The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

The High Art of the High Street

It is rare to stumble across any kind of shopping structure that is both, architecturally interesting enough to be listed and in sufficiently good condition. But so far 2008 has thrown up lots of promising examples—many sadly now at risk.

In these cases, listing decisions are largely determined by the quality of the shop front and the survival of built-in fixtures. The Piccadilly Café’s Formica counters and banquettes were considered too ephemeral by English Heritage—perhaps suggesting that listing is prejudiced against materials perceived as cheap and replaceable.

The very nature of the High Street is the greatest threat to retail architecture as the desire to create a strong and recognisable brand means that when ownership changes a new shop identity is required. One excellent and rare example of a whole chain of shops which has survived intact, probably because because both ownership and function have remained unchanged for much longer than average, is Kennedy’s Sausage Shops in south London. When the owners finally closed all their remaining branches at the end of 2007 we knew we would need to act quickly.

Kennedy’s was established as a family run business in Peckham in 1877 and expanded in the 1920s to serve a wide area.  Eleven shops remain. They are remarkably standardised in their street frontages and internal fitout.  In each case the shop front is marked by a large display window with pearl grey granite panels below and sunburst leaded lights above. The joinery is very fine, with slender mullions.  The wood framed doors are set back to form a porch area which is dressed with wall and floor tiles.  Many branches have handsome black fascia signage with gold lettering and there are usually red awnings.  Some have additional signage at a higher level.

Internally all shops have beautiful marble topped counters and wooden shelves backed by mirrors. The walls are tiled in dark green from floor to counter height, and in white or cream with green surrounds above. In many cases there are more mirrors integrated into the tiling as part of the overall composition. The ceilings are an early suspended system of square white vitrolite panels, a material chosen for its hygienic properties and often used in domestic bathrooms at this period. A row of globe lights hangs over the serving areas while neon lights are used over the customer area. Often glass signage panels are suspended as well, advertising the goods.

In the first week of January we were able to survey eight shops, of which seven were still almost completely original. The eighth was already being refitted as a chip shop and several had ‘for sale’ signs fixed to them.  We have asked English Heritage to look at the whole chain as quickly as possible, and hope for a positive outcome.  Recent successful listing proposals include W Burrows Fish & Chip Shop in Ealing built c1935 which has very pretty fish tiles by tiles by Polly Brace and a turn-of-the-century butcher’s shop in Kingston upon Hull.  It has a multi-coloured tiling scheme that includes framed pastoral scenes of cows and portraits of a bull, a ram and a pig.

The amazing labyrinth of arcades which comprise the covered portion of Brixton Market is also under immediate threat. A glossy public consultation brochure shows an anonymous new block with lots of residential units in its place. Although the market is in a conservation area its quality appears not to be appreciated.

Arcades were first used in British retail architecture in 1818 when the Burlington Arcade was built. The idea had been brought over from France where such galleries became popular from the end of the eighteenth century.  They were built as indoor streets offering increased control of the wares on sale through integrated shops rather than the ramshackle stalls of outdoor markets.  They were also perceived to be a safe, clean environment for ladies to do their daily shopping. Altogether 29 arcades were built in England from 1914 onwards but so far only one of them, The Avenue in Bridgewater dating from 1930, is listed.

Brixton’s arcades were built in the first part of the twentieth century when market traders were relocated from Brixton Road. There are three architecturally distinct elements with differing architectural styles and engineering materials. The structures are no doubt underrated in part because they have hardly any street frontage.  The most exciting frontage is also hidden away on a narrow side street—very few people look up and see the amazing Egyptian faience frontage that has parallels with cinema architecture. Whilst once immensely popular, such frontages have now all but disappeared and there are only a few survivors worldwide.

Other retail cases for which we are currently preparing listing proposals are TM Sutton Ltd., the pawnbrokers at Victoria Station dating from 1935 and the Ridgemount Service Station in Bloomsbury opened in 1926. Historic Scotland has asked for our advice on the BHS store in Aberdeen. While of obvious architectural value it is not a patch on Lasdun’s Peter Robinson’s department store on the Strand from 1958 that was demolished in the 1990s.

There is no question that the buildings of our High Streets are of great architectural, cultural and sociological value and need to be protected. Many of these buildings may not be architecture with a capital A and it is rare to be able to identify the actual architects or artisans involved. Even precise dates are difficult to pinpoint. The World Monuments Fund watch list has identified Main Street USA as at risk at large, perhaps we need to be similarly aware of what we might lose.

Eva Branscome