The Big Blue

The Lend Lease team’s vision for Bluewater is driven by an almost evangelical zeal. Everything it says exudes commitment and belief. I sincerely hope it achieves its aim; a wonderful retail and leisure utopia focused on the needs, comforts and enjoyment of their visitors or “guests”, all wrapped up in an environment that is real rather than fantasy, with an irresistible sense of place. A shopping centre with magnificent architecture? Fantastic!

This developer’s vision goes beyond making a quick buck – probably because it plans to retain an investment interest in the project once it is up and running. Lend Lease seems passionately intent on creating something different, something that transcends the big-box-in the-middle-of-a-motorway philosophy which has dominated so much retail design in recent years. It is equally refreshing that unlike many hardened shopping centre developers which pay lip service to design, Lend Lease appears to understand the value of an integrated, innovative design philosophy. Its vision for success is people-based, customer-led and research-dominated. But the rhetoric it uses to describe how it will turn its vision into reality has a design focus. All good stuff.

The fact that Lend Lease has a vision that goes beyond money and embraces innovation and design quality at its core, bodes well for the visitor to Bluewater. Developer Olympia & York, where I was retail design manager, had a similar philosophy when developing the retail areas at Canary Wharf almost ten years ago. But from that experience, I know that taking such a singular vision from inception through to reality is hard work and often frustrating. The compromises that loom as the project fills out invariably push the vision to its limits, and the external influences that are brought to bear on the project will always tend towards the lowest common denominator and the easiest solution.

I could write copiously about practical ways of controlling design quality in a retail environment, of tools that ensure individual character and quality of design are both exploited: variable lease lines and shop-front lines to encourage diversity; graphic models; the pitfalls of theming; the importance of merchandise mixing, and mixing retail with catering; the daily coordination of tenants’ design ideas, and the overall centre’s design; and enforceable tenant guidelines, and hands-on centre management. All are valid – some are vital – if the smooth implementation and continuation of a rigorous design approach is to succeed. However, I believe there is only one issue that really affects whether a vision with design at its core can be implemented, and that is the attitude of those involved in the project.

To be successful, everyone – and I mean everyone – must understand and share the long-term vision. This doesn’t just mean the development team, but also outsiders, many of whom will think they already know how to “do” a shopping centre: the leasing team, potential investors, the various designers (of the centre and of the units), tenants, and even the facilities managers. Most of these (designers excepted, I hope) are sceptical about the true value of integrated design. Therefore, if design quality in its broadest sense is to be a significant factor, most of these individuals will need convincing that the inclusion of design in their working consciousness really can add value. They will all need to be persuaded to work that little bit harder if they are really to innovate and to maximise the value of design.

Sadly, in my experience, innovation and an understanding of design does not come naturally to many leasing teams, or to many corporate, City-led, high street retailers for that matter. Yet, without their cooperation, the vision will be severely compromised. In the past, designers have tried to force design integrity on to this often unreceptive audience. Stringent tenant handbooks have been written, which prescribe details, finishes, layouts and even graphics and merchandising in an attempt to create a cohesive design story. This doesn’t work – unless the retailer creates the design of its store, it will inevitably want to change it. More to the point, unless the tenant handbook is part of the lease agreement and is actively enforced in lease negotiations, not to mention the subsequent management of the centre and future rent reviews, most tenants will only pay lip service to the design intent for the centre and focus instead on their own brand image – within six months of trading the centre will descend into a visual bedlam… just look at your average high street.

Other attempts to force design issues have been even more draconian, to the point of providing tenants with ready fitted-out units, shop fronts, signs, lights and the like. But this doesn’t work either – the end result is invariably lacklustre and monotonous.

The only sure-fire way of achieving innovation and design integrity in a retail centre is to persuade tenants to rise to the challenge and create something innovative and design-aware.

So how can design integrity be made to flow through a retail centre with a passion usually reserved for making profit? The key lies in that word: profit. Few of the people listed earlier are interested in design for design’s sake – and why should they be? If, however, a rigorous design-led philosophy can be seen to attract more customers to the centre, or to make people stay longer, or to encourage customer loyalty, then you might have a convincing argument for even the most cynical operator. The difficulty is that, however logical it may seem to you and me, hard evidence to support such a hypothesis is not readily available. Most evidence is anecdotal and is easily dismissed, especially as extra money must be spent up-front, to gain the extra goodies promised further on down the line by value-adding design.

That said, consumer research which probes the needs, aspirations, likes and dislikes of the potential customer can be used to create a good argument for design, and I believe Lend Lease has done just that at Bluewater. The developer’s seductive marketing documents promote the “Bluewater Way”, a process founded on customer research, developed with innovation, and implemented through design to create The Vision. Through sheer force of personality and a strategic plan based on research and logic, the team has attacked the traditionalists using almost evangelical zeal to convince the world to try a hand in the Bluewater game of innovation and good design.

By all accounts it is succeeding. Leading by example in the design of the centre itself (architect Eric Kuhne has never designed a retail centre before, which must be a step in the right direction for a developer searching for innovation), and then demanding and getting innovative design solutions from the tenants – not by force but by persuasion and enthusiasm.

Sounds good, and I suspect it is the only way to succeed in delivering a vision such as Land Lease’s. But no one should underestimate the effort and time spent persuading, or the money required to carry all those disbelievers along – to make them perform, enthuse and finally believe. But, unless they do, the vision will inevitably slip towards the lowest common denominator.

Jacky Hyams reports on the design philosophy guiding the look and feel of the Bluewater complex.

On the site of a former chalk quarry lies the long-awaited Bluewater. But will US architect Eric Kuhne and Australian developer Lend Lease’s 700m venture at Dartford – Europe’s biggest retail and leisure complex – prove to be the best? And will its design standards win awards and plaudits in years to come?

Certainly, the first sight of the complex with its roof of oast house cones designed to maximise natural light and bring in gushes of fresh air, does seem to fulfil Kuhne’s promise that Bluewater will look “as if it’s been chiselled out of the quarry”.

From a distance, it looks dramatically futuristic. Inside the triangular development with its three anchor tenants (John Lewis Partnership, House of Fraser and Marks and Spencer), there are three malls and three separate retail “villages” at each point of its triangle – each one architecturally themed and designed to woo different types of consumers.

The sheer scale of the concept – 140 000m2 of retail space and 14 000m2 of leisure facilities in an area the size of London’s Regent’s Park – seems to underline the risk of Kuhne’s promise to create a cultural shopping experience, rather than just another soulless mall.

For this is retail design’s last chance on such a scale – the Government has vetoed planning permission for such large-scale developments in the foreseeable future.

“The exciting thing about Bluewater is the architecture driven by the design,” says Amanda Longworth, marketing director for Lend Lease. “Your traditional centre is usually pretty sterile. Our welcome halls are styled on a five-star hotel lobby, creating a sense of intimacy even before you embark on your trip.”

Longworth is keen to point out “the architecturally subtle differences of Bluewater”; the slick car park design for l3 000 cars – fewer columns and increased ceiling lighting. Crèche areas will offer educational facilities.

The three main malls each have their own design theme. The West Mall, “where the West End comes to Kent”, is aimed at the aspirational customer, a showcase for designer clothes and contemporary interiors. Its theme is townscape. Already on view are the impressive up-market Guildhall sculptures by Propshop, representing each of the old medieval guilds of craftsmen. Flooring is German limestone. ©

The South Mall with its water theme is the biggest of the three zones. This is the leisure and entertainment area. A representation of the path of the River Thames is inlaid into the flooring, along with the names of various points along the river.

In the East Mall shoppers will find familiar high street names, family restaurants, and pavement cafés designed around lakes and a winter garden. Here the theme is landscape, with inlaid leaves on limestone flooring and rose trellis metalwork leaves on the balustrades.

Such civic art may confirm the Bluewater premise that no design detail has been overlooked, but the aesthetic of metal leaves is a questionable one.

Other civic art is more attractive, such as the themed “knuckles” or mall junctions on each corner – the sun outside John Lewis, the moon on a lunar cycle outside M&S, and the blue starscape dome outside House of Fraser.

Meanwhile, the approach to signage, says Lend Lease project manager Matt Furrer, has been way-finding. “We’ve set up a variety of layers. Each car park has its own colour – to get you out of the mall – and each level has its own animal or ‘critter’.” The Partners created the animal icons used on the signs.

For furniture, the look is designed to reflect attention to detail. “We’d like to think as much thought has gone into the furniture as has gone into the rest of the building. There’s a lot of leather and timber. For shopping centre furniture it will be of a higher level than seen before in the UK,” explains Furrer.

Chicago retail architect JPRA assisted Kuhne with the interiors, and came up with the idea for the villages’ furniture. The mall furniture was concept designed by Eric Kuhne & Associates.

“A few pieces are bespoke, but most are proprietary items from manufacturers. We used 30 suppliers including RHA, Viaduct (for tables), Furniture Union, Wales and Wales (external), and PS Interiors. In the East Village there’s a lot of bespoke furniture by Wallis Joinery.”

The Design Challenge

When Bluewater opens its doors on l6 March, 320 retailers will be aiming to attract huge numbers. Ten million consumers live within a one- hour drive from Bluewater. From a retail design perspective, Bluewater was a very unusual challenge, both in terms of the approach to the design and the design management.

The retail design team comprised 25 people. Within this was the Bluewater design forum, a member of which liaised with each retailer and its designer. The forum was headed by Lawrence Robertson, Bluewater retail design manager, and comprised Lend Lease design manager Mary Antoniadis, Judith Kelly and Dawn Moyse at V&A Design, Sally Wignes and Pauline Higson at The Design Solution, and Sara O’Rourke at Fitch. Each retailer and design team was given a copy of The Details, a 140-page design manual with the strapline “The best way to predict the future is to create it”.

Says Robertson: “We wrote fairly loose briefs for retailers to pick up on, but that gave us an element of risk, which is necessary when you’re trying to achieve something special. We assembled a group of people who could spend time with each retailer to discuss design issues, trying to find what works for the retailer – and how we could improve on behalf of Bluewater.”

So who had control over the retailers? Robertson insists the process has been entirely collaborative. “It’s very much a team effort.

Ultimately, of course, the buck stops with the client – but we share all decisions.”

Was there any kind of selection process? “Yes. The whole idea was to go out and find the retailers we wanted to be in each of the three malls,” says Robertson. “In the early stages it was important the retailers responded in a way we thought was required. In some cases, we had conversations about design before we signed.

“In design terms, we had to find the retailer that would attract a particular type of person. We’d identified the groups in the catchment area and there were a lot of people who don’t normally go to shopping malls, what you call the Club Execs, predominantly male, working in the City, cash-rich, time-poor, quality-driven. So what we had to achieve was a comprehensive mix. Once they were placed in the right mall, the synergy falls into place.”

How much control did the Bluewater design team have over the shop interiors? “A fair bit,” says Robertson. “We didn’t just concern ourselves with the shop front. We were involved with everything – the lighting, merchandise at point-of-sale – the idea was to exert influence where we felt it would enhance the shop itself.

“It meant that when the designers came to present their schemes for their clients they were presenting them to people who understood what they wanted to do.”

Surely this three-way situation must have proved difficult for some of the designers accustomed to working with just one boss – the retailer? “Of course, there were creative clashes, it wouldn’t be any fun if there weren’t,” Robertson says. “But I’d say all our dialogue has been creative more than anything else.

We tried very hard to meet each designer as an individual; we didn’t want to drive divisions between retailer and designer.”

Was Lend Lease hands-on when it came to store concepts? “It varied. Sometimes we provided sketches or photos or images for discussion. Obviously, with a top level designer, we could relax a little,” says Robertson.

Just how different will the retail concepts at Bluewater be? “We worked with retailers to get them to produce something beyond their latest offering. In some cases, we encouraged them to push themselves and said: ‘Can you give us a little bit more?’,” says V&A Design’s Kelly. Kuhne himself is more forthright and describes twisting Boots’ arm to break away from its clinical interiors and really try something different.

“Over a year, we’ve spent a huge amount of time with each retailer. Now the rewards are starting to show. We’re not a united, stolid group – the forum has its own creative tensions. The challenge was always a case of working your way towards the middle: at the end of the day, you have to effect compromise.”

O’Rourke at Fitch says some of the smaller retailers were bowled over by what they realised they could achieve at Bluewater. “It is a chance to be able to express your own brand fully,” she says.

As for playing piggy in the middle as a member of the design forum, O’Rourke insists the process was entirely collaborative. “Lend Lease wanted something strong, but I don’t believe they were saying: ‘You’ve got to do this’. They were giving guidelines which, if you read into them, allowed you to do a lot more. You could adapt the guideline to suit the retailer’s brand.”

O’ Rourke is sure Bluewater will live up to its promise. “In some ways this could be the start of a new generation of shopping centres in terms of retail and leisure. It’s very much geared to customer needs,” she says.

Jonathan Speirs of Speirs & Major was the Bluewater lighting architect.

‘The challenge was to create and deliver an innovative design working with Lend Lease,’ says Speirs. ‘The client had a high design target and ambition level in terms of quality. For us, the challenge was wonderful to work closely with Eric Kuhne and Jim McDonald to create the spaces.

‘Externally, the first impression is when you descend into the quarry. We wanted to create a magical appearance after dark. One element is a special street luminaire which has a blue spill dome on the top. Blue points of light delineate the perimeter of the site and the tops of the car parks. Blue neon, located within the mall at each of the 40 oast house elements, means the oast house cones glow blue at night.

‘With internal lighting, the malls have a “mood management” approach driven by Kuhne. He defined what moods he wanted to evoke in each of the spaces and we responded to that in terms of lighting.

‘We wanted to make the malls feel fresh and alive on a grey day; we are uplighting the roof structures. We used white light as well as coloured light, and the same goes for the “knuckles” where each of the anchor tenants are. There’s a different flavour in each of these zones.’

The Bluewater experience

Three designers and three retailers at Bluewater talk about the project

Jigsaw Womenswear West Mall

Designer’s view:

Paul Dean, Found Associates

The normal approach for Jigsaw Womenswear is to express the architecture of an individual building in the interior. Here there’s no identity to the space for Jigsaw to pick up on.

From a design point of view, it’s challenging because it’s more limited. We looked at what was happening in the malls with the bright colours and the vents in the ceiling; there’s a strong theme and also some intricate wrought iron work in the hand rails. We felt the way to tackle it was to do something deliberately different.

So we created a space that was refined and simple, which picked up on a palette of neutral materials. We’ve emphasised what we do have, height – it’s about 5m high. But to make it more dramatic, we’ve installed a lower level ceiling at the entrance. Effectively, we’ve created a colonnade with structural columns running down it on the left-hand side, and on the right we’ve built the wall out to create a new wall with a recess. The clothes fit within the recess.

We found the Bluewater people very efficient and we got a lot of information up-front. It’s all in the manual, so you know what you’re letting yourself in for. Obviously, we wanted a strong identity for Jigsaw, but the communication was there from the start. It wasn’t that dissimilar to getting statutory consents, you had to get a series of approvals to continue with the next stage.

Client’s view:

Jigsaw projects manager Colin Bryant

It really hasn’t been any different from a normal situation where you’ve got a developer that wants to see what’s going into the units. Because it’s Bluewater, Lend Lease has been keen to see what we’re doing and there’s a rigid set of rules. But it hasn’t been too bad. In terms of coming up with something challenging, it’s been difficult because the space was a very uninteresting box. But the finished product will be marvellous.

Abbey National South Mall

Designer’s view:

Victoria Jones, Conran Design Group

Previously, it [Abbey National] was a bit apologetic about what it was selling, but we wanted greater emphasis on the Abbey National product. What we’ve done at Bluewater is a completely new concept. It’s anticipated to be a prototype, to be researched and rolled out.

Abbey National used its in-house design team in conjunction with consultancies for certain aspects, but the company hadn’t had a proper redesign for ten years.

What we did was create a browsing area.

After all, there isn’t much pressure. No one’s approaching you or pushing you. There’s a personal banking station, telephone banking and an interactive computer. We’ve tried to make it a lot more open and friendly. We’ve reduced the height of the counter service area, there aren’t any big screens – everything is very open. There’s a help and advice desk right at the front.

It wasn’t particularly easy working with the Bluewater design team. They wanted a huge emphasis on design and moving things forward, but we were trying to answer a brief from

Abbey National, and it’s quite a serious product. You can give people information in an entertaining way, but it was never going to be a very dramatic shop front.

There was some conflict, but they were very amenable. They would listen to where we were coming from and I think we have reached a compromise that everyone is happy with. And in terms of the timing, it did put added pressure on us as designers.

Client’s view:

Abbey National group marketing manager Martin Peterlechner

It’s been really interesting for us, particularly the role of the bank in that environment. We recognised that we had to think about updating our store design.

We tend to have product zones where we’ve aggregated similar types of product. And that theming has been used quite a lot, so we’ve tried to create several zoning areas.

It’s been a very rigorous process fitting into the overall Bluewater theme, something we’d not experienced previously. The detail that we had to supply has been extensive. But it’s also been a positive experience. Hopefully, we’ve put our store into the right context of the Bluewater experience.

HMV East Mall

Designer’s view:

Howard Bates, Greig & Stephenson

This was quite a different experience for us. We’ve done a lot of work in shopping centres, but this is very design-led. It’s not often that we have to present to other designers about what we put into a shopping centre. In a way, we were one of the first stores in there beyond the three main anchors, so we were almost ‘guinea pigs’ for their design management process.

The shop front is new to HMV, but the internal store design is very much a standard HMV format – it’s a design that has been rolled out throughout the world.

However, because of the restrictions on what Bluewater wanted to do, we had to fit the shop front into the complex’s design guide. The first time we met the Bluewater team we presented a store front that was pretty much standard to HMV, but because HMV was keen to buy into the ‘Bluewater factor’, we developed a couple of new elements – signage and a new illuminated entrance area.

We’ve made a large column sign; usually we have small projecting signs. We’ve used a corner column as a piece of signage you can see from two directions at a 90-degree angle as you approach the store. We’ve tried to make it a very bright store entrance by increasing the lighting levels.

It does make it more complicated having three people look at the design. There’s no doubt that it did absorb more time than normally anticipated. But, at the end of the day, we think we’ve been successful.

Client’s view:

HMV store development manager Jim Peel

We’re extremely happy with Greig & Stephenson’s work and it’s in keeping with our international design. G&S has maintained our corporate identity and simultaneously kept to the design criteria laid down by Bluewater.

200 of the 320 retailers are designing new concept and flagship stores for Bluewater. Design consultancies involved include:

Checkland Kindleysides: Early Learning Centre, Original Levi’s Stores, Speedo

Portland: Blue Tomato

Marsh & Grochowski Concept Architects: Boots The Chemists

20/20: BT

Dalziel & Pow: Cody’s, Hugo Boss

Caulder Moore: Tanners, Bebe, Eddie Bauer

The Design Solution: Crabtree & Evelyn

Raw Fish: Choice

4IV: Elle

Silver & Co: Athena

John Herbert Partnership: Dolcis

Desgrippes Gobé & Associates: Godiva

Skakel & Skakel: Jane Norman

Fitch: Joe Bloggs

Path Design: Kookaï

Lumsden Design Partnership: Lakeland, Habitat

Pim Van Lingen: Mexx

Axis Design: Nine West

Brinkworth: Press & Bastyan

Clive Blass Design: Monsoon

ADT: Oasis

Thonard Design: RM Williams

Capra & Guzzetti: Sergio Tachini

CDW & Partners: Superdrug

Crabtree Hall/Plan Créatif: Jessops

John Kerr Architects: The Natural World

Redjacket: Thomas Cook, Virgin, Costa Coffee

Leonard Ostroff Design: Timberland

The Partners: signage graphics

Glazer: corporate identity development, stationery and a range of literature including the brand manual

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