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ARCHIVE: Shopping Heaven and Hell; Chris Upton uncovers the history of modern shopping centres and precincts - and reveals a legacy of broken retail promises.

Byline: Chris Upton

The shopping centre (like the supermarket) has become an integral part of all our lives, whether we want it to be or not. Yet it is a very recent creation.

Although in many towns the Victorian shopping experience involved the indoor market and the arcade - a covered walkway with shops on one or two levels - the idea of annexing a large chunk of the town centre was not one they contemplated. For that we have to wait for the surge of redevelopment that followed the Second World War.

The first city to experiment with such a radical notion was Coventry. In 1938, when Coventry appointed its first city architect in the shape of Donald Gibson, his team of young architects prepared an ambitious scheme of redevelopment centred on the so-called Cathedral Quarter and Broadgate.

Gibson envisaged the country's first shopping precinct, a single-level development running along Broad-gate and down the hill to Corporation Street, with a water feature in the middle of it. Work finally began in 1948.

By 1953 when the first building on Broadgate - Broadgate House - was completed, the scheme had been revised as two tiers, based (according to Gibson) on the "Rows" in Chester.

The Upper Precinct was completed in 1955. Gibson's successor, Arthur Ling, was obliged to redesign the Lower Precinct because of the reluctance of shoppers to climb the steps from the lower to the upper level.

The ideas that Gibson and his team were importing came straight from Eastern Europe, though traditional materials like brick and stone were used to soften and mask the harder edges of Modernism.

Water features and Soviet-style public art recalled the origins of the idea. Ironically, the waterway was quickly filled in and the two mural reliefs (by Walter Richie) were later moved to the front of the Herbert Art Gallery.

Nevertheless, the concept of the pedestrianised shopping mall was soon to capture the imagination of all. By 1965 no fewer than 800 other town councils had applied for traffic-free shopping centres.

What made the precinct at Coventry different from many of its successors was that it was always designed as a thoroughfare, albeit a pedestrianised one.

The next generation of developers was more concerned with ways of keeping shoppers in when the centre was open, and out when the centre was closed. Such was the case with the Bull Ring in Birmingham and the Mander Centre in Wolverhampton.

The prime movers in the latter case were the Manders, whose paint and varnish works had been established in St John Street in 1773. The factory was subsequently moved out of town, but the offices remained in their original location until 1965, by which time Mander Brothers had expanded their business interests beyond paint and into property.

The company recognised that it held the key to a scheme that would link the two major shopping streets in the town and unify the tangle of streets in between, under a single roof and a single development. There would also be the opportunity to build a substantial office-block, something the town clearly lacked, on top.

There were, of course, one or two little local difficulties to overcome, principally the presence of two Victorian shopping arcades and two buildings of historic interest, the Star & Garter Hotel on Victoria Street and the old Grammar School site in St John's Street.

The unseemly haste with which these two buildings were reduced to rubble is an object lesson in how to push through a property development, and how to resist it. The Star & Garter, along with most of the Central Arcade, were bought up by a third party, Murrayfield Real Estate, which then leased them to Manders Properties Ltd.

Then the Queen Square Syndicate, a body established in 1908 to safeguard the interests of townspeople in town centre developments, took itself into voluntary liquidation and made over the lease of the Queen's Arcade to Manders. It was all so simple.

The Mander Centre received outline planning approval in January 1964, partly winning over the planning committee with the promise that the centre would be more than just a place to shop' a ballroom, bowling alley and arts centre or cinema were also to be incorporated in the development.

History tells us that all shopping centres promise to include these and none of them ever does.

A ringing endorsement of the scheme came from two of the high street giants, Woolworth's and British Home Stores, who agreed to extend their Dudley Street shops backwards into the new centre. The Mander Centre was opened in March 1968. Designed by James A Roberts, the architect of Birmingham's Rotunda, it cleverly bridged the varying levels of the Wolverhampton streets outside, and inside used a variety of materials - Portland stone, pine boarding, bronze and copper - as well as overhanging walkways, to create visual interest. (Compared to this the adjacent Wulfrun Centre, in spite of its innovatory "travelator" access from Cleveland Street, looked like a poor cousin.)

And just in case the planning committee remembered that earlier promise about the arts, there was a piece of sculpture by Barbara Hepworth to soften the blow.

At the official opening the mayor dubbed it "the finest new shopping centre for a town of our size in the country", but there was some slight unease in the corridors of the Town Hall about what was effectively a "privatisation" of a large tract of the town centre. What rights did the council possess over the interior walkways, and what access was legally permitted to pedestrians outside shopping hours?

The answer, frankly, was none at all. A town meeting on December 19, 1968, voted out a proposal in the forthcoming Consolidation Bill to define the walkways as "thoroughfares". The people of Wolverhampton, for some inexplicable reason, shut the door on themselves.

Despite rumours to the contrary, planners and architects do learn from experience. The new Bullring in Birmingham combines the old idea of the shopping precinct with the enclosed, opening hours only, shopping centre.

But do not imagine that the route through from New Street to St Martin's is a public right-of-way. It is not. And that may well explain the marked absence of buskers, Big Issue sellers and consumer survey collectors.


Above main picture, the old Bull Ring Centre, Birmingham in 1968' inset above left, Victoria Arcade, Mander Centre, Wolverhampton in 1975' inset right, Coventry's two-tier shopping centre in 1961. Right, the new Bullring featuring the Selfridges building and St Martin's Church
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 14, 2006
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