What future for department stores?

When the first department stores opened in Paris and the United States at the end of the 19th century, they were unlike anything that had been seen. There were cafes, restaurants and smoking rooms, fountains and winter gardens, luxuries that guests could browse without being disturbed by the staff. There was even a ladies bathroom: women could spend an entire day in the city in safety and without moral stigma. A glimpse into ways of life that were previously only accessible to the elite was now accessible to almost anyone who walked there.

It’s hard to reconcile all of this with the dying department stores now looming, unloved, in cities, towns and suburban malls. A stroll through central London will take you past the dead carcass of Debenhams on Oxford Street and the former Army & Navy in Victoria, which will soon close. Edinburgh lost Jenners. It may be even worse in the United States: struggling JC Penney has closed more than 160 stores, Neiman Marcus is grappling with bankruptcy and restructuring, and other once-powerful names are struggling. One estimate suggests that 800 U.S. department stores could close over the next five years, or about half of the total remaining in malls.

The retail pandemic apocalypse has been the subject of much writing, but what about the architectural losses? While Selfridges recently got a license to host weddings at its swashbuckling Edwardian Oxford Street headquarters, as well as experiment with pop-ups and open a vegan butcher shop, Marks and Spencer is demolishing some of its iconic stores and replacing them with mixed generics. use buildings that have little flair from the originals. Gems like the streamlined 1930s Debenhams in Taunton, southwest England, face an uncertain future. The trend seems to be abandoning these buildings: just as the world of retail has evolved, these cavernous carcasses would have to be cut down or gutted to make way for something else.

Is this the only option? In addition to being architecturally significant, these remarkable buildings are an incredible resource. They may be sorry now, but a myriad of fascinating futures are possible.

Take La Samaritaine in Paris, a large 70,000 m² complex of Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings in the first arrondissement, which opened in 1870 and has become one of the architectural wonders of its time. After a long and controversial redesign process, it will finally reopen later this year, wrapped in wavy translucent glass designed by Japanese architects SANAA. A luxury hotel, a renovated store and offices are part of the system; perhaps more surprisingly, it also includes 96 social housing units and a crèche – an impressive intervention in a sensitive historic site.

The grand staircase of La Samaritaine in Paris. The store opened in 1870 and became one of the architectural wonders of its time © Pierre-Olivier Deschamps, Agence VU

La Samaritaine in Paris, wrapped in a new corrugated glass facade

La Samaritaine will open later this year after a lengthy renovation, wrapped in an undulating glass facade © Takashi Homma

There are also more experimental possibilities. Kathryn Bishop of strategic consultancy The Future Laboratory reports on projects in which department stores have been converted into retirement homes or sheltered housing. The elderly community of Folkestone in Wayzata, Minnesota, is a former mall, its brick blocks providing a mock urbanity. “A lot of Americans over 55 don’t want suburban bungalows but sidewalks and shops,” she says. “We could see health and well-being much more integrated into the streets. ”

Another possibility is culture. Couldn’t empty business units become perfect spaces for art, theater, workshops? There are large windows for the studios and exhibitions, and deep floor plates for the galleries. Museums are careful not to be seen as exclusive – what better way to present their treasures to the public than on the shopping streets? Or maybe spaces in less residential areas could turn into nightclubs, which have been shut down by the pandemic. After all, nightlife always appropriates spaces designed for other uses.

What was wrong with traditional department stores in western cities? It seems obvious to blame the huge growth in online shopping – accelerated by the pandemic – but Vicki Howard, an academic at the University of Essex and author of From Main Street to the Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store, identifies a longer, more desolate story. It dates back to the end of the 20th century, when debt expansion allowed big retail players to swallow local brands, creating identity stores that were a shadow of them- same.

“Businesses took every opportunity to get rid of the expensive amenities that made them luxurious – service, staff training,” she says. “Then they spread to the suburbs, where they built windowless boxes, thus maximizing floor and display space in the middle of a parking lot. The materials they used did not stand the test of time and they ended up becoming linear malls.

Exterior view of the Whiteleys department store in 1984

Once one of London’s largest stores, Whiteleys in Bayswater (seen here in 1984) is being transformed into a mixed-use space with hotel, apartments, restaurants and shops © Getty Images

This shift from downtown areas has been faster in the United States, but it has not been entirely one-way, Howard adds: In the past decade, as downtown areas have become gentrified and revitalized, Abandoned shopping centers have also been redeveloped. Minnesota’s Mall of America, the country’s largest, filled some of its empty spaces with a large walk-in health clinic in 2019, a move that seems prophetic in light of Covid.

If the idea of ​​the department store itself is to endure, it is going to have to change. For some, this may mean focusing on luxury. The success of London’s Dover Street Market, created by Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo and her husband Adrian Joffe in Mayfair, set a model for the department store as an upscale and designer hangout, closer to ‘an art gallery. than a boutique and mixing streetwear and haute couture. Dover Street Markets have now materialized in places such as Tokyo, Beijing and LA. In New York City, Roman & Williams’ Lafayette Street store offers antiques, crafts, art, food and design in an upscale interior that has something of the crowded luxury of the biggest department stores in the world. Nineteenth century.

London-based architecture firm Sybarite is building a number of adventurous retail spaces in China, some redeveloped from older structures. Sybarite stores are reminiscent of Selfridges et al’s Golden Age ambition, if not aesthetics. Project for upscale store brand SKP-S brings sci-fi fantasy to central Beijing: ‘Martian zone’ showcases life-size model space vehicles, accommodation modules and immersive evocations of the Martian landscape ; its winding corridors look like something Star wars.

View of the futuristic facade of the SKP-S department store in Beijing

SKP-S, Designed by London Architectural Firm Sybarite, Brings Sci-Fi Whimsy to Beijing: “People Just Wanna Have Fun, Spend a Day Out and Instagram Fuck All,” Says Torquil McIntosh of Sybarite © Boris Shui / Sybarite

Sybarite co-founder Torquil McIntosh says Chinese consumers, once ridiculed for copying Western fashion, are now leading the way in retail. “The Chinese have figured out that people just want to have fun, spend a day outside and Instagram messes everything up,” he says. “Customers switch between their phones and the real world and come back every second. “

For other projects, the key will be the location. Bishop identifies a phenomenon that she describes as “small area stores”. While the past few decades have been dominated by suburban malls filled with huge DIY stores, home furnishings and discount hypermarkets, many of these businesses have tried to return to city centers – “even Ikea “, emphasizes Bishop. The fact that so many of us worked from home during the pandemic has had a revitalizing effect on local shopping streets, with workers going to stores and cafes near their homes. Stores and big brands may need to come to us rather than expecting us to go to them.

Empty stores are generally seen as an indicator of economic scourge, but, seen from another perspective, they are spaces of opportunity. It will take subtle changes in regulation and developer mindset – far from relying on leveraged global brands paying assured rents. It will also require the commitment of local authorities and communities, committed to keeping these distinctive and often historic structures on their streets. And it will need a new agile entrepreneurial spirit. Of course, department stores as we know them might not survive. But their future could be much more interesting.

Edwin Heathcote is the architecture and design critic of the FT

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