Over two and a half years ago I attended a seminar at the Engine Shed in Stirling called ‘Talking Shops’ and my blog discussion of the event can be found here. In that post I noted the presentation by Lynn Pearson (@lynnpearson67) on Co-operative architecture and hoped that her book on the subject would not be too long in the making.
Well, the good news is that it is out, being published a few weeks ago by Historic England and Liverpool University Press. As anticipated, it is a fascinating and excellent read and a worthy addition to Historic England’s other books on retailing and architecture, adding greatly to our understanding of the topic.
The book is organised chronologically from the origins (pre-origins) of the Co-operative Movement and continues until the present day. Thankfully though the emphasis is on the history and not on the present state of retail architecture (including Co-operative). The focus is on England, with occasional digression to Wales and Scotland (including a photo of the brutalist Norco in Aberdeen, which I visited when I moved to Scotland almost 40 years ago). The volume is lavishly illustrated and for me the historical photos (many from the author’s own collection) are the highlights (and see below my link to a blog by Lynn Pearson on her best/favourite). The photographs do though bring to the fore the sheer loss of fine buildings we have had to endure. They also show how damaging and ridiculous many of the modern fascia intrusions into designed buildings actually are). Thoroughly researched, well referenced, this is both a visual and written treat.
The early chapters also brought home to me how central such Co-operative stores were in towns and places. In the 1980s we often talked about ‘grounding the capital’ in retail development, particulary in the context of out of town superstores. Here though the book shows how the Co-operative Movement grounded not only its local retail capital but also built for social capital. Large buildings, multi-functional spaces, halls above the ground floors and so on, these were central, town, community hubs of the sort we have lost and now desperately need. Retail (and other services) has become too divorced from its community, and the need to bring that community together.
The photographs also show how cutting edge the Co-operative Movement could be over the decades/centuries, both in design as well as organisation. From the remarkable large central shops (and other uses for the town), through the art-deco and design leading shops that came later, the architects and architecture made a Co-operative statement, something that has perhaps only been seen in Manchester more recently. But there were also the symbols (in brick and other forms), the artworks and the mosaics and murals (see graphics below). Whilst Ships in the Sky has gained a degree of notoriety over its (non) listing and the threats it faced, there are other examples that need protection.
As I wrote two and a half years ago in the “Talking Shops” post, we need the past to build a better future. This book points some of the way in this regard. I really enjoyed it – and learned from it.
If you want a taster of some of the gems that form part of the history in the book (and my photographs here do not do justice to the orginals and are a personal selection for different reasons), then Lynn Pearson has also written a blog for the Liverpool University Press where she explores her 10 best Co-operative buildings – and provides the photographs from the book to illustrate her choice. She also runs a blog that includes a lot about Co-operatives and other interesting things.
Lynn Pearson (2020) England’s Co-operative Movement: an architectural history. Historic England/Liverpool University Press. ISBN 978-1-78962-239-3