Shop till you bop

Opened in 1976, Brent Cross shopping centre in north west London was the first out-of-town covered venue of that type in Britain. Planned from the late fifties by property company Hammerson, it was finally built on council-owned land in the shadow of the North Circular Road and the M1 motorway and ambitiously positioned to attract customers from the region and central London alike (early adverts used the tagline ‘The north’s west end’). The centre brought the enclosed shopping experience to the suburbs but, with a cleared site, architects Bernard Engle & Partners could now follow American models ruthlessly calculated to maximise customer spending.

The layout chosen was the dumbbell. Two large department stores with several floors (leased to John Lewis and Fenwick) were located at either end of a linear corridor containing two levels of standard shops. Visitors were thus required to walk past every other unit to move between these major draws, increasing potential custom for all of them.

This efficient envelope was entirely internally focussed, and subtle tricks were employed to effect this. Other than at the car park exits, which were in any event buried deep within the larger stores or hidden around a corner, there were no windows in the public areas and so no daylight to remind people of the passing of time. There were also no clocks, the very opposite of the Victorian high street and even the post-war shopping precinct. Both measures are also found in casinos, and for similar reasons.

The upper level walkways were designed as mezzanines of generous widths, emulating a traditional street but also giving people the space to linger. Both upper and lower levels were actually termed ‘malls’ from the start, an interesting convention and one that is true to the word’s origin. It derives from Italian and describes a narrow street. It was adopted by the English to
mean any road or open space and crossed the Atlantic with the same definition – this is seen with Pall Mall in London or the National Mall in Washington, DC. Victor Gruen, the Viennese-born American architect thought of as the father of the shopping centre, used the word for pedestrian ways in early projects in his adopted country before its meaning altered to describe an enclosed shopping experience.

Interest was provided by planters, greenery, wooden animals for children to climb over and generous domed ceilings at each end of the main mall lined with translucent, coloured glass inserts. The largest covered the triple-height ‘square’ in the middle of the mall, with its spectacular fountain, sunken water gardens and seating. Lined with curved sweeps of plaster, this dome’s stepped design recalled Art Deco cinema décor whilst its inserts, which used hues from the rainbow in concentric circles, were like a secular cathedral’s stained glass window. Two sunken cafés were placed on the ground floor close to the department stores.

After twenty years of operation a programme of work in 1995 added a mall extension projected from the square and a car park. Remodelling of the main centre involved opening up the roof of the mall to daylight for the first time, substitution of the fountain for a smaller installation and removal of the water gardens to make more event space, elimination of the animals and replacement of the original hardwood seating with soft furniture closer to that of domestic interiors. More subtly, wide strips of new, coloured marble were inlayed as a ‘pavement’ outside the store entrances.

Most notably, though, all three domes were stripped out in favour of simple clear glass on a contemporary steel frame. Combined with the ever-changing frontages and interiors of the shops themselves, this marked the end of a design that epitomises a confident, distinctive decade.

Posted 6 November 2016; updated 21 November 2016

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Brent Cross interiors in the early 1990s. The fountain installed during the refurbishment was itself swept away just a few years later.

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