I have never really understood the fascination with Oxford Street as the retail heart of the UK. I get that there are some great buildings, but as a shopping street, though not a great streetscape, it has never worked for me. Too incoherent, too jammed with traffic and the retail is not always that inspiring.
But as I say, it does have some iconic and interesting buildings, though if Marks and Spencer have their way there will be one less. Their proposals to knock down their store and replace it with a mixed used development has attracted considerable negativity, though the local council seems to be in favour.
The criticism seems to be a three main bases. First, the existing building is an attractive one that adds to the feel of Oxford Street as well as having architectural merit in its own right. Secondly, knocking down buildings seems to be environmentally unfriendly and given M&S’s avowed Plan B type credentials, seems at odds with their rhetoric and position. Then thirdly, the proposed replacement has been widely derided as bland, identikit, building by numbers.
One subset of this is the loss of embedded carbon from the existing building. Why is this ignored and why does it so often seem to be cheaper, easier and more acceptable to knock down than refurbish and reuse? There are obvious reasons for this but if we actually valued our built (carbon) environment properly and fed this into our encouragements/discouragements financially, perhaps we’d get a better outcome.
At the same time as the Oxford Street knockdown story, I was tweeted (thanks @sto_paul) a BBC story about a Hull Department Store being reused and reopened. There are obvious differences between the stores and between Oxford Street and Hull, but I really hope this re-use works, both in its own right and to show what can be done.
And, at exactly the same time, my copy of a small visual pamphlet by Esther Johnson on “Ships in the Sky – the Co-op connection” landed on my front door. Published by the modernist, it is a short pictorial story of the Alan Boyson mural, its Co-op background and design from the wider Co-op product and brands. It is a little celebration of Co-op design building on how Ships in the Sky (and the two other murals) responded to the Co-op brief to ‘unite the community through art’. I was particularly taken by the contrast between the wide shot of the Ships in the Sky and the close-up of one part of it (which I juxtapose below). The detail showing a small section of the one million plus glass tesserae in the mural makes you comprehend the efforts, enormity, detail and beauty involved.
As with the Oxford Street M&S store, The Ships in the Sky was slated for demolition (I have written about this before), but thankfully that is no longer the case. Whilst we can not (should not) save all our past, we need not to reach immediately for the wrecking ball but consider what these buildings and art say about us, the places they occupy and the organisations which shape them.
Johnson E. (2021) Ships in the Sky – The Co-op Connection. Available from the-modernist.org.