​Phil Wren: "If we start treating retail more seriously the shopping malls would change as well"

A British department store guru’s view on Moscow retail — in the city centre, on the periphery and in-between.

Photo: Ivan Erofeev

Phil Wren is an architect who has spent the last 25 years designing retail spaces. He led the transformation of neglected pseudo-Victorian style stores in Bolton into new centres of social activity and turned a former bus depot into a shopping centre. This time he visited Moscow to advise local architects on the development of city streets, finding the time to take a 7-hour walk around Bibirevo, Maryina Roscha and Kropotkinskaya tube station, looking at the state of street retail. Strelka Magazine asked Phil to share his impressions of Moscow, the recipe for perfect retail space design, and reflections on how shopping centres have changed in the last 30 years.

— Have you really been to Bibirevo? What are your impressions?

— Yes, it was an extraordinary trip. My impressions are mainly positive — a lot of people live and actually spend time there. The local issues — those are typical of periphery in any city: places that all look the same, lack an identity. As for retail, I think there exist far too many constraints — not having enough money to invest into a nice shop, the need to receive permits. So instead a kind of guerilla retail emerges — people just setting up shops in little places.

It’s really about retail as amenity rather than retail as a commercial necessity or a life necessity.

And then my other impression is that there’s not a lot of care taken about what things look like. From retail point of view it should be about making places where people want to go to rather than have to go to. So a part of our challenge is to try and create a framework whereby retail can become more responsive to people’s needs. Help to create that missing sense of identity.

Photo: wrenarchitecture.com
Render: wrenarchitecture.com
Render: wrenarchitecture.com
Photo: wrenarchitecture.com

— And how can we achieve that?

— Identity is all about places, and places are created by people. The main difficulty though is the fact that there’s not a lot of history beyond 1950s-1940s from which you can draw an identity.

As a part of our consultations we inspected every part of Moscow, went from the outskirts through the middle and to the center. The challenges in the outskirts are greater, more fundamental than the challenges in the center. What we see has been typical throughout the development of retail in Central and Eastern Europe for the last 25 years: big shopping malls appearing on the periphery that at first seems like a convenient solution, attracting big investors, but in the long run doesn’t actually contribute to the sense of place.

Retail hates steps in general.

It’s really about retail as amenity rather than retail as a commercial necessity or a life necessity. Retail is a huge part of human existence — people always need to trade and people always want to buy. At the marketplace we often see little people, like that lady with an umbrella selling magazines whom I encountered just the other day on a Moscow street. Struggling and trying to make a living. She’s not contributing greatly to the landscape, but she’s part of the solution, as well as of the problem.

Render: wrenarchitecture.com
Illutration: wrenarchitecture.com
Photo: wrenarchitecture.com
Render: wrenarchitecture.co
Render: wrenarchitecture.com

— So, we should encourage her?

— Yes, she should be encouraged. The issue is finding her an appropriate place, an appropriate kiosk, so it’s not just her and her umbrella, with all her goods in plastic bags. Supporting this type of trade would also mean ensuring that people communicate with each other. This in turn would lead to a stronger sense of place and belonging, a sense of local pride among neighbours. We should feel happy about where we are living. Good neighbourhood retail is about encouraging local people to set up shops, to form relationships — it’s part of the social fabric whereas a shopping mall is much more self-contained. But don’t get me wrong — I’m not against shopping malls, not at all.

— But aren’t shopping malls destroying the local trade?

— Well, to a certain degree that will evolve and history shows it has evolved and there’s a trajectory. I myself become bored going to the shopping mall, I want something a bit more unique, a bit more special. So, that’s what happening in Western Europe right now — people are moving away from shopping malls to local or to more crafted retail. Which of course creates the inevitable problem: what are we going to do with the old shopping centres?

— And what were your impressions of Oktyabrskaya and Trifonovskaya streets located in the middle between the city centre and the periphery?

— I find that the retail that has developed within those streets ‒ it’s more constrained in quality space and I also get the feeling that there’s slightly more disposable income there. You can see that there’s a bit more activity in some of the retail, a couple of coffee bars. But the design is still mostly disappointing. I noticed some really silly things like you have to walk up three steps to go into the shop and the rule is that at the most basic level you should never introduce barrier steps, because you can’t get a buggy in and it’s difficult for elderly people as well. Retail hates steps in general. But that’s really a part of this bigger problem of squeezing the retail into the ground floors of the residential units. The residential units have always been raised up, the ceiling heights are really low, around 2.7 metres — they were never supposed to be retail space.

Photo: Strelka Institute
Photo: Nicolas Mirguet / Flickr.com
Photo: anton Akimov / Invisible cities
Photo: Strelka Institute

The other problem that I’ve encountered in many places in Moscow is that you can’t see into the retail because people put blackouts on the windows. You can’t tell what’s going on in there. Why do you do that? Successful retail is always about being able to see in and out. Even from a kind of personal safety point of view, if you can see in and out, the street feels a bit safer and inside feels a bit safer. So, I think, there are some design guidelines to be implemented in the middle, which is really about presentation. In the periphery it’s of course more than just presentation, but in the middle it’s primarily that and access improvement.

— And what about the city centre?

— In the very centre, I think, it’s more an issue of creating a better pedestrian environment. The buildings in Moscow are largely very elegant and, I imagine, protected structures. The main issue is level access. The pavement is usually already rather narrow— approximately 1-2 meters wide — and those steps leading to the shops that I talked about earlier take up some more space which makes the situation even worse. You need to give space back to the pedestrians and you need to develop design guidelines for signage in the centre, which controls how you present branding and also guidelines for new developments there. All new retail should be accessible, permeable and contributing to the pedestrian experience.

— So to sum it up: the secret of quality retail is accessibility?

— Yes, accessibility, permeability, transparency, good quality branding, good quality signage and good volumes. It’s about accommodating the special and the unique and it’s about fitting it into this place. For me bars and cafes are retail. It’s quite interesting when you analyse where the guerrilla retail happens. I mean those people analyse where the footfall is, they analyse where the people are. It’s just that they don’t have money. It’s very important to do retail in the right places. Pick the wrong place and it will fail. And it’s also about creating that sense of place.

— And can it all be measured?

— Yes. I mean, they’re not formulas, it’s just norms. In Western Europe at the moment people are moving away from big supermarkets and into local shops. The big car destinations — the malls — are really suffering right now. In fact, Tesco’s recently announced that they will not be building any more new supermarkets. They’re selling off all the sites. People are moving away from that big one week or every two week destination shop and switch to the local daily or twice weekly shopping. They might be still going to Tesco Metro — the same brand — but at least this situation is helping to stimulate life in the neighborhoods. My wife is French and whenever we get to France, we go to the local market where all the people gather together. We know almost everyone there and it’s a real social event as well as a pleasure. So, I suppose that’s the secret of quality retail.

— Do you think that abandoning of big malls will become a big problem for architecture and urban design?

— Yes, I do. Most of the work in the UK right now is looking for ways of reengineering malls that were built 30 years ago. In the 1980s they were between 15 to 30 thousand square metres. Today they are 100-250 thousand. And the other interesting issue is the impact of online sales. So, many of the big brands, fashion brands, in particular, are no longer interested in going into mid-sized towns and small cities, because they can easily reach them online. They still want to have retail representation in the big cities, which is essentially a brand showcase. I don’t think it’s a challenge for the mega malls yet. But the situation with mega supermarkets is already an indicator.

The profession retail has always been considered rather low-brow.

There are quite many abandoned malls in the UK now and that’s a real financial problem, because there are people’s pension funds invested in the malls and they’re not functioning anymore, so it does lead to result. What we’re doing in Bolton, for example, is we’re bringing in a cinema, we’re bringing in restaurants, we’re extending the opening hours from 9 till 6 to 9 till 12 at midnight.

— Does it mean that the conception of retail and entertainment has changed in the last 25 years?

— Absolutely. 25 years ago retail and entertainment were separated. There were developers who did retail and developers who did entertainment. Then someone thought it was a good idea to bring cinema in. And now what we’re finding is that people spend more on dining out than they ever did before — that kind of recalibrates retail to food and beverage. Restaurants have traditionally paid less than retails in terms of rent. But now they’re much closer together — a cluster or sequence of restaurants. If you ask me how long this food and beverage phase will last ‒ I don’t know. These things always change.

Photo: kishjar? / Flickr.com
Photo: lvinst / Istockphoto.com
Photo: TonyBaggett / Istockphoto.com
Photo: kishjar? / Flickr.com

— Have you ever felt any prejudice towards your profession? Right now it seems that everyone prefers social architecture.

— Certainly, from within the profession retail has always been considered rather low-brow. But you see it’s exactly because people haven’t taken retail seriously that a lot of the shopping malls end up looking like they do. There’s the influence of America in it as well — the idea of a shopping mall as an artificial environment. But retail environments can and should be authentic. Then the other thing we often witness today is the creation of fake authenticity — a decent place made look really shabby at huge expense — the so-called ‘shabby chic’. In the UK right now all the retail is put in concrete, exposed brick or brick wallpaper ‒ that sort of thing thing. I remember 20 years ago suggesting that to one of my clients and they said “No, we can’t do that, people will know that it’s fake”. So, I think it just goes in circles and I don’t know what’s the next one’s gonna be.

— You have been designing retail spaces for more than 30 years. What has kept you in the profession for so long?

— I guess the fact that I have some expertise and people keep asking me to do it. When you’re in the profession, if you become a residential architect for example ‒ that’s tensely what you do. I was never really drawn to designing offices, that’s rather boring to do, unless it’s interiors. My prime interest is in creating places for people and that’s why I enjoy doing retail.

The interview was taken by Marina Antsiperova

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