The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Shopping in London: Now New and Improved

By now you are probably completely sick of shopping, or maybe you are just getting into the swing of things with the sales. Just in case you can’t get enough, I thought it would be a good idea to give you an architectural glimpse of the changing world of London’s shopping Mecca. Yes, Regent Street, Selfridges and Liberty of London are all in the process of getting a facelift. Image is, after all, everything.

Completed in1825, John Nash originally planned Regent Street as a link between Regents Park and Carlton House in 1811. Then, in the 1920’s and 30’s the area was comprehensively redeveloped. Regent Street is now under the unified ownership of the Crown Estate who has been entrusted to maintain it. After 80 years, and with the expiry of many of the leases due, the owners see an opportunity for a selective modernisation programme. They feel that it is their responsibility and in the long-term interest of the area to ensure that the street remains among the premier retail and business locations of the world. Yet increasingly, larger scaled international stores who are seeking to establish themselves precisely in this location find the size of the premises available unsuitably small. It is becoming apparent that the shallow frontages of many of the properties are having a negative impact upon the quality of retailers represented.

The current proposals for 229-247 Regent Street (centre block by G.D. Martin, 1898, wings added by D.J. Davis with Yates, Cook and Darbyshire, c.1922-3; Grade II), the first scheme to be implemented in the refurbishment and updating programme, show clearly the complexities involved. Here the small shops at ground floor level and the cramped offices above are seen as no longer viable and the new plans involve gutting and comprehensively reconfiguring the interior behind the retained original façade. We have given a tentative approval to the major portion of the scheme. In this instance it appears that nothing of interest remains within the Grade II listed structure. Still a lingering concern remains for the principal of façade retention as a general policy of conservation and we will ensure that each building be assessed on its individual merits.

On to Oxford Street. Selfridges (400 Oxford Street; R.F. Atkinson with Daniel Burnham, supervised by Sir John Burnet, 1907-28; Grade II) needs new shop fronts. Except for one window, the originals are long gone; bombs (WWII and IRA) will certainly do the job. The existing replacements are insensitive and gloomy to say the least. By any measure Eva Jiricna’s new design is courageous and inventive. The copious use of glass includes not only enormous and beautifully crafted windowpanes supported by structural glass fins and held in place by a bronze frame, but also canopies stabilized by an graceful system of bronze tinted cables. All very exciting. The powerful building will easily stand this contemporary treatment and most certainly benefit from the new possibilities in window display.

Liberty of London (E.T. and E.S. Hall, 1924 and 1926; Grade II*) is similarly concerned with its window display. The internationally recognized façade of the Tudor Building has only small shop windows. Since there is really no way to escape this dilemma it was decided to redevelop the adjoining corner site on Carnaby Street. Lifschutz Davidson intend to replace the homely and structurally unsound old building with a beautiful light weight glazed structure that effectively functions as one grand shop window with integrated circulation routes and a new entrance. The new Carnaby Street elevation combines a modular system of timber panelled cladding and frameless glazing. The solar control within what can only be described as a series of beautifully detailed display vitrines, is an intriguing system of bronze grills and highly coloured blinds. All five timber stressed skin floors of the new extension provide access to the sales floors of the main store and can be reached over an elegant stair of lightweight steel and timber. This is a clear departure from the Tudor Building. There is no attempt at pastiche. The pristine new façade will certainly form a striking focal point from Carnaby Street; in architectural terms it can stand its own ground.

Eva Branscome