Art-itecture of Shopping

The Art and Architecture of London’s Shops

shop_nobackgroudSome people like architecture; some people like shopping. Few think of the two things in the same breath. Yet, in most towns (and in London especially), many shops are housed in beautiful buildings, though shoppers rarely take this in.

Indeed, one of the least known pleasures of shopping is looking up at the façade above the shop window. Take Regent Street. Everyone has shopped there, but how many of us have looked at the architecture? Question: how many stores in Regent Street are constructed of stone? Answer: all of them!

It is worth walking down Regent Street and examining the splendid buildings that rise up majestically on either side. Start at Oxford Circus. Top Shop, H&M, Niketown, Benetton – are all housed in graciously curving buildings in Portland stone, with pilasters, lion-head sculptures and classical, pedimented windows.

Apple’s HQ is in a very elegant building (formerly Angelus Player-Pianos). Who has noticed the four generous key-stoned portals and, in the spandrels above, the splendid series of Venetian mosaics with coats-of-arms and the Lion of St Mark, celebrating the Doges Dandolo and Loredano?

Or, opposite, one of the most impressive buildings in the street. Like a vast Roman palazzo, with a broad curving upper façade, adorned with Ionic fluted columns, rows of obelisks with bronze ships and at the very top, above a noble acanthus frieze, the largest sculpture in London, a long stone relief, The Transfer of Goods to the Mother Country, with about 40 life-size sculpted figures, naked or dressed in Roman togas.

Further up, still on the east side, is the old Dickins & Jones building (1920), a great palazzo, monolithic, severe and linear, in a Greco-Egyptian style, with bronze tripod burners.

Round the corner is of course Liberty’s, a well-known Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts building. In 1924 this very English store was contructed by hand from the timbers of two old men-o’-war, HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. But have you inspected the bridge, built like the poop of a ship, with its lovely oriel window and three ogee arches, one containing a sculpture of St George and the Dragon?

Now that we have come not to scorn Revivalist styles (apart from architectural purists and aesthetic fuddy-duddies), even Oxford Street, mainly unloved and unlovable, offers some surprisingly winsome treats. On the corner of Harewood Place is an elegant stone building with elegant twin turrets with tall spires, redolent of Munich or Basel. Look at the façade over Swatch, next to Uniqlo: a handsome red-brick and cream stone building, embellished with lion masks and a pair of conch-shell niches, one housing a knight, the other his damsel.

Selfridge’s is of course the most imposing building on Oxford Street. It looks American – which is not surprising as it was built by an American retail baron, Gordon Selfridge, nd designed by Chicago architects in 1908.Shoppers stood agog when it opened, partly because of its unprecedented Brobdingnagian proportions and partly as it constituted a totally revolutionary retail concept. It is worth studying its monumental façade: the rows of colossal Ionic columns, the bronze figures and bas-reliefs, inspired by mythology and science, which were great interests of the founder.

In Bond Street (named after Sir Thomas Bond, treasurer to Queen Henrietta Maria), Asprey’s is a most attractive building – Sir Henry Irving, the great Victorian Shakespeare, once lived here. Gucci is in a superb, perfectly proportioned princely palazzo, with fluted pilasters, which any one of us would find a very acceptable place to have as our London residence.

Round the corner is Conduit Street (named after the conduit bringing fresh water from Bayswater). Who would have thought that the outré(e), idiosyncratic, Vivienne Westwood would have chosen such a conventional, perfectly symmetrical red-brick doll’s house of a building, with its five Ionic fluted columns, for her main shop?

The luggage shop, Mandarina Duck, and Bangladeshi Airlines are housed in exquisite neo-Gothic palais that you would expect to see in Bruges or Antwerp. Sedate old master paintings are to be found at John Mitchell Fine Art in Old Bond Street, but the tall, narrow building, painted in a lively lilac, has two very sexy life-size naked women adorning the third floor, which most clients fail to spot.

In Piccadilly (named after the Elizabethan ‘pickadills’ or lacy collars sold there), Cinq Sandwiches and Global Luggage should be proud to be in one of the most handsome buildings on the street – the former Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours, built in Portland stone, with its rows of swags and roundels containing sculpted busts of famous English artists by Onslow Ford. Hatchard’s and Fortnum & Mason’s look Georgian but date from the early 20th century.

The arcades are worth examining in detail: the Royal Arcade (1879) in Old Bond Street, the Piccadilly Arcade (1909), the Prince’s Arcade (1930), and the longest and oldest, the Burlington Arcade (1819).

I have taken as an example a fairly small sector of London, albeit one of the finest, but most cities offer a real surprise and a real treat to anyone prepared just to look up. Try it – it will make shopping an ever greater pleasure!

Terence Rodrigues

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  • Terence Rodrigues