Selfridges & Co, The Trafford Centre - Manchester (1999)

Manchester’s new Selfridges department store is housed in a giant, Las-Vegas-like shopping mall. The big issue was taming this over-the-top, post-modern beast.

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - design | 27 October 2011
This article was previously published in Frame, 7, pp. 35-45 in 1999 with the title "Competing with the clamour" and in the book The Back Issue: The Essential Guide to Frame’s first 50 issues, (pp. 69-77). Frame Publishers & Birkhäuser Publishers for Architecture: Basel, Boston, and Berlin.

Make no mistake: the Trafford Centre is fierce visual competition for any department store. From a distance you might confuse the panorama of the mall for the domes of Rome– for a split second, that is. Learning from Las Vegas, the £600-million Trafford Centre–a retail and entertainment complex in suburban Manchester—hits you with a semiologic punch that packs the power and precision of a semi-automatic weapon.

Climaxing at the “town square”, or two-level food court, the celebration of appropriation becomes overwhelming. Public toilets and Pizza Hut emerge behind an ancient Egyptianesque façade of hieroglyphics and the columns of kings; and McDonalds’ golden arches rise beneath their Moroccan equivalents. This place has everything: a French Quarter a la New Orleans, China’s Imperial Palace and a tropical rainforest with talking birds. It even boasts a triumphal arch, but despite the claim of a spokesperson that the structure is a reference to Venice, we put our money on Rome and, specifically, the Arch of Constantine. To top it all off, our symbolic voyage around the world takes place on an enormous ship. Amidst this power, can design efforts at the mall’s new anchor store— Selfridges & Co.— possibly compete?

Publicised as “the £20-million store focusing on design”, this 200,000-square-foot Selfridges is the company’s first branch outside London. Founded in 1909, the store sells a variety of wares and clothes at different price levels, ’from a £5 T-shirt to a £5,000 designer dress’. According to General Manager Kathy McGowan, Selfridges aims for difference. “Shopping should be about fun, energy, and excitement,” she tells us. “Selfridges Manchester offers all these things, plus a friendly staff, great departments and a stunning environment in which to shop.” Selfridges goes for its goals by integrating shopping with eating and entertainment, a scheme that affects the design and its usage.

Positioned at the centre of the mall, Selfridges stands at the intersection of an Egyptianised shortcut to the food court and a two-level arcade that combines plastic obelisk-shaped shrubbery, Roman-inspired sculptural forms and murals with a Renaissance look set below a barrel-shaped glass roof. If this isn’t enough, circular vanity portraits of the new Trafford Centre Medici stare out and over passing shoppers. At this mega-confluence of historical fetishism, Rome’s grandest dome— adorned with more murals and accommodating a bronze-lined, glass lift next to side-by-side escalators— extends upwards, creating the effect of Viagra-induced verticality. Framing Selfridges, rose-coloured marbleised columns sport gold-painted bases and capitals. Called in to compete with this “busi-ness”. John Herbert Partnership (JHP)— the lead designers— had their work cut out for them. “For the mall front, we used Rosso Alicante marble, which had to be approved by the Trafford Centre,” says a spokesperson. “We needed to make a strong enough statement to not get lost in the clamour.”

Meanwhile, the street-side exterior refers to Selfridges’ flagship store in London, with its manorial façade and, to maximise the symbolism, a lawn, shrubbery, and fountain. Unfortunately, however, this entrance appears under-utilised and awkward as a result of the store’s dominant mall orientation. The situation here— an entrance that takes customers directly into the men’s department, where they’re confronted with the back of a grand staircase— has a negative effect on the design as a whole.

At the mall entrance the transition of dark-coloured marble, which relates to the interior of the dome, contrasts strongly with the bright lights and white gleam of cosmetics flanked by Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. While JHP designed the space with a sleek, open, radial layout, the vernacular Christmas usage that greeted us last December transformed the space, making the original design almost unrecognisable. Redesigned for confrontation, promotional displays created an obstacle course of logos and samplers, emphasising a distinction between JHP’s beautiful drawings and the store’s seasonal get-up.

Beyond cosmetics, two dominant focal points emerge amidst the ground-floor fashion sections, also the responsibility of JHP. At the store’s centre a giant X of criss-crossing escalators catches the eye, owing to its central location and vertical dominance. At the time of our visit, a Jamaican band played at the foot of the escalator, infusing the atmosphere with a sense of “leisure”.

Unfortunately, this first focal point, marked by simplicity, seems to have received less attention than the second: the Moleanos limestone staircase. This grand gesture instils a note of “architectural drama”, refers to the exterior and becomes a visual curiosity encouraging travel deeper into the space. From either left or right, the view from below is dynamic— a sculptural form that requires a second look, and then a third.

At the mid-landing of a staircase set beneath an elliptical skylight, sixteen TV monitors— a video wall— multiply imagery and encourage those reluctant to walk up a large flight of stairs. During our visit, standard music videos played in a predictable MTV-like way. A welcome alternative would be dynamic video or CD-ROM art; or perhaps the wall could be used to pull viewers into a discourse on music, fine art, technology, fashion and products from around the world. At the top of the staircase, Selfridges Spirit provides a club-like aura for its “urbanwear” section, in which the video wall is complemented by metallic track lighting. Occasionally, a live DJ pumps realia into an abstracted atmosphere geared towards a subcultural market.

Two particularly pleasing café-restaurants— designed by Conran CD Partnership— can be found at both ends of the staircase, to the rear. Above, Selfridges Spirit Café features a combination of retro Havana pendant lighting and Bertoia metal chairs, which are echoed in the material of the barstools. For the exterior window covering, pale blue and white sheer cotton fabric is used to block out the unappealing exterior view while allowing light to filter in, maintaining the café’s aura. A glass wall, which divides the café from Spirit, liberates the space and keeps the focus on shopping.

For Conran CD Partnership, the upstairs café, characterised by openness, signifies “light” and “sky”, whereas the Sienna Restaurant on the ground floor conveys “earth” and “warmth”. Unfortunately, this restaurant, located in a somewhat awkward position— in the back and off to the side— is in danger of being overlooked entirely. The designers, given a small space with a low ceiling, had to counter the image of a storeroom. A narrow entrance provides a feeling of exclusivity, while glass and bright colours help to maximise the space. The cool greys of an exposed kitchen, separated from the dining area only by glass, contrast with a bright yellow wall and an accentuated horizontal red stripe for food passage. The play on depth produced by this design and its colours is striking in this intimate space and adds an element of drama. An impressive result, it leaves us savouring the discovery of a rare find.

Moving from Spirit to housewares means moving into a milieu designed by Gerard Taylor / Aldo Cibic, who highlighted the flooring in this section. Under our feet an array of textures— beech and fumigated oak, handmade tile, carpeting— offers a scale of different sounds and, with that, the various psychological effects of flooring, while also relating to the products found here. Yet it is in this department that the ceiling work dominates. Repeated throughout the store, its unique exposure delineates space, creates and accentuates planes, reinforces directionality and zoning, and results in different strategies geared to different areas.

On the ground floor, exposure to the subdued silver colours of air-circulation vents and power and data sources becomes apparent as you pass the cosmetics area. It comes into fruition in a diamond-shaped, cut-ceiling void underneath the staircase, which is intended according to a JHP spokesperson, to “float within a space of its own, and juxtapose the solidity of the staircase with the frailty of the finishes around it.” In the housewares area, however, the void is more greatly emphasised— a strategy that results in markedly different planes creating diverse lighting textures and levels— and is more pronounced over the traffic areas. The photogenic shapes along these walkways leave shoppers with an impression of beautiful abstract, geometric painting.

The food hall, also designed by Gerard Taylor / Aldo Cibic, provides the first floor with an entrance to the store, a haven from the post-modern clamour outside. Between this section and housewares a transitional area, which acts as a filter and offers space for specialised items, was inspired by a piazzian colonnade. The food hall takes on a high-end New York deli concept, separates and abstracts it, and offers a spatial combination of opportunities for purchasing comestibles, as well as for eating at counters. Exposure to the workings of a deli recalls the Sienna Restaurant kitchen, with its accent on process and movement against a backdrop of unifying stainless steel. The food hall, energised by a more interactive location and purpose, is a space buzzing with action and powered by a life of its own.

Opened in September 1998, the Trafford Centre is not only a mall: it has evolved into a tourist attraction. The shopping is excellent, and the service polite, even uniquely accommodating [in Britain]. All part of an approach that may be good for business, but unfortunately its design already seems dated and a bit over-the-top within an international post-modern context. On the other hand, Selfridges’ interior doesn’t fall into this trap. Cool and restrained, the store’s design balances retail commerce and new concepts, while making an occasional, selective gesture towards the mall and its apparent goals. If a concern does exist with regard to the department store design, it would have to question the integration of leisure and retail, which results in a conservative use of spatial designation. This criticism side-steps the dynamic food hall, however, which seems to represent a move forward. In any event, the effect and contrast of the Trafford Centre’s two theatrical presentations are definitely worth a design-motivated visit.