Bluewater runs deep

The Bluewater development is set to break all records. Jeremy Myerson meets Eric Kuhne, the driving force behind this extraordinary project and hears how poetry and storytelling have provided his inspiration.

Eric Kuhne is not a man for the intimate, small-scale design project. The American architect responsible for creating the largest park in the heart of an American city this century has now brought his formidable masterplanning skills to Britain. Typically, the subject of his attention breaks all records for size. Kuhne, a giant bear of a man, is concept architect for the massive Bluewater development in a Kent chalk quarry – the largest retail and leisure complex ever built in Europe. And if he isn’t yet well known to British designers, he will be soon because, in 12 months, Bluewater is set to rewrite the rules of creative retailing in the UK and Kuhne is responsible for the script.

For those who have seen the work of Eric Kuhne & Associates on Headwaters State Park in Fort Wayne or Darling Park on the Sydney waterfront – massive landscaped pieces of social re-engineering with a high cultural content – the triangular Bluewater masterplan will not come as a shock. For those encountering Mr Kuhne for the first time, it just might. Prepare for large helpings of vernacular design, infused with myths and legends. Prepare for the rebirth of storytelling in retail architecture.

Bluewater, says Kuhne, will not simply marry retail with leisure to provide a family day out and so avoid the annual summer sales trough. It will widen its market reach still further by tapping into the cultural roots of Kent’s village heritage, using a fantastical range of metaphors to evoke the landscape, literature, formal gardens and historic buildings of rural England.

More than 300 retail stores at Bluewater will be encased in a classicist’s fantasy land that merges botanical gardens with the Burlington Arcade. On a site landscaped with a million new trees and a 9.3 hectare lake, malls linking three anchor stores will be styled like balconied streets, infused with gentle light, ringed with ornamental balustrades and topped by handkerchief domes based on the interiors of Sir John Soane and Gilbert Scott. Three formal forecourts, based on the celestial themes of sun, moon and stars, will create courtly anterooms to the anchor tenants – House of Fraser, John Lewis Partnership and Marks & Spencer.

An eccentric roofline modelled on English stately homes will be silhouetted against the chalk cliffs. Shakespearean sonnets and quotations by Dickens, Keats and Chaucer will be © inscribed in key restaurant areas. It is into this framework, rich in symbolism, and with a story attached to every detail, that teams of store designers and shopfitters working for Blue-water’s myriad of tenants must fit. “The domain of mythology is not the domain of the ancients,” enthuses Kuhne of his scheme. “We have the capacity to create our own myths today.”

Bluewater sounds, frankly, like every Modernist’s worst nightmare, but Kuhne professes himself to be “a child of Modernism”. Like his mentor Michael Graves, however, he has tired of the doctrine and he takes a childlike delight in what retailing can offer: “Modernism said everything had to be the same. It homogenised the experience and destroyed the ability of users to live in buildings. Modernism robbed architecture of its storytelling quality, but retail which borrows freely from history and culture allows people to personalise their world. It does something you can’t get through work or via government or politics. It psychologically expands people’s view of themselves.”

Bluewater’s evolution from a monolithic retail-leisure complex to a cultural shopping destination, complete with its own vernacular storyline, takes some explaining. But for one so naturally eloquent, Kuhne has lately been uncharacteristically reticent with the British media, refusing to discuss the project with journalists because, he says, they get it wrong. Indeed, recent coverage of Bluewater has focused almost exclusively on the novel introduction of an adult crèche so that bored husbands can play computer games and drink beer all day while wives throng the glass-ceilinged classicist malls with credit cards at the ready.

Kuhne, who has carefully charted Kent’s 383 community festivals so that Bluewater’s own calendar of cultural happenings can dovetail into the area’s cultural fabric, is not amused by such diversions. But he is generally captivated by most aspects of English eccentricity. “Coming to live in the UK is one of the finest gifts I’ve had. I’ve always been an Anglophile, but I’ve really fallen in love with the place. It’s the home of literature and landscape. There’s a devotion to gardens unmatched by any other civilisation and some of the most walkable cities on the planet. Your store front design is great too and is being stolen by the Americans, contrary to what they may tell you.”

There is only one reason why Kuhne is here: Bluewater. He was appointed in 1994 by Australian developer Land Lease for whom he worked on Darling Park. “Land Lease chairman Stuart Hornery called me and said, ‘we’ve picked a giant shopping centre development in an English quarry. Check it out’. So I came over with my associate Jim McDonald and we did an audit on the existing scheme which was then nine-years-old. It was bog-standard for the period, like a US aircraft carrier landed in a paddock.”

Kuhne, whose main practice base is in New York, set up in London with eight people for the duration of the Bluewater project. The scheme was entirely reconceptualised, although he pays tribute to Graham Cartledge of the original architect Benoy “for keeping the scheme alive. It is the professional architect which allows us to be the artists at Bluewater.” Kuhne’s office is lined with leather books, model boats, antique clocks, globes and rocking horses. “It’s a stage set,” he says wryly of his surroundings when we meet. “It serves a purpose because it gets clients talking about cultural references.”

Kuhne is proud of his London office location, just a stone’s throw from Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But it is a long way from San Antonio, Texas, where he was born, the son of an air force master navigator and a teacher. As a child Kuhne would picnic in the desert under the stars in the world’s largest aircraft graveyard, discussing celestial patterns with his parents. As he grew up, his family moved around the US – which fuelled his interest in the mythical and the literary – before eventually settling in Indiana.

Kuhne studied art and architecture at Rice University in the early Seventies before being appointed city architect in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Initially his plans led to him “being run out of town”, but years later he would return to Fort Wayne to turn a flood-threatened downtown area into the 80 hectare Headwaters State Park. This, says a beaming Kuhne, is the largest park built in the heart of an American city this century. All the great green landmarks we know and love such as Central Park were constructed the century before, he adds in a stage whisper.

In 1981 Kuhne enrolled on the graduate architecture programme at Princeton, studying by day and working through the night in the practice of Michael Graves, a professor at Princeton whose first major residential commission had been in Fort Wayne. In the middle of his course, Kuhne got the call from Fort Wayne’s mayor about Headwaters State Park and began hiring his fellow students for the project. This commercial diversion infuriated his tutors and he flirted briefly with an ignominious academic exit.

But, ultimately, all came right. Kuhne’s final college project – a replanning of Times Square in New York – was given the green light by an examination board including Times Square’s own architect, Philip Johnson. “I ended with the highest marks of any architecture student at Princeton but it was an uncomfortable time.”

Kuhne registered as an architect and set up his own practice in 1983, a time when the Post-Modernist movement was gathering pace in architecture and design. Tom Wolfe’s devastating critique, From Bauhaus To Our House, was on everyone’s bookshelf, and Graves was heading for international acclaim. Kuhne’s admiration for Graves is genuinely felt: “Graves rescued architecture for the current generation. He restored historical precedent, colour, quality in making rooms and art as the principal aspect in architecture. He was a fantastic person to work for and I owe him a great deal.”

It is odd to think that Bluewater’s dominant creative impulse can be traced back to one of America’s most provocative artist-architects. But Kuhne, who once designed Graves’ own studio, is cast in a similar mould and promises to be just as controversial. Like Graves, he refuses the label of classicist. “We pilfer readily across all the historical styles,” he insists.

Bluewater has brought Kuhne into the orbit of many different UK design groups which have pleasantly surprised him with their “consummate professionalism”. But, he adds, “what drives everyone nuts the whole world over is the iterative process of refinement. The way we work is to have a pass at the concept, a pass at the envelope, a pass at the architecture, a pass at the interiors, a pass at the furniture, then a pass at the artwork programme. It may be unnerving, but it’s the only way we can touch each piece of the job. And we make each pass in full view of all the investors, property people, leasing experts, site managers, retail operators and so on.”

This approach is very time-consuming, but Kuhne has set up his small practice to dedicate himself to one large project at a time on an exclusive basis. For three years from 1990 he lived in Sydney while working on the Darling Park civic restoration project. Currently he is resident in Greenwich, a useful vantage point from which to monitor developments both on the Bluewater site and on the local Millennium Dome, which Kuhne admires more for its powerful shape and symbolism than for its ground plan which, he says, needs attention.

In March 1999, when Bluewater officially opens, Kuhne will dismantle his Kingsway office, pack away his leather books and model boats, and the one-man circus will move on. To where? “I don’t know what I’ll do next,” Kuhne admits brightly. “Maybe I’ll take a few months off and travel. Visit a few medieval cities.”

Kuhne is that rarity in international design – a true believer who is genuinely poetic and inspirational when he talks about his designs. The result is that, while your intellect might recoil from handkerchief domes, star courts, Shakespearean sonnets and Kentish knights on horseback, your emotions are simultaneously engaging with the spirit of the enterprise. “At Bluewater, we’re aiming to capture a British spirit embedded deep in the culture,” says Kuhne. “Only the Church and the royals have ever done it properly – and I’m trying to do it with profane commercial buildings.”

What is Bluewater?

When Bluewater opens in March 1999, it will be the largest retail and leisure complex ever seen in Europe. Built by Australian developer Land Lease in a former Blue Circle chalk quarry at a cost of 700m, it will be twice the size of Bath city centre with more than 300 shops. It aims to attract 80 000 people a day and will be able to seat 5000 people in its cafés and restaurants at any one time.

Bluewater, once Europe’s largest industrial wasteland, will offer just under 140 000m2 of retail space and 14 000m2 of leisure facilities on a site surrounded by towering chalk cliffs 50m high. Its developers estimated that 10 million people live within an hour’s drive of the site. Some 30m is being spent on a new link road to take traffic on to the site off the A2. There will be parking for 13 000 cars – making it Britain’s largest car park. Buses and tramway services will link local towns.

Concept architect Eric Kuhne has developed a triangular plan for the development, with three anchor tenants (John Lewis Partnership, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer) and three ‘villages’ at each of its three points. The southern village will have a media and entertainment theme aimed at teenagers and young adults; the eastern village will be more family and child-oriented; the western village will have a more sophisticated image with health spa, gourmet food, and high-end fashion accessory stores.

Under Kuhne’s overall creative direction, a number of other architectural and design practices are involved in the project, including Benoy (eastern village and House of Fraser department store), BDG McColl (southern village), Brooker Flynn (western village and John Lewis store) and RTKO (Marks & Spencer store). Henrion Ludlow & Schmidt is developing the signage. Minale Tattersfield designed Bluewater’s identity.

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