Over the last few weeks, I have been filming a new television series called Demolition (to be broadcast later this year) for Channel 4, about some of the ugliest buildings in Britain. They range from disused cinemas blocking wonderful seaside views, to derelict shops, to council offices and even a whole town centre, where the residents are in despair about the lack of amenities and sheer grisliness of something which should be a showpiece, but is in fact about as appealing as a slaughterhouse.
Without giving the game away, I've been impressed by the fervour and passion that people display when it comes to architecture. In some of the cases, I don't actually agree with them; one Sixties concrete tour de force still has plenty of panache as far as I'm concerned, even though the workers inside loathe it. One thing we all agree on, though, is how unattractive the outside of any shopping mall looks, whether it's situated in the Scottish borders or rural Kent.
Demolition came about because George Ferguson, the President of the RIBA, made a speech begging us to stop saving buildings that simply weren't worth it. At the same time, I wrote a column in this newspaper attacking the BBC series Restoration, which in my opinion spends a lot of time eulogising derelict follies, poorhouses and crumbling homes of the rich, with the aim of turning them into arts centres, coffee bars and "units" which can be rented by local businesses, and so on. I argued for more demolition in the name of building high-quality modern architecture which would be a true reflection of our age.
Now it seems that the next kind of building which will soon be lying derelict or demolished is the department store. How quickly these palaces of consumption have reached their sell-by date. In the 1950s, I grew up in west London and can remember the thrill of visiting Barbers department store in West End Road and waiting for a mysterious tube to shuttle through the building and back, bringing my mother her change and a receipt rolled up inside it. High Street Kensington was home to three rival establishments; Pontings, Derry and Toms, and Barkers. Pontings, with its creaking wooden stairs, could have been the model for the TV series Are You Being Served?, with its inter-departmental staff warfare and acres of remnants. It was where I bought a pair of thick white nun's stockings and dyed them in cold tea for that groovy mod look in 1963.
Derry and Toms, the epitome of Art Deco, with its glorious Rainbow Room and gorgeous lifts, became Biba, and for a few happy years I'd spend hours dancing to Sam and Dave or adjusting my knickers in the classiest ladies loo in Britain. Now, it's Marks & Spencer, all I have to remind me of the glory days is the bronze D and T sign sitting on my desk. Soon, Barkers is to bite the dust. Kensington High Street now has little to distinguish it from countless other high streets all over Britain, just a line of retailers with very little individuality about them.
Out-of-town shopping has been a disaster for Britain on all sorts of levels. It sucks the life out of town centres under the guise of offering "convenience", ample parking (never ever underground and rarely multi-storey) and overhead cover from the weather.
So in return for these benefits, we have signed the death warrant for the department store, where once we would wander for hours picking up a jar of honey here, a tube of face cream there, a pet collar and a hat for a wedding. Dickins & Jones in London's West End is closing next January, while John Lewis looks a bit miserable and unloved, in spite of revamping its ground floor. Bourne and Hollingsworth has long gone. Will Liberty be next? A succession of executives has tried to breathe life into this wonderfully eccentric building with its perplexing layout.
Of course, congestion charging and the bomb attacks have deterred shoppers and tourists. Trading in the West End also reflects the poor retail figures seen all over the country. Within London itself, there are wealthy middle-class "villages" like Marylebone, Chelsea, Hampstead, Primrose Hill, Battersea and Dulwich, where small owner-operated shops thrive.
But these places, like Marylebone High Street or Regents Park Road, are just a tiny drop in the world of shopping Britain. As more and more characterless shopping malls are built at White City, Kings Cross and Croydon, most people won't bother to make that journey I so often did as a child, getting off the Tube at Oxford Circus and entering the magical world of retail.
Oxford Street is already one of the most depressing streets it is possible to walk down in London. Apart from the oasis of Selfridges, there is nothing to commend it, and the news that an Oxford Street Festival is planned for next month smacks of sheer desperation. What are they going to promote - cut-price shopping where you can buy a fake Burberry tracksuit for £20 or a T-shirt emblazoned with a Union Jack?
I predict that within a decade, there will be just two department stores left in London - Harrods and Selfridges - and both will continue to cater for the very rich, while providing the rest of us a magical environment to gawp in, while buying some little trinket to mark our visit.
Bra Wars shows just how much our major retailers already rely on cheap labour to produce not very inspiring basic fashion sold in identical brick and concrete boxes from Dundee to Dunstable. Successful retailers like small boutique owners and top-of-the-range department stores realise that in the age of the £5 T-shirt you sell the £495 handbag, the £95 bra with gorgeous hand stitching, or a pair of hand-sewn silk knickers for £45.
The centre of Leeds has been revitalised beyond recognition - and at the centre stands Harvey Nichols. But the future of the group does not look ultra-rosy, because they simply have not the space to stock the huge range of choice that Selfridges or Harrods do elsewhere. The real winners in Leeds are all the little shops that have opened in the restored Victorian arcades, still battling on despite huge shopping malls around the corner.
In the forthcoming retail wars, we may end this decade telling our grandchildren about those weird and wonderful places where you could buy sweets and sweaters and have your hair done - the department store. Don't tell me that anyone will ever have the same fond memories of Bluewater or Brent Cross as I have of dear, departed Whiteleys, where I gorged on marrons glaces and bought a water bed in the sale.
Shopping malls are dying all over America, but unfortunately they are still the next big thing over here. The plague of over-sized boxes which provide minimal aesthetic satisfaction is in full swing.Reuse content