27 April 2015

Mall Makeover

Work on the Mall seems to have been in progress for a long time, but finally the improvements are visible, not just clues to what might be in the pipeline. The highlights are the sculptural gold thing suspended from the roof, snaking its way down the main route, and the touches of gold up at high level. But the biggest improvements are less spectacular, simply getting rid of the ugly 1980s brick walls and horrible mustard-yellow floor tiles. The new finishes are done in a calm palette of neutral colours, letting the shopfronts do any shouting that needs doing, and then there are the artwork elements which are there to raise the tone a bit. It's not going to rival Westfield, but the aim is clearly not just maintenance, but to breathe new life into the place.
The glitzy hanging lights are an off-the-peg design by Tom Dixon, once house designer for Habitat-Heals, retailing at around £1300 each - which is why there is just a cluster of them, not dozens. The budget for the whole of the refurbishment is just £3 million, which doesn't go that far with building fit-out work. There is a perfectly valid strategy: the shop units take care of themselves, the entrance has already been upgraded fairly recently (with the big pink M) and what's left is just circulation space and ambiance. The roof is ugly, but it would be hugely expensive to change. So the changes are focused on surfaces and decorative effects, leaving the basic structure unchanged. We just have to hope there is a budget to do something about the postmodern monstrosity that is the lift shafts / entrance to Costa Coffee.

The design is by a company called Silver & Co. Slick commercial designers who specialise in shopping centres, they are not in the business of winning architectural awards, but it's interesting to see how they see local history and creativity as an essential part of the mix. Most noticeably, they commissioned Chris Bracey's God's Own Junkyard to make at least one sign, the already well-known Awesomestow neon heart that hangs at the BHS end of the Mall. There may be more to come, perhaps. High up above the shopfronts is a series of graphical panels titled 'Walthamstow Local Heroes' with quotation from William Morris, Hitchcock and others, done in a muted colour scheme that doesn't compete with the shop signs and indeed might pass un-noticed if you were focused on buying new trainers. I don't think there is any local connection with the gold faceted sculpture thing, which was probably going to be folded metal but ended up laser cut out of MDF. Metal would have been better, in places you can see the wood framing on the hidden topside, like the back of a stage flat, but the overall effect works plausibly enough.

The Mall is managed by the Capital and Regional property group, who also have Wood Green Mall and many others across the country. Their website is full of fascinating information (core catchment 317,363 - car parking spaces 820 - annual footfall 9.6 million). They see Walthamstow as an up and coming area ripe for investment, with opportunities to attract more expensive and prestigious retailers. I hope they won't mind me quoting their managing director: "Walthamstow is changing. Housing prices are set to rise 51% by 2020, as more affluent young professionals move into this highly accessible London borough". The work was programmed for completion in March, to coincide with opening of the Scene - a deadline that like most construction deadlines has been extended (or missed,depending on how you look at it). And there are apparently plans to extend by one third of the current size, although no clues about how that could be shoehorned into the site. So maybe still some surprises in store.

Pulsating neon heart designed by the late Chris Bracey. Of course we're all sick of the Awesomestow hashtag, but this is surely tongue in cheek, and (unintentionally) a very public reminder of a unique local talent.