Design: Mall is beautiful

Mythological references, forgotten crafts, public art. It's a shopping centre, says its architect, but not as we know it. Jeremy Myerson finds out more
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OVER-financed, over-sized and over here, the white-box American shopping malls air-lifted across the Atlantic from Houston or Minneapolis and parachuted directly into the heart of British towns and cities haven't always had a happy transition. What works in Texas or Arkansas doesn't necessarily translate to a windy Wednesday morning in Watford. And when the out-of-town mall, adapted from America's freeway culture, ends up in the disused quarry pits and derelict land close to our own clogged motorway network, even more is lost in translation.

That's when the cry of cultural imperialism goes up. It's not just that these anonymous US-style shopping developments, once described by the retail designer Rodney Fitch as "alienating blots on the landscape", can suck the life out of town centres, lead to job losses and cause environmental blight - although all this is certainly true. More than that, argue their critics, they all too easily devalue any local sense of place and the cultural traditions that define it.

All this explains why the planners have moved against monster out-of- town developments and why retail designers have started being much more sensitive to local heritage and architectural context, even to the point at which a certain cultural pastiche is permissible. Witness the initial success in the late Eighties of Prince's Square shopping centre in Glasgow, with its cutesy Art Nouveau references to turn-of-the-century Mackintosh Scotland, in comparison with the reception granted to the nearby St Enoch Centre, an American "glass spaceship" mall dropped into the city.

You'd have thought that mall developers would have learnt the lessons of US retail imperialism in Britain during the Nineties, when so much money has had to be spent on revamping these centres to make them more amenable to local communities and less like beacons of International Consumer Style, but no. When an American architect called Eric Kuhne was asked by his client, the Australian developer Lend Lease, to check out the design scheme for a giant shopping centre development on a site it had purchased in a former Blue Circle chalk quarry in Kent, it was the same old story.

Kuhne, a former protege of the post-modern designer Michael Graves, discovered a scheme he likened to "a US aircraft carrier landed in a paddock". He ripped up the blueprint and started again from scratch. That was four years ago, and today Kuhne is masterplanner of the giant pounds 700m Bluewater development, the largest retail and leisure complex ever seen in Europe.

When it opens in March next year, on what was formerly Europe's largest industrial wasteland just a mile from the M25, it will be twice the size of Bath city centre and incorporate in excess of 300 shops and 1.5 million sq ft of retail space. And more than 90 per cent of this has already been pre-let.

Lend Lease reckons that 10 million people - around 20 per cent of Britain's population - live within an hour's drive of Bluewater. It is spending pounds 30m on a new link road to take traffic to the site off the A2. There will be parking for 13,000 cars, as well as buses and tramways connecting local towns.

When visitors do reach Bluewater's eccentric- looking roofline, modelled on the stately homes of England and silhouetted against chalk cliffs, they will be in for a day out in surroundings which Kuhne readily describes as "Blenheim Palace on speed". He has decisively recast the Minneapolis-style shopping experience in the historic image of England's literature and landscape, and his mall makeover promises to tap into deep cultural roots.

Are you ready for leisure interiors inscribed with Shakespearian sonnets and the histories of medieval craft guilds? Are you ready for star courts and domes which echo Sir John Soane's Bank of England? Are you ready for a classicist's fantasy land that merges the Botanical Gardens with Burlington Arcade? Eric Kuhne, a bear-like man of infectious Anglophile enthusiasms, believes you are.

"It might sound odd coming from an American designer working for an Australian developer, but I'm embarrassed by the conceit of one culture superimposing itself on another," says Kuhne. "In any case, the American shopping mall was originally modelled on the European arcade. At Bluewater, we want to celebrate England's spirit of commerce. The rest of the world has been copying you for six centuries."

What really offends Kuhne is the way that the bland modern "architecture" adopted by the big developers has homogenised the shopping centre so much that it struggles to have any cul-tural meaning at all. "Modernism eradicated the identity of civilisations and robbed architecture of its storytelling quality. We are bringing narrative back into retail architecture."

To achieve this, Kuhne has marshalled an army of artisans, artists, sculptors, craftsmen and ironsmiths from all over Britain, and revitalised some crafts neglected for a generation or more. "In Bluewater we're bringing back all the old trades that Modernism abandoned," enthuses Kuhne. "We are going to install more than 50 different pieces of civic art."

To say that Bluewater goes against the flow is an understatement. While a cool new Modernism has become part of late- Nineties urban culture, the architectural fabric of Bluewater has turned back the clock, its design infused with the myths and legends of Kent's village culture, deploying a fantastical array of metaphors to evoke the formal gardens and historic buildings of rural England.

Just consider Kuhne's masterplan: Bluewater is triangular in shape to accommodate its three anchor tenants (John Lewis Partnership, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer) and has a "village" at each of its three points. The eastern village will be family- and child-oriented; the southern village will have a media and entertainment theme, aimed at teenagers and young adults; the western village will be more sophisticated, with a health spa, gourmet food, and high-end fashion stores.

On a site landscaped with a million new trees and shrubs and a 23-acre lake, three formal forecourts based on the celestial themes of sun, moon and stars will create courtly anterooms to the three anchor tenants. And the three decorative malls that link them will be styled like balconied streets, ringed with ornamental balustrades and topped by handkerchief domes based on the interiors of Soane and Gilbert Scott.

Kuhne, who delights that his London office is just around the corner from Soane's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, has really let his ideas run free. The eastern mall, for example, has been named the Rose Gallery; its subject is landscape and its features include a rose trellis and leaves of chestnut and lime carved in plaster to adorn the bulwarks above the stores. Off this mall lies the largest Winter Garden built in Britain this century.

The western mall is called the Guildhall and explores the subject of townscape through a display of all the 106 guilds of the British Isles. The southern mall has been named Thames Walk and deals with the subject of waterscape, with a stainless-steel map of the Thames and all the towns along its route set into the blue limestone floor. In the southern village at the end of this mall lies the Water Circus which includes ice rinks, boating ponds and concert spaces. "We're aiming to capture a spirit embedded deep in the British culture," asserts Kuhne proudly. "Only the Church and the Royals have ever done it properly - and I'm trying to do it with profane commercial buildings."

If all this oh-so-elegant classicism and arty-crafty detail suggest a potential for hideousness, be assured that Eric Kuhne gets off on his own work. His site inspections of his fantasies swiftly being made real send his voice husky with excitement. The form of the Winter Garden, he reports, "is like a still life, a collection of perfume bottles".

Kuhne developed a love of the mythical and the literary at an early age. Born in San Antonio, Texas, he was the son of an Air Force navigator and a teacher. One of his earliest memories is of picnicking under the stars in the world's largest aircraft graveyard, listening to his parents telling stories

But how will the tenants and their own teams of retail designers and shopfitters fit into this 21st-century medieval pageant, a place where Buck Rogers and Chaucer could conceivably share a cappuccino? Bluewater has attracted an unprecedented A to Z of retailers (from Abbey National to Zugi) which must respond to the richly symbolic framework that Kuhne has created.

Kuhne is on a one-man mission to convince everyone involved that his way will work, and is constantly giving presentations to investors, leasing experts, site managers, property people, retail operators and their own consulting teams. "I'd say that 70 per of the retail designers involved are rising to the occasion," he observes. "The fashion-oriented retailers are more geared to new trends so they're perhaps more open to a poetic storytelling approach. What we really have to get across to people is that the domain of mythology is not just the domain of the ancients. We have the capacity to create our own myths today." !