UK department stores under threat as Covid changes city centers | Architecture


Activists are organizing to prevent the destruction of historic department store buildings across the country, from fantastic brutalist structures to elegant 1930s buildings.

The Twentieth Century Society is taking action against the destruction or redesign of seven locations and is concerned about the future of 23 more, threatened by the reinvention of city centers following the pandemic and the shift to online shopping.

He is asking the public to report other buildings at risk as the collapse of the Debenhams and Beales chains and decisions by House of Fraser and John Lewis to close a number of stores leave many department stores vacant.

Jewels facing the Wrecking Ball include the mid-century Rackhams of Birmingham, currently home to the House of Fraser, Debenhams in Taunton, which was built in 1938 and expanded in the 1960s, and the Marks & Spencer store near Marble Arch in London, which has been completed. in 1930. There are also concerns about the future of Aberdeen brutalist John Lewis and Browns of Chester – who are more recently part of Debenhams – parts of which date back to the 12th century.

A large white Modernist building draped in large House of Fraser banners
Rackhams in Birmingham, which later became the home of a branch of House of Fraser. Photography: Fabio De Paola / The Guardian

With few large merchants willing to occupy such large spaces, given the increase in online shopping, homeowners, local councils and developers are already considering conversion plans. The proposals vary from hotels and offices to lecture theaters and even an elementary school. Some are sensitive to the original architecture, but others involve the total or partial destruction of some popular local buildings.

Historic England, which has the power to list buildings and protect them from redevelopment, said it “is constantly evaluating new listing applications, including for department stores.”

Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, says many buildings may struggle to achieve list status because they don’t necessarily use innovative techniques or were not designed by famous architects. But, she says, they can be of huge local importance.

“People like to have a sense of continuity with the past. We’re not saying we have to keep them as is – housing Are you Being Served? department stores – but to keep the building and think imaginatively, ”she says.

“They are extraordinarily diverse, from Simplified Taunton to Aberdeen Brutalism, Neo-Gothic and Neo-Regency, demonstrating a diversity of concerns and interests. Many are beautifully built and have quality materials, and are integrated into the streets surrounding them.

“People have a huge liking for them as places with memories of growing up. This is where you put on your first shoes and where you had your wedding list when you got married. They have romance in terms of people’s personal histories and different patterns of social life throughout the 20th century. “

In Taunton, Somerset, where the Debenhams are scheduled to be demolished, ArtsTaunton administrator Donald Rice said the building was “a really beautiful and subtle addition to the streetscape”.

Debenhams sur North Street, Taunton.
Debenhams sur North Street, Taunton. Photographie: Greg Balfour Evans / Alamy

“It has a bit of metropolitan art deco glamor that’s something unusual in Taunton. Taunton is cursed with a lot of really bad 20th century buildings, but he’s a really good one.

In Birmingham, a request for immunity from listing for the Rackhams store has been filed and there are concerns that this will lead to an unsympathetic renovation of the building, inspired by the Festival of Britain. Activists fear that its spectacular accordion windows and expansive interior staircases are now lost.

“This is a very high quality building that is not appreciated now, except locally, but will be in 10 years,” says Matthew Vaughan, administrator of the Birmingham Civic Society. “If he can’t be listed, he’s lost. If immunity is granted, it gives carte blanche to do something extraordinary.


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