Shop soiled

Oxford is facing proposals to expand the city's already unappealing Westgate Centre. As such vast, ugly shopping malls continue to proliferate, Jay Merrick ponders the future of urban architecture
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The Independent Online

Oxford faces an architectural intrusion whose look and scale could rupture the historic grain of its city centre. One uses the word "architectural" warily, for the proposed £220m expansion of the lumpen Westgate Centre is not about architecture at all, but about the imperatives of conspicuous consumption.

Oxford City Council wants to create a shoppers' heaven and its local plan insists that "the city has a unique role and responsibility as a sub-regional centre at the highest level of the shopping hierarchy". One might also invoke architecture's current chef de philosophie, Rem Koolhaas, who says: "Bigness is no longer part of any urban tissue. It exists; at most it co-exists. It's subtext is fuck context."

Is Oxford City Council risking a carbuncular urban meltdown? Correction: more urban meltdown. In The Erosion of Oxford, the historian James Stevens Curl said in 1977 that "the damage to Oxford in the last half century has been colossal. A nation or society that destroys its true inheritance of capital from the past need expect no glorious or even civilised future."

A less historically elitist kind of capital is at the heart of the Westgate Centre scheme. Money talks, and the numbers are big. In 1999, the value of trade in Oxford's catchment area was £584m – about £6,000 a head. The new Westgate Centre would be up and running in 2007 and, by then, shopping would be worth £200m more, half of it generated by the centre. And up would go ground rents and rates, giving an indirect financial leg-up to other civic projects. But only if the Westgate Partnership's projections are right – and if other expanding shopping centres in Didcot, Bicester and Witney, with five times as much potential retail space, don't turn Oxford's Big Bang into a whimper.

Stephen Byers will announce the DETR's verdict on the Westgate Centre planning appeal in a few weeks, which will have ramifications in retail-led city-centre regeneration schemes in 14 other cities including Belfast, Birmingham, Cardiff, Chester, Liverpool, Norwich and Plymouth. City-centre malls are today's cathedrals. Apart from the occasional Dome, Eden Project or airport, they are the biggest architectural entities in our lives – and, almost invariably, the ugliest and dumbest. We expect nothing more, because we're used to it – it being the ascension of the town-centre shopping centre, which coincided with the worst of the brutalist-modern affronts of civic architecture in the Sixties and Seventies when, for the first time, the government's Development Policy Control Note 13 allowed formal shopping policies to be fed into urban-planning processes.

This strand of civic architecture conflated Macmillan's "you've never had it so good" with Wilson's "white heat of technology" to pave the way for gormless interventions typified by demeaning concrete pedestrian precincts. Why aren't shopping centres cathedral-like? Why shouldn't they be intrinsically beautiful, radiate a properly impressive presence and suggest themselves as important cornerstones of towns and cities? Why, instead, are they a significant part of our culture, yet without any resonant cultural meaning?

The answer, on one level, is simple: there is no coherent understanding of large-scale consumer architecture; nor much knowledge of its effects on its surroundings. According to new research by Building Design Partnership, "many [retail] schemes being designed today are embracing the urban-design agenda". But that doesn't mean that good invariably comes of it. As BDP also emphasises, the retail industry "must invest in urban design skills... retail-led regeneration, its requirements, trends and characteristics, do not feature in recent urban-design documents".

Who should local authorities listen to? The government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment suggests sensible architectural detailing and spatial arrangements – but is that enough? And what of the government's Planning Policy Guidance Notes? Consider the following extract: "The design of proposals for retail development should have proper regard to their relationship with their surroundings and should, where appropriate, develop and enhance local character. Designs should avoid presenting blank façades to town centres or be inward looking. Designs which add interest and variety, which reflect local context should be encouraged."

This is trenchant-lite: there is no informative, dynamic guidance. Definitions of "local character", "variety", "surroundings", "context" – they're up for grabs, malleable. In York, for example, the planning inquiry into the proposed Coppergate Centre revealed that English Heritage is for it, but CABE isn't. Liverpool's Chavasse Park retail scheme is not liked by either CABE or the City Council. And CABE, this time supported by English Heritage, doesn't like Oxford's Westgate Centre scheme, either.

Size is the problem. Massing, articulation, pedestrian cross-flows, context: these seem rather hopeful terms when pitched against the brute fact of the Westgate scheme – 40,000 square metres of retail space with underground parking and a three-buses-a-minute transport hub. The west-facing façades of the development would stretch more than 300 metres along Castle Street and Norfolk Street, tied to a grid of four new covered arcades.

Councillor John Goddard, the Planning and Transport portfolio holder, backed the Westgate development "for the simple reason that it's good for Oxford. It will bring improvement to Bonn Square, remove buses from Queen Street and create residential accommodation, including social housing." The developers – whose other malls include the Glades in Bromley and the Harlequin in Watford – insist that demand for higher-quality shopping is obvious and demonstrable.

But what else might a steroidal Westgate Centre bring? Michel Treisman, an Oxford academic who has followed the saga closely, says the development would probably be successful – but that the commercial viability of the rest of the city centre could be compromised by an architecturally absurd "great white shark, gorging itself on the customers of the smaller shops and creating holes in our fabric that time may not easily fill". Yet those minnows, via the Chamber of Commerce, appear to be in favour of a retail Jaws in their midst.

Roger Evans, an urban-design consultant who spoke against the Westgate scheme at the public inquiry, says, "Most cities bear the imprint of ill-considered, introverted shopping centres built during the Seventies with little or no regard to context. With the current wave of proposals to build huge extensions to these centres, the opportunity now exists to mend the damage and create new pieces of towns with a mix of uses and a memorable public realm."

One day, someone will build the first truly great, modern city-centre consumer cathedral in Britain; but only when architects and local authorities learn, like Oliver Twist, to ask for more at what is still a shabby beggar's banquet of the imagination.