Do malls really excite us any more? | icon 005 | September 2003

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photo: David Cowlard photo: David Cowlard
words Kieran Long

Do malls really excite us any more? The rhetoric of Bullring's brand identity is so laid back that it suggests that it is simply a god-given truth that the new £500 million retail development, opening this month, will be the most thrilling thing ever to have happened to Britain's second city.

At a time when shopping is a hot topic - in architecture with the recent work of Rem Koolhaas, and in city-centre regeneration projects - taking a trip to Birmingham is essential research now that it has pulled down its notorious 1964 Bullring shopping centre, and replaced it with what the developer claims is the first example of a "new way of integrating commercially viable space into the city".

The material and formal language of the mall is familiar to all of us. So familiar that it is somehow reassuring, in the double-edged way that a McDonald's found in a foreign city can be a certain generic refuge. All of us know how to use a mall now, and there can't be anyone who doesn't see the logic in an air-conditioned environment providing food, leisure and endless shopping opportunities under one roof. So is it just patronising bourgeois metropolitanism to want more from a city centre development?

Future Systems' Selfridges building has been widely trailed in the press (icon 001 had it on the cover), a blue and silver apparition which forms the eastern corner of the 10.5ha development. The original Bullring was for many, along with Spaghetti Junction, the defining image of Birmingham. The city is now using Selfridges to promote itself as a brand. Under the mystifying slogan "Intriguing Birmingham", a woman twirls a ribbon in front of the aluminium discs of Future Systems' blob, a strange juxtaposition of supposedly cutting-edge architecture and marketing that already looks dreadfully out of date.

Despite the PR constructing Selfridges as the defining image of the area, what predominates is the rest of the mall, designed by London architect Benoy which previously worked on the huge Bluewater shopping centre in Kent with American architect Eric Kuhne and on many other large shopping centres. It is built in the universal language of large-scale retail - beige brick-and-render curtain walling, with cosmetic modulation of the facades to pretend that the development is more than just a monolith. The detail of the join between Selfridges' section of facade and the rest of the development demonstrates this. It is so rudimentary that one would be surprised if Future Systems and Benoy had bothered to talk to each other during the entire design process.

Yet Bullring has higher aspirations than most new mall developments. At the beginning of the project, seven years ago, the site was the biggest inner-city redevelopment in Europe, and the project claims to "bring back the traditional street patterns of the city" while providing 110,000sq m of retail space in a series of covered malls and open pedestrian streets. The mall is arranged around three levels, to deal with the 13.5m fall from the main entrance at the corner of New Street and High Street to the new public space around St Martin's Church in the south. A central, pedestrianised street divides the development into two roughly equal halves, with the two anchor tenants - Selfridges and Debenhams - placed at the west and east extremities. Project director Jonathan Emery of developer Hammerson calls this the "first of a new breed" of malls, in the middle of cities and dealing with the complexity that brings with it.

The appeal to "traditional" urbanism is a vacuous yet revealing description of the layout of Bullring. Architect James Utting, design director of Benoy, says: "We didn't want a monolithic footprint. So the city blocks equate in grain and scale to the existing city." What does grain and scale mean in this context? Does a city like Birmingham even have a coherent grain and scale? The blocks have a mass that has a certain urban presence - between six and eight storeys high, with plant rooms on the roofs - and the pedestrian thoroughfares approximate the scale of a 19th-century city, if you were to look at them on a map. Although the blocks may be smaller than is usual in a shopping centre, they have none of the "grain" that genuinely urban quarters such as Soho, London or Canal Street, Manchester has, and none of the hierarchy of a traditional high street. Grain is a metaphor overused by architects, but on examination suggests less about the size of city blocks, and more about the quality and density of those blocks.

This is the key problem with conventional retail development. None of these buildings will ever accommodate anything other than retail and catering businesses. Supremely inadaptable as pieces of city, the retail units create no possibility of connections through, or modification to, different uses. Curtain walling as a construction technology creates a sense of ersatz impermanence but without the flexibility you might expect.

While it is misleading to say that the new Bullring has grain, it is also wrong to say that this kind of architecture has anything to do with the existing city. Connections are made - between the newly refurbished Moor Street station and New Street station - under a covered mall, and from the existing shopping heart of the city towards the rebuilt markets to the south. But the strange post-modernism of many of the facades bears no relationship to the surrounding architectural context, and looks so half-hearted that it is not even an enjoyable confection. The facade of the Debenhams store is a case in point. A beige brick section of facade sits with a backdrop of scale-less opaque glazing, embellished by tapering concrete pilasters and sections of metal cladding. These are simply a way of filling up a facade with stuff. Too scared or cheap to make an austere facade with material quality, not talented enough to decorate a facade convincingly, and too bound up in retail convention to enable the building to become programmatically flexible, this development is doomed to never become part of a living urban context.

At one point, as we pass by one of the shop fit-outs under construction, Emery says: "See, to me, that looks like a real building." So, the objective here is to make what is a conventional mall look as much like an outdoor space as possible, without any of the inconvenience of real weather. The experience of these spaces is as simulacrum of a street. The limestone on the floor is intended to feel like an external pavior. The majority of the paviors I saw outside were concrete. What precedent limestone has as an external flooring material in this city is unclear.

Despite the variation in the materials used on the facade of the building, one is never in doubt that it is the perimeter of a shopping centre. The problem with these facades is that they also make the possibility of architecture around the development less likely. The fine grain of networks that exists in a more mixed-use environment could allow pockets to form on the edges of previous buildings, and allow new spaces to be activated and created.

Birmingham is Britain's second city but severely lacks high-quality retail space. Over seven million people live within an hour's drive of the city, but it has only half the available retail space of Newcastle or Glasgow. There is little doubt that major retail space was needed, and also that in the context of retail architecture, the new Bullring pushes gently on a few conventions. Bullring is a classic example of when a city and developer have recognised a problem, but then not gone far enough to tackle it. It is also horrendously ugly, a mess of references to references to references. There is no wit or lightness or joy, just heavy-handed, deterministic planning, and a complete lack of style.

Yet to read the press releases, you'd think that Hammerson, Land Securities and Henderson are doing us a favour and dragging British urbanism into the 21st century. "The most exhilarating city centre retail experience you'll have anywhere in Europe," they gush. "Bullring completely redefines the city centre. And it will change the way you feel about Birmingham. Forever." Utter rubbish. It will confirm everything you think about the middlebrow aspirations of a generation of planners and developers, and put you in mind of another meaning of intrigue that the Birmingham spin-doctors may not have intended to communicate - to make secret plots or to employ underhand methods to get what you want.

It is time that people began to ask why retail development is as it is in this country, and that the outrageous claims of the PR departments of commercial clients were questioned. And it is time that the low aspirations and ignorance of developers and clients was challenged. You can't blame commercial architects - if there's money in it, someone will design it. It's time for the money men to live up to their own hype. What has been missed is the opportunity to give Birmingham a new architecture, and precedent that could genuinely influence the direction of development in the city for a generation. The city has got a huge mall with a blue and silver boil on its side.