Masters of retail space

It may seem ironic to select someone that loathes shopping to design a retail masterplan, but Glenn Howells, of the eponymously named architecture firm, says it led to a more thoughtful approach to the mechanics, both overt and subtle, of attracting shoppers and non-shoppers, alike.

What inspired the layout of the retail masterplan?

In order to make it more interesting and varied, we wanted to focus on more independent offerings. Independents, by nature, need smaller spaces, so we looked at making the masterplan more granular, which meant making the streets smaller, too. Instead of wide boulevards, like Oxford Street, it’s more like Carnaby Street, or Seven Dials. We’ve reduced the scale of the place making streets more narrow and intimate.

How have you made the area visually compelling?

We’ve planned a richer market-style atmosphere to contrast with the office space. There’s something about smaller scale places that means you can be a bit more imaginative and experimental, building a sense of wonder and discovery. Personally, I tend to gravitate towards areas with markets or interesting ranges. I tend not to go to the 5th Avenues of the world, so I tried to apply ways that I would find a shopping area appealing.

Take us behind the scenes to understand what goes into the actual design process.

It’s working closely with the wider team, including commercial advisors in retail, who’ve got an idea of which occupiers could be tempted to be tenants. It’s really important to test the light to differentiate which areas people will move through and which are dwell spaces, which are typically resting spaces where people will rush to get a seat and want to hang out and that’s usually timed with afternoon and early evening sunshine. That’s where you place the bars and restaurants, benches and play tables.

We use devices, such as low level planting which provide a bit of separation between people sitting trying to have a meal and the walkway. That’s how we create shelter and defensible space. There’s quite a fine-grained level of design which isn’t about buildings at all, but about things like street surfaces – which surfacing is most comfortable to walk on, and street furniture and signage, the way you allow retailers to brand. A lot of thought goes into the height of the shop fronts, like how big the signs should be so that you can see them from a certain distance.

What have you employed to promote a sense of community within retail?

Retail doesn’t work as well if you’ve got an endless strip of shop fronts. So what we sought to do is ensure it’s never very long before you have to make turns. Those bends in the road serve two purposes: they create an element of surprise and also stop the experience being exhausting with too much to take in. There will be benches and café’s strategically placed to allow for shopping breaks. Encouraging people to linger makes it less about transactions, where people buy what they need and leave, and more about community.

Keeping the retail at ground level also sets the foundation for an active, engaged atmosphere. The estate feels livelier if workers and residents can see a bustling environment out of their windows.

Retail has to be stimulating and rewarding. The way you achieve that is through a rich mix of restaurants, bars, showrooms, even performance space and a programme of changing things to make it a place where people want to keep coming back. Some retail will work, some won’t. Some shops will need investment through incentives like rent-free periods, but they contribute a sense of place and through that sense of place, you create community.

Interview by Amy Guttman
Twitter @AmyGuttman1