Oxford Street is famous as a shopping destination but nobody really likes it there. We look at how the redevelopment will change this world renowned location, and also why now is the perfect time to give Oxford Street a makeover
Since the mid-20th century Oxford Street has developed something of a split personality. While its upmarket western end has Selfridges, House of Fraser and Marble Arch, its eastern end is chiefly defined by temporary lettings, discount souvenirs and Centre Point. Even the thoroughfare’s famous Christmas illuminations endorse the disparity with the eastern half normally decked out in a more meagre imitation of the decorative extravaganzas that traditionally emblazon the west. But all that is about to change.
Crossrail has been the catalyst that has unleashed Oxford Street’s biggest wave of development since the thirties. Tottenham Court Road station is being transformed, and with it, a new shared surface plaza will eventually inhabit St Giles Circus. Maligned since the sixties by a horrendous traffic layout, (it is the worst pedestrian accident black-spot in central London), St Giles Circus has been rendered culturally invisible to many Londoners by Transport for London’s historic refusal to rename Tottenham Court Road station more accurately after it.
However, with the anticipated replacement of the iconic Astoria Theatre and ambitious plans to erect a Piccadilly Circus-esque digital screen here, St Giles Circus finally promises to become a cosmopolitan destination in its own right. It will also hopefully prove a worthy urban gateway to the eastern end of Oxford Street and provide a powerful symbol of the area’s civic revival.
After having conquered the western end of Oxford Street, Primark plans to redevelop the Art Deco former flagship Virgin Megastore by opening another mammoth retail emporium at the eastern end. This will be joined by further Crossrail related commercial developments at Dean Street and One Oxford Street. Even in the years just preceding these proposals, the eastern end of Oxford Street bore witness to a new emerging breed of dynamic contemporary buildings.
357 Oxford Street, with its sequinned facade of matte black diamante bays sets the tone for decadent architectural bling that all stores on Oxford Street secretly aspire to. And Amanda Levete’s stunning 10 Hills Place nearby provides a sculptural and surreal miasma of shimmering, sensuous curves and myopically reflective surfaces. With their pristine crystalline facades, both buildings perfectly embody, like Centre Point did a generation before them, the lust for conspicuous consumerism on which Oxford Street thrives.
Not to be outdone, the western end of Oxford Street too is in the grip of a major revamp. Crossrail related developments are again set to rise around Bond Street station and construction is due start on the monster Park House scheme after it was mothballed due to the recession. But the emphasis of development activity on the east is significant and clearly marks a welcome strategic attempt to revitalise the street in its entirety and not in pockets of isolation.
However, while the prospects for commercial development look healthy, there is still much to be done to improve Oxford Street’s public realm. The opening of Atkins’ fantastic diagonal crossing at Oxford Circus last year marks a step in the right direction and eloquently proves that the most effective urban design measures are often the simplest.
Nevertheless, in the minds of many, Oxford Street still maintains a reputation for overcrowded pavements, gridlocked traffic and a sporadically inhospitable pedestrian environment. With well over 200 million visitors a year, Oxford Street is the busiest shopping street in Europe and one of the most congested thoroughfares in the world. However, although this wields obvious economic and prestige benefits, it also presents a host of urban and environmental problems.
Pedestrianisation has long been cited as a potential cure. However, although the traffic-free days that have been implanted at various times at Oxford Street since 2004 have proved a resounding success, the fact remains that at present, permanent pedestrianisation of Oxford Street would simply not work.
Outbursts of antisocial misbehaviour aside, in urban design terms pedestrianisation has undoubtedly been a huge success at other West End locations such as Leicester Square, Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square. Furthermore, in a city that generally remains belligerent in its disproportionate prioritisation of the car over the pedestrian, pedestrianisation holds the promise of a more equitable public realm.
However, pedestrianisation works at the aforementioned locations due to the fact that the urban conditions are right. In other words, they have the amenities, be they leisure or civic, to sustain an active and welcoming urban environment at all times of the day. As long as Oxford Street retains its mono-cultural reliance on retail, once the shops close and night falls, pedestrianisation would turn it into a vast deserted canyon.
A more incremental but sustained urban design approach that involves wider pavements, tree-planting, co-ordinated street furniture and, where appropriate, partial pedestrianisation in the form of shared surfaces and raised kerbs would be a far more realistic and workable solution.
The reduction of traffic levels in Oxford Street would also have a hugely positive effect on its public realm. The overwhelming majority of visitors to Oxford Street arrive by public transport. While this is an undeniably laudable statistic, it has become a victim of its own success with the roadway frequently jammed by a stationary phalanx of red buses.
In response, since 2009 Transport for London has reduced bus flow in Oxford Street by 10%. More radical measures such as the replacement of buses with a tram or rapid transit system have been shelved for the time being. But resolving the issue of traffic flow is fundamental to Oxford Street’s economic success and its desirability as a pedestrian destination. The solution will require a finely balanced compromise between the enormous benefits of high public transport accessibility and the potentially detrimental impact this can have on the urban environment.
The final cog in Oxford Street’s wheel is what should be its grand western gateway, Marble Arch. However, since the current gyratory was brutally imposed here in the sixties, Marble Arch hasn’t been much of a gateway to anything and John Nash’s elegant screen has been severed from both Hyde Park and Oxford Street by a swirling sea of tarmac. Here is one location desperately in need of an ambitious masterplan that involves greater pedestrianisation and radically reorganised traffic movement. Until this happens, then no revamp of Oxford Street, commercial, urban or otherwise, can either be convincing or complete.
The tide of redevelopment Oxford Street is witnessing is nothing new. Rampant commercial expansion has been hard-wired into Oxford Street’s DNA since it first asserted itself as a major retail hub in the 19th century. When James Wyatt’s spectacular neo-classical Pantheon - once London’s foremost entertainment hall - was torn down in 1937 and replaced with the M&S store that stands there now, it was no wanton act of architectural vandalism but a natural step in Oxford Street’s single-minded mission to become Britain’s premier shopping destination.
It is no accident therefore that current commercial activity coincides with the biggest threat to that status to date: Westfield. When Westfield Stratford City opens in September, Oxford Street will be sandwiched between Europe’s two biggest inner-city shopping centres on either end. This will provide shoppers with a very clear cultural choice: the hermetic and controlled environment offered by what is essentially an American mass retail concept or the spontaneity and variety of an iconic street that at its core is a super-sized, genetically modified flagship version of the thousands of British high streets found up and down the land.
However, Oxford Street has a secret weapon up its sleeve that no shopping centre can ever emulate: urban character. If this is enhanced not by commercial redevelopment alone but by a committed, strategic plan to enrich pedestrian experience and revitalise public realm, then Oxford Street need have nothing to fear from the new pretenders to its throne.
This article orginally appeared in a shorterned form as part of the article “Oxford street goes shopping”