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Saturday26 July 2014

Building Study

The Princess and the maze

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Developer Land Securities appointed Chapman Taylor, Panter Hudspith and Wilkinson Eyre to update a historic template at its Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter

Our notions of the mall are changing, as developers wave goodbye to monolithic enclosed boxes with showpiece atria. Exeter’s 39,000sq m Princesshay development — where the first shops at the southern edge of the site open this month — is emerging from behind the hoardings to offer an alternative vision. The layout feels positively medieval in comparison to your average modern shopping centre, with a warren of narrow streets, public squares, and houses above shops. Only one area is under a glazed canopy enclosure and the rest is open air, engendering a sense of being part of the wider community.

The original Princesshay shopping centre (named after Princess Elizabeth who opened it in 1949) was located directly next door to the city’s historic cathedral, carving through an area heavily bombed in the second world war. Some 50 years later, the original modernism-lite buildings had reached the end of their physical and economic lives. Land Securities’ original colossal vision for the site by BDG McColl, promoted in the late 1990s, was a hangover from an earlier, big box age.

Whether Land Securities took a visionary step under its own initiative, or its hand was forced, is debatable. But in 2001, after “extensive discussions” with Exeter City Council and English Heritage, the BDG scheme was shelved and a contrasting approach adopted.

In an attempt to engender a mix of architectural styles, three architectural practices were subsequently appointed to make the vision a reality. The practices are diverse bedfellows: Chapman Taylor as coordinating architect, subsequently novated to design-and-build contractor Robert McAlpine, while Panter Hudspith and Wilkinson Eyre worked up to the award of contract stage. Instead of one practice creating a masterplan and allotting sites to other designers, the vision for the site was created by the three architects working together.

“It has created a more organic and natural feel to the built environment,” says Graham Thompson, retail development manager for client Land Securities. “There are three different styles. They very much work together while retaining their own individual concepts and briefs.” Panter Hudspith partner Simon Hudspith adds: “Our shared aspiration was that instead of a mall, we were designing a bit of city.”

The £78 million scheme attempts to recreate a medieval city’s atmosphere, respecting Exeter’s dense grain. The cathedral “gateway” to the scheme even incorporates the ruins of 15th century Almshouses and a public square, both restored as part of the project.

The layout feels positively medieval, with its warrenof narrow streets, public squares and houses above the shops

 

“The masterplan is all about glimpsed views of the cathedral,” explains Thompson. According to Hudspith, providing uninterrupted views would have been “the wrong thing to do”. “We fought long and hard to keep the plan tight,” he said. “Historic towns have tight streets, that’s what gives them their character.”

While Princesshay contains units with big enough floorplates to keep major high street retailers happy (including a Debenhams department store and flagship Next), the overall scale is cosy. “The masterplan is all about sequential spaces, walking around corners and coming across views,” says Wilkinson Eyre associate Geoff Turner.

As well as contributing to the overall masterplan, each architect worked on a number of specific buildings within their allotted “zone”. Land Securities played to each architects’ strengths: Panter Hudspith, enjoying a reputation for dealing with difficult historic contexts, has dealt with the buildings nearest the cathedral in a contextual idiom of brick, masonry, pitched roofs and projecting bays. Chapman Taylor, with commercial know-how and experience in retail architecture, worked on the central retail core and glazed arcade. Wilkinson Eyre took on the northern end of the site, including the complex technical challenge of a landmark building (not shown on ground floor plan) incorporating a cavernous underground servicing yard, upper level car-parking and residential units, and a fringe of restaurant and retail units.

Visiting the partially completed site, the most striking aspect is its complexity. There’s none of the simplicity of a singular box containing shops. Instead, a large number of buildings and public spaces that work hard to deal with their context, which varies greatly across the site.

While the southern end needs to address the historic cathedral precinct, the eastern side rubs shoulders with the Roman City Wall. Along its western boundary, the scheme is located directly behind buildings fronting Exeter’s High Street while the northern edge is bounded by the curving Paris Street, providing an unglamorous modern context. A series of entry points around the site aim to make the project “permeable” and integrate it with the existing urban fabric.

This varying context has determined the massing of buildings across the site. The Wilkinson Eyre contribution at the northern end is a prominent statement incorporating an elliptical tower and steel cladding. “Our buildings could afford to be a lot more modern, our context is very different,” explains Turner. Structures at the cathedral end are generally smaller-scale, reflecting the surrounding pitched-roof vernacular.

Princesshay reflectsthe new retail agenda of regeneration, public space and integrationwith urban life

 

Adding to the complexity is a mix of uses, resulting in what the developer calls a “layered” approach that sees 122 residential units placed on top of the retail units, stand-alone pavilions housing restaurants plus the multi-storey car park. “Layering is important,” says Thompson. “It’s where this scheme radically differs from any other in the country.”

Individual buildings have also adopted the layered motif. Panter Hudspith’s glass-screened restaurant pavilion, on the southern boundary on the site, provides views through to the cathedral, filtered by screen-printed images derived from the cathedral’s Gothic windows and commissioned from an artist.

At the opposite end of the site, the Wilkinson Eyre-designed structures is partly clad in a double-layered skin of stainless-steel mesh that will provide a shimmering enclosure that still allows adequate ventilation to the multi-storey car park. But don’t think that by covering the car park in mesh, Wilkinson Eyre is embarrassed about it: a large picture window will provide views into the building. While the practice’s adjoining Next building does not utilize mesh, it plays with similar dynamic effects by using overlapping layers of stainless-steel cladding, similar to fish scales.

The mix of architects and architectural styles helps to break down the scale of the scheme. Debenhams, which at 12,000sq m is Panter Hudspith’s largest single building to date, looks less imposing thanks to the independent retail units occupying part of its ground floor, and apartments along its eastern flank. “We use the residential to screen the department store, which otherwise is an enormous lump,” says Hudspith. Including apartments into the scheme, he adds, “avoids acres of flat roofs with nothing on them.”

Working with a large number of mixed-use buildings within a multitude of contexts, there was a risk of producing an incoherent mess. But the palette of materials is limited, largely influenced by local materials such as red sandstone, render and brick. “You can have changes of material across the site, but if the palette becomes too broad, we were worried it would become too bitty,” adds Wilkinson Eyre’s Turner. The hard landscaping by Livingston Eyre Associates, using materials such as porphyry and blue-grey granite, plus a scheme-wide lighting scheme by BDP Lighting, further pull the spaces together.

Another clue to the fact that Princesshay isn’t your average retail scheme is the provision for 14 specialist independent shops to combat the “clone town” syndrome that afflicts many town centres. Combined with its links to the surrounding city, plus a range of cafes and restaurants a step up from the usual mall food courts, Princesshay should feel experientially different from conventional malls in rival centres such as Plymouth and Bristol.

In fact, the reference du jour is Plymouth’s recently completed (and much maligned) Drake Circus, a more familiar mix of glazed atria and marble floors, coincidentally designed by Chapman Taylor for client P&O Developments. Chronologically a year apart but conceptually divided by at least a decade, Princesshay represents the new retail agenda of regeneration, public space and integration with urban life. Princesshay has yet to prove itself, but on first impression it feels promisingly like a place to spend time as well as money.

Taking in the views

Paul Curtin, associate, Panter Hudspith

A central theme in the development of the language of the residential buildings on Chapel Street was the introduction of protruding boxes in a contrasting material. These boxes act as a frame for residential picture windows, framing views of the cathedral. The projecting bays appear to be extruded out of the building, and they also add extra space in the living rooms.

These boxes often protrude from roof level so the profiles are part of a family of details that were used on the roof edges. The over-hanging cedar-clad soffit detail is the same as on the bay windows; on some of the boxes the timber soffit folds down to become the external cladding of the boxes. These timber surrounds are constructed simply as a timber rainscreen system on top of the structural framing to the boxes.

The roofs are of a traditional ventilated zinc construction. We wanted to obtain a crisp finish around the perimeter, and so we used an elongated z-shaped aluminium pressing to achieve this.

On the window boxes, the pressed aluminium edges contrast with the cedar cladding.

We wanted to make the views as large as possible, so we avoided making the main windows openable. Instead we have opening ventilation slots on the smaller strip window. Rather than traditional glazed vents, the vents are often over-clad in timber or zinc. These details were developed with window manu-facturer Reynaers.

‘Retail is about building an engaging public realm’

Peter Cleary, head of retail development, Land Securities

In a world where consumers have more choice than ever, if people are going to exercise a choice for the city centre you have to deliver an experience. If you get it right, the public realm can be the facilitator that joins up all the other elements of a city.

Or at least, that’s what everyone’s talking about, but if you look around there aren’t many examples yet.

We completed White Friars in Canterbury in 2005, and Princesshay moves us one step further.

We have a major residential development, a focus on attracting independent retailers, and a catering offer that will operate later into the evening.

We’ve adopted a pluralistic approach to the architecture, and we’re very excited that the design is highly contemporary. It’s ambitious and confident design sitting side by side with a conservation area. Development is a process of continuous improve-ment, and as part of that you have to be prepared to innovate.

You get significant repayment on spending a lot of time at the front end of the project, and on the details. It’s given us the confidence to do things differently.

Timber: Raphael Contracting
Glazing: Saint Gobain/Solaglas
Brick-faced units: Techcrete
Aluminium windows: Reynaers Aluminium
Pre-cast concrete cladding on Debenhams: Techcrete
Curtain walling: Reynaers Aluminium
Metal work and balustrades: Boundary Metal
Zinc roofing: Corus Falzinc
Glass blocks: Roger Wilde

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