus the serrated roof profile common to many such buildings was lent a structural sophistication as well as constructional efficiency by Candela’s thin-shell hyperbolic para¬boloids, which can be made with simpler formwork than the curved arches usually deployed for large-span spaces. Indeed, as set out in a 15 x 8 grid, their boldness epitomises the confidence of post-war engineering in Britain – this was Candela’s first European project. After fifty years of use by John Lewis, a recent sale has seen the structure restored and remodelled as a branch of Costco with a steel-framed extension yet the loading bays removed to expose much of Candela’s work.



5) Support: Sainsbury, 2000


As stores become chains and those chains in turn grow, the administrative back-up needed also increases. John James Sainsbury opened his first shop in London in 1869 and within fifteen years had multiple branches including one in the then town of Croydon. This was followed by the first branch in the home counties and a new purpose-built headquarters, depot and factory in Blackfriars to manage what was now a rapidly-expanding grocery business. Half a century later it became the first food retailer to computerise the distribution of goods, and half a century on again a new head office – now called a Store Support Centre – was needed. Built within a couple of miles of that first shop, 33 Holborn by Foster & Partners is an eight-storey, mid-rise office block with granite and grey metal framing a glass wedge atrium that rises the full height of the quadrant-shaped building. Inside, a glass staircase hangs from steel rods and a glass floor lights the basement gym, restaurant and auditorium. With this programme and design and a shop included, retail had come full circle when compared to my first example. Maybe it can again.


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Chris's first book examines the career and works of British architect Michael Pearson, the third generation to head the practice founded by his grandfather in 1904. Pearson's presidency of the Architectural Association and his pioneering and prescient Burne House building are covered.

 

"Throws light on significant achievements" 

 

 Patrick Duerden, Practice Director, Donald Insall  

   Associates

 

Black Dog Publishing, 2010  

 

ISBN  978 1 906155 73 5

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Become an architectural detective with Chris's second book, investigating the styles of a thousand years of building in the world's most visited city from the middle ages to the present day. Illustrated and with photographs, maps and addresses, also included are a list of resources and a two-part introduction.

 

"A little gem"

 

Terry Philpot, Tablet

 

Ivy Press, 2016 with Larousse (French edition) and Akal (Spanish)

 

ISBN 978 1 78240 406 4  

 

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Chris's third book - a publisher's best-seller - reveals the hidden gems as well as the iconic landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village. Covering the West End, City and Docklands, the book follows the same format as How to Read Paris.

 

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  – Don Brown, The London Society

 

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ISBN 978 1 782405 44 3  

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"I really like both the research behind it, and its clarity and accessibility"

 

Susan Acland-Hood, Chief Executive, Her  

   Majesty's Courts & Tribunals Service  

 

Private press, 2006        

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The Twentieth Century Society’s new peer-reviewed Journal on commercial architecture in Britain since the 1920s includes Chris’s piece on Fitzroy Robinson's pioneering atrium buildings in the City of London. The piece is founded in original research including archive imagery, interviews and site visits.

 

Twentieth Century Society, 2020

 

ISBN 978 0 955668 76 0