Herbert Wright hopes design can save the high street

Sadly for the bricks-and-mortar retail environment, drones don’t suffer from the Gruen Transfer. Named after Victor Gruen, who made his name designing swanky Manhattan shops before inventing the suburban shopping mall in the 1950s, the Transfer is the shopper’s moment of sudden disorientation, leaving the subject vulnerable to impulse buying. Amazon’s online video about its Prime Air Service shows a small drone flying an order from a warehouse to the suburbs. It doesn’t get disorientated, but nor does it hang around for a signature or even check anyone’s in before it dumps the package outside a house. It certainly doesn’t seem prepared to hover at the doorbell like a Jehovah’s Witness.

Drop-and-go won’t do in the real world. Secure drone delivery bays may emerge, accessible with a code, looking like tropical air conditioning units. The cityscape will alter. Each evening, distribution buildings will release flocks of drones, like bats from caves. It’s another step in the rise of online retail, where 10% of UK shopping spend already goes, and increases at double-digit rates. We worry about chain stores turning high streets into ‘clone towns’, but the big story is online vs. shops. Some shops are already collection points for online orders, sometimes with interactive screens instead of windows that enable orders as well as displaying goods – eBay pioneered that last summer in New York. But death stalks shops. John Mac­Aslan and Partners responded to the Tottenham riots by setting up a design studio in an empty shop there, offering work placements to one of the UK’s most deprived communities. It’s a start.

The good news is that shops can do plenty the internet can’t: demonstration zones, product support desks, and fresh engaging floorwalkers (whoops, I mean experts) with crazy hair, wireless headsets and iPads. Oh, hold on, that’s the Apple Store. But why not extend such concepts to all goods, even other fruits? Demonstrating how to eat five a day would be a great community service. Shops need to be destination in their own right, getting people to linger. Serve them coffee. Surround them with mirrors to effect a Gruen Transfer. Bring in the architects.

Great department stores like Harrods or Selfridges once dominated their built surroundings with the confidence of cathedrals – they can still transform a place

After all, architecture’s taken retail a long way from covered markets or a smithy’s frontage. Today’s retail heights, like say Tokyo’s shopping boulevard Omotesando, with its parade of flagship stores by Tadao Ando, Toyo Ito, Kengo Kuma, SANAA, MVRDV and Herzog & de Meuron, are a different world. Great department stores like Harrods or Selfridges in London once dominated their built surroundings with the confidence of cathedrals, and they can still transform a place – witness Future Systems’ Birmingham Selfridges. It may be easy to scoff at shopping malls, but who would have thought London’s Burlington Arcade, designed by Samuel Ware in 1819 would evolve, via Gruen, to planetary super-modernity, with all its tack and transfat outlets? Retail has even redefined skylines. Two of the world’s once-tallest skyscrapers were built by retail empires – New York’s Woolworth Building (1913) and Chicago’s Sears (now Willis) Tower (1973).

E-commerce giants can’t match such heights. Amazon’s next Seattle base of office towers around three hybrid office/biodomes does try. The same architect, NBBJ, also designed Google’s proposed Bay Area ‘campus’, an ensemble of angular groundscrapers, not unlike the existing Hangzhou HQ of the world’s biggest e-marketeer, Alibaba, by Australian architect Hassel. Perhaps Apple’s Campus 2  will be the masterpiece: a Foster-designed 464m-diameter, $5 billion donut in Cupertino. To facilitate collaboration, Apple wanted a walkable building. But in a ring that big, iWorkers should beware of an old gremlin returning... the Gruen Transfer. 

Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic

Pop appeal

'Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?’ asked British artist Richard Hamilton in the title of his seminal 1956 Pop montage, which playfully and provocatively questioned modernity. Hamilton’s subjects were often newsy, but sometimes he covered architecture and design: he had a classical painter’s mastery of space and made installations. Architects especially could learn from this month’s Hamilton exhibitions at Tate Modern and the ICA.