"It's a fantastically ugly building"
Having battled against a tidal wave of tourists, tardy commuters, and abandoned copies of the Metro from Bank to the tail end of the Northern line's Edgware branch, Brent Cross feels rather rural. The journey from the station to the shopping centre is an unusual one, rendered navigable by a series of small blue signs all dedicated to the same destination. A leafy suburban street gives way to the roar of the Northern Circular, then I'm directed through a labyrinthine network of roads, bridges and weed-strewn footpaths before Brent Cross Shopping Centre slips into view.
It's a fantastically ugly building; a brutalist concrete eyesore in various shades of sludge and grey. When the shopping centre first opened in 1976, it was touted as the epitome of US glamour and modernity — the first American-style indoor mall in the UK, and the fruits of a 19-year labour of love for its developers. For the first time ever, everything on your shopping list could be found under one palatial roof. There was a huge indoor fountain to gawk at, as well as the modern miracle of air con that saved shoppers from working up a sweat while bargain hunting.
"This is how shopping centres must evolve in order to thrive"
As a child of the 90s, who grew up taking these experiences as a given, it's tricky to conceive of a shopping centre triggering such enthusiasm (though when out of curiosity I Google my hometown one, I'm surprised to discover that it's marginally younger than I am). As a millennial adult, I've witnessed what could be read as a backlash in some quarters against such great, hulking shrines to consumerism. Just look at the proliferation of clothes swaps, DIY upcycling, and vintage markets of dubious authenticity. They suggest a yearning for a more intimate or homespun experience, perhaps triggered by greater public awareness of the textile industry's often exploitative business practices. Or, to be less generous, a faintly elitist disdain for mass-produced consumer goods.
Clearly not everyone feels this way. Far from a ghost town, Brent Cross Shopping Centre is struggling to keep up with consumer demand. A £1.4bn redevelopment scheme is in the pipeline, concocted to bring Brent Cross in line with the UK’s other destination malls; places that function as a social space, as well as offering a wealth of retail experiences. In the age of online shopping, where former high street giants like Toys R Us', BHS, and House of Fraser have fallen to their knees — haemorrhaging cash, jobs, and eventually closing their shutters for good — this is how shopping centres must evolve in order to thrive.
"It does have one thing that its contemporary counterparts don't, though..."
Currently, Brent Cross offers little more than your standard 21st century shopping centre fare. There's the usual mix of fast fashion, department stores and cheap 'n cheerful Scandi bric-a-brac, but compared to the likes of Westfield, it's tiny. No multiplex or manicure station. And the food court offers little besides burgers and fancy sarnies.
It does have one thing that its contemporary counterparts don't, though — a proud heritage. At nearly half a century old, it boasts a few surprising claims to fame, shown off on a ground floor partition where a billboard depicts a timeline of its 'Greatest Bits'. There's a hazy black and white photograph of the construction site with a Fenwick logo looming large in the foreground. Fast forward to 1981, and a beaming Prince Charles looks down on the marble splendour. In 1997 its carpark had a cameo in Tomorrow Never Dies, 18 years before Bloc Party got in on the action for their The Love Within music video.
"I don't think much of what I've seen so far"
The timeline stops at 2016, but there will be plenty of milestones to add in the years to come. By 2023, Brent Cross Shopping Centre will have doubled in size, with 50 new restaurants and a luxury cinema among the promised delights. There have already been some attempts to modernise the space; a pop up barbers, free phone charging stations, and a whole lot of posters advertising the UK's largest urban beach, located a stone's throw from the centre.
I ask Sally, a friendly middle-aged woman who I spot peering at the ad, what she makes of it all.
"Well, I don't think much of what I've seen so far. Retail needs to think for the future, it needs to offer an experience that's more than just shopping. They had this great opportunity architecturally and landscape wise but they're not making the most of it."
Sally has a point. The diggers won't move in until January 2019, so the current dearth in entertainment options shouldn’t be judged too harshly. But there is a noticeable disjuncture between the shopping centre and its immediate environment. Separated from the centre by a busy road and that vast car park which once played host to 007 and his remote-controlled BMW750, a narrow stretch of the River Brent gleams in the solstice sun, couched within a concrete channel that's overrun with wild flowers and Japanese knotweed. Beyond that, there's a kids' funfair and the promised urban beach which, for all the hype, feels rather remote.
I find out that this is set to change too. Plans are in place for wetlands to be incorporated into the project, along with a public riverside walkway and cycle path. I tell Sally that we'll have to wait and see but she's decamping to the countryside and will be long gone by then. Why does she come here at all? Easy (and free!) parking. Sadly, this isn't destined to survive the makeover.
"A place to be, rather than to do"
While the shopping centre's transformation into desirable leisure destination is years from completion, if it's like any other mall in the country, it's always offered more than just a place to splurge. In the early 20th century, when the world's first shopping centre was but a glimmer in an Austrian émigré’s eye, philosopher Walter Benjamin waxed poetic over the Parisian arcades, the ancestors of our modern malls. Here was a place that transcended its functionality, where the idle urban wanderer – the flâneur – could observe the world around them.
Benjamin's flâneur might have been a bourgeois man of leisure, but it seems to me that shopping centres fulfil a similar function for teens; a place to be, rather than to do for those lacking disposable income and valid IDs. As a youngster, going down town meant gobbling up pic 'n' mix from Woolworth's outside the local BHS and watching the world go by — an image already so dated that I decide it's worth checking what Generation Z think about this local haunt.
Despite it being a Thursday morning during term time, there are a handful of youths knocking about. Jenny and Hannah, both 16, say that they consider Brent Cross Shopping Centre one of their regular hangout spots, and they're on their way to join a larger group of friends when I accost them. It's the first they've heard of the impending revamp.
"Hopefully there'll be more stuff for teenagers – there isn't that much to do here", Hannah says with a familiar hint of adolescent ennui. They came here today to get their ears pierced, and both boast silver studs on newly reddened lobes courtesy of the Studex 75 at Claire's Accessories; a rite of passage familiar to generations of teens and tweens. This is one high street stalwart that, for now, is staying put, despite its US owner filing for bankruptcy.
"A certain sense of familiarity, if not community, will be lost"
Brent Cross' relatively modest proportions aren't an issue for everyone. Idal, who works in the haberdashery department in one of centre's largest and oldest shops, John Lewis, is excited about her employer's expansion but appreciates its current convenience. "It's small, which means it's just less hassle. And I like that you come to recognise all the regular shoppers."
I actually spot Idal in Starbucks on her break as I type up my notes later that morning. While the shopping centre's makeover promises to provide more social spaces for its customers, it's inevitable that as it swells in size, a certain sense of familiarity, if not community, will be lost.
Before leaving, I pause to snap a few pictures of the building's façade. In a city increasingly dominated by homogenous gleaming glass skyscrapers, there's something charming about its squat proportions, drab functionality, and 3D signage that welcomes shoppers in a huge red and white old school serif. For better or for worse, we can safely assume that it won't be preserved when Brent Cross gets its facelift.