Ruth Ramsden’s perceptive appraisal of the role and design of the shopping centre by way of Watford’s latest example, netted her third place in the RIBAJ/Future Architects writing competition
The redevelopment of Charter Place by Leslie Jones Architecture is the £100 million extension to a shopping centre and forms the centrepiece of the proposed multi-phase regeneration of Watford, a commuter-belt town that has never really had much of an identity of its own. Initially benefitting from being a convenient stop on the way out of London, it experienced rapid growth in the early 1800s with the arrival of the railway. It is within the M25 but outside London, in Hertfordshire but has little in common with the leafy towns in the rest of the county. Watford is defined by being in-between, the place to ford the water, to go through but not stay.
Watford is based around the shopping centre that this redevelopment extends. The planners have sought to carve out a raison-d'etre for the town by turning it into a retail and entertainment hub, featuring over 140 shops and plenty of new restaurants across the cavernous hall of the new building and its adjacent parent shopping centre, the Intu. To give the area its due, Watford is a genuinely great place to visit if you are looking for a chain store, a chain restaurant in the dreaded fast-casual sector, or to watch a film at a chain cinema – the branding of which looms over the centre redevelopment like a capitalistic Eye of Sauron.
Charter Place now has a facade of spiky gabled roofs that look on to the high street. They are simultaneously reminiscent of a Burger King crown and the model of an over-enthusiastic architectural first year, who, short of ideas, went on a wild, coffee-fuelled cardboard-folding rampage around the studio. Between the zig-zag lines of the new shop fronts, you enter the main plaza, where you will find the aforementioned cinema and a collection of shops looking into a vast void. It is appropriate that a void forms the heart of this building, as it is so utterly devoid of ideas, character, fun or humanity. The plaza is topped by a roof that looks like it was designed by someone who visited the British Museum, did some sketches of Norman Foster’s roof and then preceded to miss the point entirely. It finishes awkwardly over the entrance, unsure what to do with itself at the edges.
The plan reveals the inner workings of those chain stores with their glossy branding. They are connected by a series of service corridors which lead into pokey little storerooms that feed the shop floors. These are the in-between spaces of this in-between town, that provide the routes for those people who are all too often forgotten, the cleaners, the security guards and the shop assistants. These people all too often spend their lives in the dark. In the winter, they will arrive in the early morning darkness, entering through windowless service entrances, to spend all day in the depths of the shop, breaking for a quick sandwich eaten while sitting on a box in the back of the storeroom, then they will leave in the dark after a hard day’s work. Could the £100 million of this redevelopment not have stretched to a communal staff area with maybe a window or two?
Perhaps the most interesting choice here was the decision to build it at all. In an era of internet shopping and half empty highstreets, surely the shopping centre has become old fashioned? The original mall in Watford was a purpose-built retail palace officially opened in 1992, but in 2020 there are more than a few empty units. Among the units that have remained in use there has been a transformation from places of retail to destinations for experience. There is a climbing wall, a room of table-tennis tables and over-sized chess boards, linked by mini-train. The big name shop of Charter Place was supposed to be Debenhams, a decision that was probably made before the announcement of the brand’s financial troubles. Without the shops, all that is left is a very expensive cinema and a poorly-reviewed bowling alley.
It would seem that Charter Place has not been built to a human scale. The space itself is vast but has none of the inspiring qualities of a cathedral. It harbours chain stores which are enormous companies with huge supply chains and a head office which is very far removed from the dark facilities that the ordinary workers have to use. The materials used are shiny, cold and overwhelmingly grey. There is a bright red wall, which was perhaps an attempt at incorporating the town’s colours of yellow and red. Good architecture has thought lavished on the detail. Perhaps difficult to do at this scale, although Heatherwick managed it with his Coal Drops Yard in London, which speaks of railways, industry, ambition and, above all, King’s Cross. What does Charter Place say about Watford? The town has never had much of an identity and this soulless development will not help.
Ruth Ramsden is a Part 3 student at the University of Brighton