Monday, 6 June 2011

The London Road Co-Op Cop-Out

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Brighton’s London Road is a neglected “gateway” to the city, often seemingly overlooked by the powers that be. Plans for a giant Tesco (just what Brighton needs, another supermarket), unpopular with locals, have fortunately stalled. The long-planned redevelopment of the Open Market at last seems to be going ahead. But what of the nearest thing that London Road has to a “landmark” building, the old Co-Op store?

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Closed as a retail space in February 2007, the building is occasionally used as a pop-up venue – as in the 2010 Brighton Photo Biennial, and a memorable show by DreamThinkSpeak during last year’s Brighton Festival. But mostly, the building stands sad and neglected. Now there are plans to knock it down and build a residence for 400 students on the site. What a failure of the imagination.

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Given that Brighton sees itself as the UK’s equivalent to Barcelona, why not take inspiration from the Spanish city, where another disused building has just been brought back to life. OK, it’s an old bullring, and the Co-Op isn’t. But the same principles apply, as per this extract from a recent article in the FT,

“Barcelona has a much-admired policy of refusing to allow shopping centres and megastores around its edges, which has allowed its rich ecosystem of small, specialist retailers to thrive and survive as well as anywhere in Europe. The Las Arenas is a compromise. It is a mall, but it is still central and accessible and, importantly, it is contained within historic walls – quite the opposite of the sprawl and endless carparks we associate with shopping centres elsewhere. And the residents seem to treat it just as they treat the rest of the city, as a civic space for seeing and being seen. They wander round the circuit eight storeys up, stop for a coffee and chat…Most important, the interior has been conceived as public space; the roof terraces are open and accessible and the huge building has been welcomed back into the city’s richly theatrical urban tradition. If the garish crinkly tin sheds of Tesco or Ikea had an architectural anti-matter version, this would be it.”

The London Road Co-Op is just as much a part of the city’s fabric as Barcelona’s old Bullring. Are we just going to let it go?

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