Monday, 3 February 2014

Blank looks at Debenhams in Oxford Street

A current makeover of Debenhams department store in Oxford Street involves overcladding the very dull 1960s elevations of a building described in the Pevsner guide as 'big and dispiriting' with a 'kinetic facade' of suspended aluminium panels, which are intended to ripple in the breeze.

When I walked past, there was drizzle but no breeze, and not much rippling going on - the effect was plain and static, rather than lively as indicated in the publicity - no doubt it will be better on a day that is both sunny and windy.

When a dull building that one has walked past many times has gone, it's hard to remember what it was like. The wonders of Street View (which the idle who use it for virtual site visits should always remember illustrates the recent past, not the present) show the old elevations of windows in vertical strips, alternating with strips of concrete cladding - pretty dispiriting even to a concrete enthusiast, and clearly a candidate for a makeover.

But while this project has given Debenhams a bit of bling, it's taken away the windows.  Was that such a good idea?  Many 1960s department stores that are even more dreary than the old-look Debenhams were built without windows altogether, but all of London's best stores, whether trad or modern - Harrods, Selfridges, Peter Jones - have elevations that are fully fenestrated.  Of course not much use is made of the windows, but that's not really the point - they are there just to give the illusion of the possibility of views in or out. From the outside it is generally not possible to tell whether they are used as 'real' windows or not, and I think that where you can see in through one or two windows, you are fooled into thinking you can see in through the rest. In fact, of course, windows don't generally afford much of a view into houses, flats or offices.

Windows at the upper levels make department stores into civilised, neighbourly city buildings.  You don't get sham windows on a retail park.

A city can take the odd store without windows - Birmingham's Selfridges is the highlight of an otherwise bland collection of retail buildings.  But Oxford Street has many big stores - what if they all followed suit? We know by now that form following function is not such a great precept.

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