Hollowed-out department stores offer an opportunity for the high street

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The writer is the FT’s architecture critic

“I never think that people die,” said Andy Warhol. “They just go to department stores.” If the UK government gets its way, they may not have to wait. They could go and reside in department stores while still alive.

The latest proposals aim to make it easier to convert shops and department stores to residential use. This conflation of two disparate problems — vacant shops and a massive housing crisis — is utterly misguided. Stuffing a few ill-planned flats into stores won’t touch the edges of the housing shortage but it will stymie any future development of our shopping streets and city centres.

Department stores, once the epitome of luxury (Emile Zola in The Ladies’ Paradise referred to them as machines for creating desire), now seem to be at the confluence of multiple urban problems. The dilemma over whether to demolish Marks and Spencer’s flagship store in Oxford Street, for instance, the filing for insolvency of Berlin’s KaDeWe store, the downfall of the Swiss giant Jelmoli and the gaping holes left by the UK’s House of Fraser — even London’s posh Fenwick, which this month looked eerily empty on its last day after more than 130 years.

The department store was once a marker of civic prestige, an anchor of the main street, a place about potential. The joy of shopping was not so much in the destination but in the journey. In the 19th century, they gave women a respectable place to be in public outside the home, and decent jobs. Their windows showed changing fashions and seasons and were much anticipated events at Christmas.

Online retail, alongside out-of-town malls and discounters, has admittedly shredded their market, but they can be reimagined. If retail is being replaced by an experience economy, hollowed-out department stores are perfectly placed to do what they always have done: peddle dreams to the urban masses.

With their industrial-scale loading docks and back-of-house facilities, they lend themselves to anything from immersive theatre and food halls to workshops. They have the capacity to reinvent the high street on a single site. What they do not make, however, is good venues for housing. Deep floor plates, high ceilings, poor circulation and a lack of natural light make them expensive and impractical to convert.

The problem is that once a building has been converted to residential use, it is never going back. Irreversible changes would have a brutal impact on the streetscape, deadening it but also making future development difficult. Residents inevitably complain about noise, light, parking and traffic. Do we really want our finest streets turned into dormitories? Some argue that we should be encouraged to live in city centres, close to amenities, which is legitimate but only if the centre remains alive.

London is witnessing an array of new approaches. The vast Whiteley’s in Bayswater is being converted to a hotel and retail complex with pricey residential units up top. Arding & Hobbs at Clapham Junction now accommodates a food hall, workspace, bars and discounters. The old Derry & Toms store on Kensington High Street once boasted an exotic roof garden, replete with flamingoes; it is now a private members club.

Grand hotels seem to make a good fit, utilising the good sites and keeping the buildings at least partly accessible, but perhaps big museums and arts institutions could also be welcomed. They could keep them open and vital, flexible enough to house new cultural media we haven’t yet imagined.

Warhol, who started his career designing window displays for Bonwit Teller in New York (demolished to be replaced by Trump Tower), never lost his love for these places of desire. As ever, he was both fantastically superficial and dazzlingly ahead of his time. “Someday,” he said, “all department stores will become museums, and all museums will become department stores.”


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