From music studios to museums, Emma Warren reports on how shopping centres are being reimagined around the country
There are two sections of the Berlin Wall in Lewisham Shopping Centre. A couple walk past with their Sainsbury’s bags and stop, bending at the waist to read the blurb to the side of the most iconic slabs of concrete in the world.
The pieces of wall are on loan from graffiti artist Stik. One is painted with one of his recognisable stick people, the other features a colourful image of a figure leaning forward, as if in conversation, by fellow street artist Thierry Noir. They stand, relocated and repurposed, as part of the newly opened Migration Museum, beautifully anomalous in this late ’70s south London shopping plaza.
“The Berlin wall is the most powerful and infamous symbol of a physical divide – a barrier, a boundary,” says the museum’s head of communications, Matthew Plowright, who helped oversee its move from Vauxhall to this retail space previously occupied by H&M. “People walk past and go: ‘Bits of the Berlin Wall? Really? What’s it doing in the middle of Lewisham Shopping Centre?’ It’s the start of a conversation.”
The Migration Museum and the slabs of history placed outside its open-fronted space represent a reimagining of shopping centre space being replicated across the country. Town centre retail faces widespread and structural challenges: the growth of online shopping, historically high business rates and occupancy costs, political and economic uncertainly, and high vacancy rates. Now add COVID-19 social distancing to the list.
“What’s happening in retail is a once-in-a-generation structural change. It’s brutal, but if we approach it in the right way, with the help of the government, it could be one of the most exciting times for urban renewal the UK”
Shopping centres remain a staple of British life: Wikipedia lists more than 430 shopping centres in the UK, excluding retail parks, and the recent Global Data report on the top 50 shopping centres found that more than a third of shoppers visited shopping centres at least twice a month – up from 2018’s numbers. Under-35s remain the most frequent visitors.
Lewisham Shopping Centre, which is owned by Landsec, ranks at 42 in Global Data’s list. “It’s a brilliant place for the museum to be,” says Plowright. “Everyone comes to a shopping centre. It’s a space for people from all backgrounds and there aren’t many places like that. We’ve had parents with young babies and older people on mobility scooters. We’ve had people who regularly visit galleries through to people who’ve never been into a museum. For us, that’s really powerful.”
The Migration Museum is not the first cultural or social organisation to see a shopping plaza as a prime location – and it is prime: the museum had 10,000 visitors in its first three weeks. A recent Twitter thread by Simon Stephens at the Museums Association revealed a range of curatorial uses elsewhere across the country, from Bristol Museum’s M Shed, which ran a pop-up in the Broad Walk Shopping Centre in Knowle to the half-termly pop-up museums in a vacant unit at the Highcross Shopping Centre in Leicester. More than 40,000 people visited The Fire Within exhibition, which took place across six spaces at the Galleries Wigan.
It’s not just museums. There are many inventive grassroots organisations making the most of shopping centre vacancies. South London arts groups have taken over an old furniture store in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon to run easy-access workshops and events and there is Butterfly, a new community dance studio in the Ellandi-owned Swan Centre in Eastleigh, Hampshire.
“Metquarter is absolutely ideal for us. Not only is it right in the heart of the city centre, but the building itself gives us a lot of freedom”
Meanwhile, Liverpool media, music and performing arts institution LMA, which is co-owned by singer Robbie Williams, is set to expand with a brand new state-of-the art campus in the city’s Metquarter shopping centre. LMA will invest more than £15m to convert 50,000 square feet into film studios, dance studios, music rehearsal rooms, classrooms and recording studios.
Richard Wallace, who created LMA with brother Simon in 2008, says: “We’ve been working for some time to find the perfect location in the city centre that would house our world-class facilities for students and staff, and Metquarter is absolutely ideal for us. Not only is it right in the heart of the city centre, but the building itself gives us a lot of freedom to create a unique learning space where our students can study and hone their craft. There is a lot of potential for what we can do at the site.”
Ellandi is one of the UK’s largest investors in towns and shopping centres, owning 29 centres across the country that receive 160 million visitors each year. Director and co-founder Mark Robinson is enthusiastic about both shopping centres’ potential in the face of sobering structural challenges and how Ellandi has been putting GP surgeries, clinics and co-working hubs into its spaces. One of its centres now has a digital innovation lab, created in collaboration with Gloucestershire Local Enterprise Partnership, and the company is looking at cinemas and residential options in other locations.
“People want to be in our town centres but they don’t necessarily want to be there to shop,” he says. “They want to live, work and play there, and that’s a great opportunity to reinvigorate our town centres by putting those uses back in – and of course it supports retail if you do that.”
Robinson adds that we’ll see more ‘de-malling’, citing Stretford Mall in south Manchester
He praises Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, which just bought its two local shopping centres. The council is decanting all the tenants of one centre into the other, so it can demolish the empty one to create a park that’s three times the size of Trafalgar Square. The development will connect the traditional high street to the river by putting a park over a dual carriageway.
“It’s an amazing scheme,” says Robinson. “It’s out there in terms of bold, brave work by a local authority.” Robinson adds that we’ll see more ‘de-malling’, citing Stretford Mall in south Manchester where the previous owner got planning permission to demolish a third of the shopping centre, taking one of the malls
away to put housing on it.
His background plays a role in Ellandi’s stated focus of creating community. “I was born in Hartlepool, I’ve lived in towns all over the country. My business partner is from Maesteg in south Wales. We’re not a couple of public-school hoorays running an investment business. We grew up in left-behind places and the role that town centres play in a wider community has always been very important to us.”
Retail and placemaking advocate Revo recently highlighted the role of councils in revitalising shopping centres. Revo’s research shows that the private sector has divested itself of £1.85bn in shopping centre assets since 2016, with local authorities picking up the greatest share – they have purchased one in five shopping centres at a cost of £775m in that time. Revo says local authorities are having to take the lead role in the planning, funding and delivering of new regeneration projects, and suggest this is an upward trend, with council investment in shopping centres reaching £1bn by the end of this year.
The Migration Museum is an example of a mutually beneficial setting for a cultural organisation and shopping centre stakeholders. “In the current climate, there are going to be occasions when shopping centres have vacant units,” says Plowright, “and clearly there are organisations seeking venues to stage things and reach audiences so it does seem like a good fit.”
Or, as Ellandi’s Mark Robinson puts it, it is about getting rid of excess capacity “and filling it with something that fulfils the societal or commercial need”.
He concludes: “What’s happening in retail is a once-in-a-generation structural change. It’s brutal, but if we approach it in the right way, with the help of the government, it could be one of the most exciting times for urban renewal the UK has seen. Bob Kerslake, the former head of the civil service, has been talking about the scale that’s required to sort out the challenges in our towns and cities across the country. He likened it to the reunification of Germany after the wall fell down. That cost €1.7tn (£1.5tn).”
Emma Warren is a journalist and author who has been documenting culture since the mid-1990s when her friends started influential magazine Jockey Slut. Warren worked on staff at The Face as clubs and ‘Hype’ editor, and as The Fader’s editor-at-large. Warren’s recent book, Make Some Space: Tuning into Total Refreshment Centre, chronicles the role of the built environment in the emergence of the London jazz scene