thoughts on our urban future

One New Change to retail?

One New Change retail street

How do you design a shopping centre next to a 300-year-old Christopher Wren masterpiece, which is also designated as a World Heritage site? The first question to question is whether or not a shopping-led approach is correct, especially adjacent to such an impressive context. However, the design developed by French architect Jean Nouvel (who designed this past year’s very red Serpentine pavilion in Hyde Park), is more high street than shopping mall. It’s called One New Change.

Without knowing much about the building, except seeing its shiny black glass facades during construction while passing it on a weekend diversion, I was intrigued to hear about its opening a few weeks ago. I only visited the building this past weekend, on a dreary, cold evening. While not a fan of shopping centres, I did look forward to escaping the cold, but was pleasantly disappointed when I couldn’t. In fact, from the pavement, which continues throughout the building, all ‘corridors’ are actually streets, open to the elements and blowing wind. And the openness continues throughout the shopping and restaurant floor below, and above.

This streets design does not emulate a high street, as others have stated, but merely makes a more open, urban experience, one which is well executed and allows the architect to be playful with geometry and with the interplay between indoor and outdoor. Above the three levels of retail and eateries are another five floors of offices, and a soon-to-open roof terrace restaurant, which will presumably offer unparalleled views of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

While the design is uncharacteristic of many shopping centres, it does have a commercial, site-driven feel. Perhaps its all the common retail and restaurant names you see throughout central London; perhaps it’s the clean, slick look and feel of each interior street; or perhaps it’s the insular nature of the development with the (at times) heavy-handed and all-encompassing architecture that envelops you. Nonetheless, the design is both in-your-face (note the shiny glass, reflective mirrors cum clear glass) and understated (see the York stone paving and the framing of St. Paul’s, which can make the building seem more background than foreground). The design seems to strike an appropriate balance. Also, while one can feel absorbed within the interior streets, the design actually does quite a good job at activating the streets; shops open onto the pavements.

Overall the design is quite admirable, however I question whether (or perhaps how long) will it take the design to appear dated as it is quite specific. Also, lessons could be learned from the redevelopment of Spitalfields Market nearby in mixing national and local retail, offering a great range of retail offerings from market stalls to lock-up shops and introducing elements of entertainment and urban space. Perhaps One New Change will grow old gracefully and have the life of real streets. Until then, explore it and learn some interesting lessons, but challenge what we as consumers want from our new retail environments.  In the meantime, let it be an inspiration for future retail schemes.

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