Oxford (Street) vaccine?
By Chris Rogers, Mar 10 2021 05:49PM
Over a mile long, home to retail flagships and the ‘West End’ for many, there can be few Londoners who have never trodden the pavements of Oxford Street or entered some of its grand department stores. But Bhs closed five years ago, Debenhams will not reopen when lockdown eases and arguments about buses and traffic along the Street continue even as Crossrail fails to arrive beneath it. Last year John Lewis won permission to convert more than half of its store to offices and yesterday afternoon Marks & Spencer announced the complete demolition of its Marble Arch branch in favour of a mixed-use alternative. So, just as we are receiving protection against the virus that has accelerated this crisis, is such repositioning enough to inoculate what has been called Britain’s high street against the threat of no-one actually wanting to use it?
It’s important to note that tenants of the current generation of large Oxford Street stores, imported from America as a typology in early twentieth century, have always been fluid and the carcases of several prove this. Sir Edwin Lutyens, no less, designed a façade for Gamages at the western end that became C&A and is now Primark, whilst Bourne & Hollingsworth’s Moderne block further east is also now on its third incarnation. All stacked large, internally-focused sales floors (you will find very few windows) behind impressive façades and whilst Gordon Selfridge himself, arch showman that he was, did much to enliven this trading model the only real change architecturally speaking during the next one hundred years was the atrium, bringing more daylight and here developed from the necessary stair and escalator wells (but still, cleverly, preventing views out).
Now, though, with already-growing online sales given a sharp boost by the Covid pandemic and – crucially – forecast to keep climbing, those retailers who have avoided other pressures such as outdated stock, competition from newcomers (Polish clothing chain Reserved occupies Bhs’s old space) and the legacy of poor business decisions are facing up to the expense of vast edifices that are simply no longer needed to enact their core business or function poorly in the context of contemporary sales practice. Quite how to reshape this estate portfolio in response is the key consideration now, and both John Lewis and M&S’s approaches are instructive.
John Spedan Lewis opened a drapery store on Oxford Street in 1864; rebuilding on the current site was already underway when World War 2 broke out, accounting for the Deco-style rear elevation to Cavendish Square. This survived the Blitz but the remainder of the store did not, and by the time funds and government licensing permitted work to restart it was 1955. A new aesthetic was adopted for the phased scheme that followed, with glazing framed by deep reveals faced with Portland stone and subtly-coloured tiles. Completed in 1960 the store was state of the art and this included the facilities for staff; not only was there a large rooftop dining hall but also a multi-level car park within the envelope of the store and accessed by lift from Old Cavendish Street – able to hold 50 vehicles, partners could book its spaces for their cars and it remains today.
Introduction of two large atriums a few years ago is the sole significant modification to this post-war block that is large, yes, but holds itself well thanks to that subtle façade, refurbished only a couple of years ago when a new canopy was installed along Oxford Street. It is surely notable that the recently approved plan to remodel the upper floors as offices will not alter this to any degree externally. Inside a new lift core will be added in the north east corner to service the offices that will be installed on floors three to eight. They will be accessed from a new entrance on the corner of Cavendish Square and Holles Street. Remodelling of the existing sales, stock and support areas will of course be required, and some basement bike parking and associated spaces are to be introduced. This is, then, a major change but one that will be almost entirely invisible from the outside – reflecting, perhaps, the staff-owned company’s image of dependable pragmatism.
Marks & Spencer shares that image, to an extent, even if its Victorian ‘penny bazaar’ origins are more transparently commercial. Its solution, too, is the same – retain the Oxford Street site, keep retail on the lower floors and introduce commercial offices to the upper levels – but the method of achieving it is rather more radical. In yesterday’s surprise announcement a ready-to-go scheme by Pillbrow + Partners architects will replace the three conjoined premises that make up its L-shaped Marble Arch branch with a single block on the same footprint. This will be purpose-designed for the contemporary needs of shop and office functions, clad in brick and feature set-back terraces. Unlike its rival none of the existing buildings is of any architectural merit, and it’s thus unclear why the firm indulges in the developer’s sophistry of deliberately unflattering images of the current buildings or disingenuous language in its online consultation exercise.
The other key difference at Marble Arch is the integration of the new building into the street pattern. An arcade will run from Oxford Street, through the new retail space (where it will be “framed by concessionary retail”) and open onto Granville Place at the rear of the store, which will be remodelled as a pocket park. A second through-building link will connect this space to Orchard Street to the east, effectively formalising the common practice of shoppers leaving the current M&S foodhall by the side exit, passing straight through Selfridges and coming out to St Christopher’s Place beyond.
Will either of these moves be enough to arrest the decline in Oxford Street’s footfall of the last few years? Is more needed, and I don’t mean an artificial grassy mound dumped on the corner?
For a decade at least luxury brands have been reformatting their shops from simple outlet to three-dimensional calling card through new architecture, lavish fit-outs and cutting-edge display technology, blurring the boundaries between marketing and purchasing. The very high associated costs make this unlikely to cross over fully into the mass-market. Selfridges, for example, which sits somewhere between those extremes, may have had success with the self-contained ‘Louis Vuitton Townhouse’ concept in 2013 but its centrepiece, a cylindrical glass lift that rotated as it moved, broke down within days of opening and was quietly removed a year or so later.
In-store ‘experiences’ are seen as another possible answer, with fashion shows, performances and events being staged amongst the aisles and ‘lounges’ provided to encourage hanging out. Related to this are the simpler – or, perhaps, seemingly simpler – fit-outs that emulate the kinds of ‘found’ or as-is industrial spaces current in commercial interiors, which are appearing in retail in an attempt to create a less artificial set of surroundings.
The real concern now though – especially in the current and projected climate – is achieving genuine integration with a retailer’s online presence, as M&S acknowledged in yesterday’s press release. What that might actually look like, though, is anyone’s guess since technology has a nasty habit of becoming outdated very, very quickly. Samsung’s recently-opened Coal Drops Yard store featuring a digital graffiti wall that can be ‘painted’ by a phone disguised as a spray can, internet-enabled appliances and a working kitchen for demonstrations sounds great but will it last and would a non-electronics retailer find anything helpful to emulate? M&S has itself tried large, desk-like touchscreens in its clothing floors to no real effect; in any case, shoppers will already have their iPhone browser open so it’s arguable that this adds value. Virtual and augmented reality, personalised ‘talking’ advertising boards and much more have also been mooted, again without much impact.
Personally I think these are all answers, but maybe to the wrong question. Instead of asking what can be done to make in-person retail more attractive, why not look to other end of the process altogether?
Britain started the Industrial Revolution and London was and still is to an extent a manufacturing city – in 2018, London’s gross value added from the sector was similar to that contributed by all of Wales’ industries combined. Things were and are made here – things like clothes and bicycles, furniture and beer, watches and suits. With that rich heritage and a real interest now in craft, repairs, provenance and sustainability, might not a more compelling ‘offer’ be to add makers’ spaces to some of these stores and show people what it takes to put something together? The potential is already there at a small scale. New premises for tailors Hackett in Savile Row (where each firm must produce at least 60% of the shop’s output on the premises) and Bonhams’ specialist staff in New Bond Street have daylit workspaces – both could be opened up to visitors. Wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd’s new buildings on Pall Mall already host tastings in bespoke function spaces. Shoppers never used to be so distant from the activity of making, whether the in-house adjustment services in the earliest department stores or the stock warehouses in adjacent streets, and my own reminder last year of the flatted factory after the war provides another useful precedent.
It may thus be that the true ‘experience’ we desire and will travel to see is the one of watching something physical be created.
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
Black Dog Publishing, 2010
ISBN 978 1 906155 73 5
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
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.
– Don Brown, The London Society
Ivy Press, 2017
ISBN 978 1 782404 52 1
Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is illustrated with its own collage-style spread.
Ivy Press, 2018
ISBN 978 1 782405 44 3
Commissioned from Chris by the Chief Magistrate for England & Wales to mark the closure of Bow Street Magistrates' Court, this pamphlet celebrates the world-famous institution and its final home. It was given exclusively to guests at a commemorative reception.
"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
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